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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


January/February 2015

Principal internships create exciting opportunities
by James Herndon

James “Jim” Herndon is an instructor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the Educational Leadership department, most recently concentrating his work with program faculty on development of the principal preparation program internship.

Change is inevitable. In a school district setting, whether coming from federal or state levels or locally via school board decision, change can be difficult to accept. Often, change leads to opposition and emotionally involved debate, because stakeholders “wish it was like the old days.”

Forgotten in such a statement is that the world and society are not stagnant entities. On the contrary, they are constantly evolving. Because of this, we must embrace change to more effectively address the educational needs of students in this ever-evolving world.

Effective school leadership is important in facilitating change in our schools today. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s principal preparation program has embraced change by introducing principal candidates to valuable leadership experiences while building leadership capacity in schools. In doing so, the program has also energized this faculty supervisor.

Recently, at the age of 64, I found myself as excited as I had been on my first day as principal at the high school from which I graduated. What in the world could generate such excitement? Believe it or not, it was recent education reform in Illinois regarding administrative licensure, specifically as it concerned the internship portion of the state’s new principal preparation program. Senate Bill 226, signed into law in 2010 as PA 96-0903, required Illinois institutions to redesign principal preparation programs. The redesign created new courses, aligned coursework and internship to new standards, and modified principal internships. No longer could an internship be successfully completed by merely logging hours of activity, but only by leading complex, specific instructional leadership tasks. As the faculty supervisor for interns, I wondered:

  • Would mentor principals embrace the new requirements and accept the added responsibility in supervising principal interns?
  • Would interns and mentors make the internship requirements meaningful and sustainable?

I have overcome my temporary anxiety associated with change. Through many emails and personal conversations, I believe I have also eased the anxiety of mentors and interns. SIUE began accepting candidates into its new principal preparation program in the fall of 2012, enrolling candidates in the admissions class for spring of 2013.

As the first group of mentors and interns completed a semester of internship, we experienced many positive outcomes of this change. It is truly refreshing and exciting to see the value of the redesigned internship.

My initial excitement came after an on-site visit with an intern and her principal. We reviewed and discussed internship work accomplished during the summer. Listening to the intern describe the experience, I learned the internship was focused and well-planned, and possessed significant depth of thought. Even more exciting was the discussion with the principal about how the intern’s work demonstrated value and could improve the educational program of the school.

This same type of excitement and discussion continued throughout meetings with interns and principal mentors from small rural schools to large urban settings. Principals were quick to volunteer their sense of value in the internship experience with perceptions of how the interns’ work could enhance, change or grow the school. In many cases, the principal expressed a gratitude for being able to have someone develop relevant data sets. Working together, the team would analyze and postulate on the meaning of the data and answer the question, “What do we do now?”

While interns’ experiences varied, the value of the experiences and the potential for positive, future change is significant. An underlying theme throughout the discussions is the hidden value of the internship experience that is fostering and facilitating school-wide improvement.

The SIUE internship field experience consists of four sections: Instructional Leadership and Supervision, Data Driven Decision-Making, Curriculum Leadership, and the Principalship. The following excerpts from site visits demonstrate the value and power of the experience to educational changes.

In two situations, interns addressed the expectations for Data Driven School Improvement and Accountability by creating a school portfolio, using Victoria Bernhardt’s School Portfolio Toolkit. In both cases, the portfolio serves as an ongoing tool to focus the thoughts and energies of all stakeholders toward understanding “who they are and what they are all about” with the ultimate goal of embedding portfolio elements into “everything they do … every day they do it.”

In other words, evolving vision and mission statements for the school district serve as the foundation for collaborative efforts aimed at best practices, more effective instructional processes, and improved student achievement. In one intern’s experience, the school used the portfolio and an analysis of student test scores to identify gaps in the district’s special education curriculum. This led to discussion of various stakeholders regarding instructional methods and curriculum design in an effort to close that gap, if not eliminate it.

In addition, an intern was able to serve as a consultant to elementary teachers preparing to align curriculum. By creating a matrix designed to allow a fluid electronic document being made available to all teachers, the intern created an opportunity for on-going and valuable growth in best practices for the educational program. The intern was also able to create a matrix to develop student schedules specifically focused on meeting the individual needs of the students.

Another intern — to meet the requirements of both Data Driven School Improvement and Accountability and Curriculum Leadership expectations — had similar results. This came after identifying gaps with the school’s current Response to Intervention (RTI) approach with an evaluation tool called “Self-Assessment of Problem Solving Implementation” (SAPSI) to accumulate data. Once analyzed, that data led to several recommendations to the administration, including a request to dedicate 20-30 minutes of each regularly scheduled SIP day with a focus on discussion and collaboration regarding RTI. In a second step, the intern collaborated with teachers and administration to create a master schedule that was more conducive to implementing interventions in order to improve student achievement.

Another intern, by meeting Curriculum Leadership expectations, was able to assess the need for a more uniform and value-laden curricular approach to an advisory period designed to provide students with focused learning opportunities. The intern and principal conducted extensive research to find a curriculum that would best meet the students’ needs. Then the intern created a year’s worth of lesson plans and activities that teachers could use to develop an optimal experience for students that was also user-friendly for teachers.

One intern with an assignment in a parochial school not only experienced the valuable opportunity to work with staff in reviewing and re-developing curriculum, but as part of the process that included best practice, designed tools and instruments to aid in the process. Of equal value was the opportunity to facilitate the process with a mix of experienced veteran educators and less-experienced educators. She experienced dealing with pushback by several members of the committee. The intern learned to approach the process diplomatically, with the assistance of her principal mentor, by separating fact from fiction and helping the members understand the value and necessity to them as well as the students.

The preceding examples, limited in number, scratch the surface of what is possible through the new principal preparation program internship. In the old program, the experience was driven by the expectation that student interns collect a variety of administrative experiences with at least 150 hours of administrative activities. In some cases, hours were filled more with supervision than true instructional leadership. In my experience, a certain amount of supervision is an appropriate activity. However, the new internship program is more rigorous and focused on demonstrating competency, rather than simply experiencing an administrative task. Furthermore, the new internship program has a genuine focus on key areas of administrative responsibilities, leadership, supervision, data-driven improvement and accountability, and curriculum development that are part of the principalship.

The difference between the old and new internship programs is the difference between going through the motions and active engagement in administrative tasks. Active engagement requires critical thinking and organized, sequential, well-planned decision-making. Because there is value to the mentoring school district, an opportunity exists for growth among faculty members, particularly those showing signs of developing into a future school leader. In a very real sense, it is an opportunity to “grow your own” school leaders who will understand the culture, the fabric of the community, and the values of the school district – as well as the nuts and bolts of educational leadership. These essential elements are often part of a large learning curve when hiring outside of the school district.

The excitement expressed is that of a person with 27 years of administrative experience during a 40-plus-year career in education. I appreciate seeing the tremendous possibilities for improving student achievement in Illinois and increasing the leadership capacity of principals as a result of an extensive (and initially somewhat uncertain) system-wide program change. The end product, the interns or aspiring principals, have been engaged in valuable, thoughtful, research and collaborative efforts. These have enhanced and added value to school districts’ educational programs now have the potential to become skillful, competent leaders who will lead schools from practical experience to create optimal educational experiences for future students.

At SIUE, the faculty has taken the time to create an administrative experience for potential administrators that is focused on giving them the skills necessary to step into an administrative position with a strong foundation necessary to do the job of being a quality leader. I am pleased to be a part of this effort.  

Contributors

Vicki VanTuyle, assistant professor in SIUE’s Educational Leadership department and Alison Reeves, also an assistant and program chair for the department’s Educational Administration program, contributed to this article.

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