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WASHINGTON, D.C.—One Sunday in October 2009, the principal of Potomac Lighthouse Public Charter School in Northeast Washington called the school’s board to tell them she was quitting. The next day, school officials said, she didn’t come to work.
It was already a month into the school year and Lighthouse Academies, a national charter network in five states and the District of Columbia, faced a slim, picked-over field of candidates to replace her.
A national search team immediately placed advertisements in local newspapers and on charter-organization job boards but received just 15 applications. Of those who applied, only five had the qualifications school officials were seeking: previous leadership experience, five years of teaching experience, a master’s degree or certification in administration, an understanding of an arts-infused curriculum and a track record of closing the achievement gap.
Potomac’s leadership quandary is a growing problem in charter hubs like D.C., where 38 percent of the District’s students attend 98 charter schools and where options for grooming local leaders are scarce.
Charter schools—which are publicly funded but privately managed—have flourished in the last decade, with support from both Republicans and Democrats and enthusiasm from parents seeking alternatives to failing schools. But their rapid rise has left charter operators across the country scrambling to find qualified leaders.
Charter-school supporters are concerned that a national shortage of high-quality leaders, along with programs in which to train them, could significantly slow the movement at a time when some 400 new charters are opening annually—leaving several hundred charter-leader positions to fill.
“I think it has already substantially throttled the growth,” said Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that offers training, resources and technical assistance to charters nationally. “We would have two to three times as many schools operating if we didn’t have this problem.”
While public schools across the U.S. are also facing a leadership void, charters have several characteristics that exacerbate the problem. Unlike many public schools, most charters don’t have the resources of a central district office—like recruitment teams or existing pools of resumes—to find new leaders quickly.
And turnover at the top level in existing charters is high. According to a 2010 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, 71 percent of charter leaders plan to leave their positions in the next five years. The average age of a charter leader is around 55, meaning many are set to retire in the next decade. For younger leaders with families, the demands of the job can be daunting, said the study’s author, Christine Campbell.
There is also a dearth of training programs specifically geared toward charter leaders, who tend to have more responsibilities than their counterparts in traditional public schools. The job demands not only an instructional leader but also a fundraiser and business manager—a skill-set that is hard to come by.
In a 2008 study, Campbell and a co-author found that New Leaders for New Schools, Building Excellent Schools and the KIPP School Leadership Program were the only three full-time, in-person training programs for charter leaders. Of the 10 other programs that prepare charter leaders, the study found, six lasted just a few days and were more focused on offering enrichment than foundational training.
And yet leadership is hugely important to improving student outcomes. A 2009 study by New Leaders for New Schools found that more than half of a school’s impact on student gains can be attributed to both principal and teacher effectiveness—with principals accounting for 25 percent and teachers 33 percent of the effect.
‘Welcome to … leadership’
One weekday, aspiring principal Danalyn Hypolite and Shawn Hardnett, a leadership coach for the New Leaders for New Schools program in the District, walked down the wide hallways of D.C.’s Paul Public Charter School. Each carried a plate of King Cake that Hypolite, a New Orleans native, had brought for the staff.
It was only Tuesday morning, but Hypolite’s week had already been hectic. “I was here until eight last night,” she told Hardnett.
He just laughed. “Welcome to the rest of leadership,” Hardnett said.
Hypolite is more than halfway through a 15-month program run by New Leaders for New Schools that trains principals and, in turn, requires a five-year commitment of the individuals to serve as school leaders.
Hardnett has become a trusted confidant of Hypolite’s. They meet weekly, dissecting encounters she has with students and parents, planning academic projects and preparing for observations and meetings with teachers.
New Leaders accepts only seven percent of its applicants, preparing them for futures in both traditional and charter schools. The intensive program—which begins in the summer and continues with yearlong paid residencies—is designed to prepare the group of mostly former teachers for demanding leadership positions. Participants spend the summer and fall together, but by spring the program separates out traditional and charter-school candidates.
Future charter leaders, who will operate with significant autonomy, must learn to recruit students and balance budgets. Also, they often have to fundraise and secure their own facilities—things for which traditional public-school leaders typically have district support.
“Good [charter] leaders need to have not only the core skills around improving student achievement and evaluating teachers,” said James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center, a nonprofit group that helps new charters get started and supports existing ones. “They also need to know how to manage upwards to their board of trustees … and navigate the shoals of living and working in a community.”
Comprehensive training programs like the one offered by New Leaders spend time on all of these pieces, but there is a limit to how many graduates they can produce. With programs in 12 urban districts across nine states and the District, New Leaders accepts only about 100 new leaders each year. In the D.C. program this year, six out of 12 principal residents are being trained for charter schools. Nationally, about 25 percent of new leaders go on to run charters.
‘Hit by a bus’
Many charters, from large networks to small, stand-alone schools, have taken the problem into their own hands and are starting to train teachers from within their ranks to take on leadership roles.
But far more don’t have any plan in place should their leaders retire, quit, or—as many in the charter sector say—“get hit by a bus” tomorrow.
According to the 2010 study, not only is turnover high for charter leaders, but only half say they have succession plans—and many of those are weak, Campbell says. Such plans might specify only who will open the school doors the day after a leader leaves, not who will ultimately run the school.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the District’s 98 charter schools, makes recommendations to schools about developing succession plans. “It’s nothing enforceable,” said Tamara Lumpkin, deputy director of the board. “We want to respect schools’ autonomy, but we do think it’s a good thing to have.”
Still, Lumpkin noted, many schools operate without such plans and tend to pick the teacher who has been around the longest when a principal leaves rather than one who has been specially prepared for the job.
Potomac Lighthouse did have a succession plan in place when its principal left on a day’s notice, said Regan Kelly, a vice president of Lighthouse Academies. An interim leader filled the position while the board searched for a permanent replacement.
After scrutinizing the five qualified candidates, Lighthouse settled on Ramon Richardson, a former member of the school’s board with experience as a teacher and attorney.
“We have a fantastic leader now, so we really lucked out in this process,” Kelly said. “In general, it is hard to find a good charter leader. It’s not an easy problem, but it’s one that people need to get their heads around.”
A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post on April 25, 2011.