After losing 40 principals, Austin ISD gets boost from Bush Institute

10:58 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 Local
Cunningham Elementary School Principal Amy Lloyd talks to fifth-grade students about their art project. The students are, left to right, Will Haskell, 11, Maria Abundes, 11, Braniyah Gordon, 11, and Sarah Trzcinko, 10. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

At least 40 Austin schools have new principals since January 2016 after their leaders left, signaling the need for better district training and stronger retention of campus leadership.

The district, which serves more than 81,000 students on 130 campuses, recently has taken steps to improve the quality of its school leaders, including launching a principal training program in 2016. The district will also get a boost from a partnership with the Dallas-based Bush Institute to better recruit, train and retain its school principals.

The Austin district is one of four school systems chosen nationally by the Bush Institute to be part of its newly formed School Leadership District Cohort, a three-year program. The Fort Worth school district, with more than 86,000 students, was also selected, as was Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia (about 60,000 students) and the Granite School District in Utah (about 67,000 students).

“There’s a real serious need for change in how we develop our leaders in the district,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the district’s largest labor group. Zarifis said he sees too many principals who take a top-down approach. “I’m excited to have something that has a strong reputation to get our district to look at leadership.

“Leadership is one of the fundamental building blocks of a successful campus. If you don’t have good leadership that can communicate, talk with people and build trust, it will never be successful. And we see it over and over on campuses that don’t work right, and the outcomes are less for kids than we want them to be.”

READ: Multimillion-dollar program didn’t slow teacher turnover in Austin’s troubled schools

In 2016, the district lost 21 percent, or two dozen, of its principals, according to school board documents. This calendar year, 17 left their posts. In at least two schools, a new principal was appointed in 2016 and then replaced in 2017.

The school district launched its urban education leadership academy in the 2016-17 school year to prepare teachers and assistant principals to become principals and to give new principals monthly coaching.

The district also works with Texas State University to help teachers obtain their master’s degrees with a principal certification in two years, so they can become assistant principals. While that work is underway, the Bush Institute will help Austin understand where the district’s needs are and come up with a plan to tackle those deficiencies.

The nonpartisan institute, supported by the George W. Bush Foundation, advocates for school accountability and data- and research-based solutions to education challenges. Its recent work includes the State of Our Cities: Profiles of Education Performance Around the Nation report, which provides comparable data on schools across the country.

Eva Chiang, deputy director of the institute’s Education Reform Initiative, said Austin was chosen for the principal initiative because the district’s efforts show it cares about improving school leadership — and is improving how it prepares, supports and keeps the best principals — but the district still has room to improve.

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“We found that AISD has a superintendent who clearly sees school leaders as a key lever to improve outcomes for students,” Chiang said. “We found district leaders who had a sense of urgency to support principals, and there was already work being done to improve preparation, partnerships and pipelines within the district.”

Rosa Peña, the district’s director of leadership development, said the opportunity to work with the Bush Institute comes at the perfect time.

“Our goal is to hopefully reinvent the process to be able to recruit and select the highest-quality candidates for each school, so we are able to help prepare and keep them on our campuses,” Peña said.