Abell Salutes: New Leaders For New Schools

September 2007 / Salutes / Community Development

For building a learning community by “mapping out the building.”

The building—Ft. Worthington Elementary at Oliver Street and Lakewood Avenue in East Baltimore—is long and low in the architectural model popular after WWII. But when Ms. Shaylin Todd, principal of Ft. Worthington Elementary, talks about “the building,” she is not referring to its physical presence. The “building” she is referring to is more comprehensive, as in “turn the building around,” as in “gathering data within the building,” and as in “knowing everything that is going on in the building,” also known among principals as “mapping out the building.” The building is her universe; it is school and office, home and laboratory, where she and faculty and students live and work as many as 12 hours a day, 12 months of the year, and where, within its walls, she is committed to personally knowing at all times the complexity of its dynamics: exactly what is going on among teachers and students, exactly what in the community outside is affecting life inside, and exactly how and where the school as a place to learn is functioning. This particular style of leadership defines her as a member of the New Leaders For New Schools (NLNS) —a national organization that is “attracting, preparing and supporting the next generation of outstanding urban school principals.” Ms. Todd is one of 21 principals, and three assistant principals, in Baltimore City selected from a talent pool who has received this training thus far. In its third year, New Leaders has an additional 14 resident principals in training.

NLNS came into being in response to a critical need: at a time when school reform and effective leadership are so urgently needed, urban schools face shortages of qualified school principals. The crisis can be attributed to rising retirements and the need to create high performing schools. In Baltimore City, 50 percent of the current principals are at or near retirement age (higher than the national average of 40 percent). The traditional route to the principal position, through promotion from assistant principal in the city system, has proven insufficient to fill every new opening with a prepared and competent principal.

To address the problem, three years ago The Abell Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation turned to New Leaders For New Schools — a promising national program with a mission to develop outstanding urban principals.

Ms. Todd’s own NLNS training started in the classroom of the University of Pennsylvania. Five weeks, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., she attended the lectures and study groups over the summer. Focus was on how to “map out a building”—which she did when she arrived at Fort Worthington, bringing into its classrooms and halls the positive effects of the discipline—which in schoolspeak translates as “what’s going on,” and then developing creative responses. The components of the New Leaders Summer Institute include: “Building a school community and culture,” “Nurturing student efficacy,” “Human relations policies and procedures,” and “Ensuring effective teaching and learning” — all toward understanding “what’s going on.” This is followed by a year’s assignment as a principal fellow in Baltimore, working under an accomplished school principal.

What was going on one school day in one class at Ft. Worthington was a case of one unhappy third grader, who in his frustration with a math problem became unruly. Ms. Todd, it so happened, was sitting in the classroom to observe (“know at all times what’s going on in the building”) and decided to step in. She said, “He couldn’t add coins. He could tell you what each was worth but he couldn’t figure out what they were worth together. So I asked him to come with me to my office and we sat down together. Working with a hundreds’ chart (designed to help young children learn counting concepts), in a very few minutes that boy could add those coins. That’s pure New Leaders philosophy at work— understand at all times what the problems are in your building, and do something about them, even if you have to use your own two hands to solve them!”

The goal of NLNS is to promote academic excellence by attracting, preparing, and supporting the next generation of city principals, and it provides an aggressive recruitment and selection process of local and national candidates. Typically, only 6 percent of candidates are admitted to the program. In addition, the program offers applied training from education and business leaders during a six-week summer foundation program, and four five-day seminars throughout the year. Each New Leaders fellow is trained by Mentor Principals in his or her own school, as well as by consulting principals during a one-year residency. NLNS assists in the principal placement process after the first year and continues to support new principals with on-the-job networking and support for another two years.

Ms. Todd was born and raised in New Jersey. She graduated from Virginia State and earned her Master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins. She came to Baltimore City in 2000 with Teach For America, and taught at Belmont and Waverly Elementary schools. While teaching at Waverly she saw publicity about New Schools and applied and was accepted.

The Abell Foundation salutes New Leaders For New Schools; its executive director for Baltimore City, Peter Kannam; and New Leaders graduate Ms. Shaylin Todd for building a learning community by “mapping out the building.”