OXFORD, Miss. – Six north Mississippi public K-12 leaders recently gathered with five University of Mississippi educational leadership faculty and members of the Northeast Mississippi Education Consortium to discuss how Mississippi’s flagship university can help produce the most effective principals for tomorrow.
The answer, they suspect, lies in a closer collaboration between the UM School of Education, the state’s largest institution for teacher and educational leader preparation, and partner public school districts throughout Mississippi, a state where the average tenure of a K-12 principal is just more than three-and-a-half years.
“We believe we can change education in this state,” said RoSusan Bartee, UM educational leadership professor and program coordinator. “You serve as host to many of our principal interns. We want you to tell us what your districts need.”
In attendance were DeSoto County Superintendent Milton Kuykendall, Holly Springs Superintendent Irene Turnage, Pontotoc Superintendent Karen Tutor, Oxford Superintendent Brian Harvey, Tupelo Assistant Superintendent Diana Ezell and North Panola Conservator Robert King.
Over the past five years, the UM educational leadership program has re-engineered elements of its practicums with successes such as the Principal Corps, a selective, 13-month program centered around two full-time internships with experienced principal mentors across Mississippi. One hundred percent of its graduates have received principal or assistant principal job offers upon graduation.
The UM educational leadership faculty hopes to re-create this success in its other graduate programs by establishing an advisory board of faculty members and experienced practitioners. The board would seek to improve the quality of internship experiences, set application standards, identify teachers with leadership potential and address how shifting policies at the state and national level will affect demands of future principals.
“We need an understanding between us, because we’re all in this together,” said Turnage, who has seen three out of four schools in her district rise from low-performing to high-performing status during her tenure as superintendent. “We need to collaborate to understand what the ideal graduate is prepared for and how to create that product.”
That product will take time to define. But big picture goals emerged to create a stronger, collaborative principal preparation program. Proposed ideas included identifying and nominating strong principal mentors – who would supervise degree candidates – at the school district level and providing training for these mentors through the School of Education and the consortium.
“Mentors need a clear understanding of what it is they need to be doing,” said Tom Burnham, interim Principal Corps director and former state superintendent of education. “We want them to know that intern principals need to gain experience in everything they do. That’s leading faculty meetings, interacting with students and teachers and even dealing with angry parents.”
All superintendents and the one conservator expressed an interest in intern principals gaining experience at the elementary, intermediate and high school level during training to gain exposure to a variety of educational environments, leadership styles and exposing these young leaders to legal and ethical coursework before entering practicum sites.
“An internship is often limited to the experience of the principal,” Harvey said. “If a candidate is placed with a new principal, well, that principal is going through his or her own internship at the same time.”
The board, once established, could also provide input on the structure of curriculums and help identify teachers with the most potential for educational leadership.
“Principals need to be good decision makers,” said Kuykendall, who leads the state’s largest school district. “As a principal, you often have the time to bring in people and figure out what the best decision is. They need to have the knowledge to not rush in. I don’t know how you teach that.”
In the next year, the board hopes to formalize itself and take steps toward identifying a new crop of educational leadership applicants and encourage growth and collaboration with more school districts.
“We need the support of superintendents and we need the best candidates if we are going to get the job done,” said C.L. Stevenson, co-director of the consortium. “Your schools are the best laboratories. We need to be more about collaboration and start thinking about training out successors. We need to pay it forward.”