McHenry County school districts try different tactics with principal development

LAKE IN THE HILLS – Marlowe Middle School Principal Adam Zehr didn’t quite know what to expect when he took the job.

Zehr had spent the year before as an assistant principal at the Lake in the Hills school, his first year with the district after having spent time as an assistant principal at Eureka High School downstate.

“I really enjoy the role that I have here, working with the teachers,” he said. “You get to work with a lot of the district administration, work with the different stakeholders.”

To help ease the transition, Huntley Community School District 158 provided Zehr – as it does all its new principals – an internal mentor as well as a mentor from outside the district, often a retired principal, said Jessica Lombard, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.

The district also hosts monthly professional development sessions that focus on topics such as building schedules, different types of communication, training ideas for teacher institute days, hiring and ending the school year, Lombard said.

District 158 is like a number of larger districts that have brought their professional development in house, said Jason Leahy, the executive director of Illinois Principals Association.

“Capacity matters,” he said. “Large districts do have capacity. They can bring in their own content experts. That does make a difference.”

Illinois Principals Association has worked to bridge the gap, shifting a lot of its professional development online, which doesn’t require any travel and can be more convenient for principals, Leahy said. Free “Ed Camps” where educators vote for the topics of discussion also are becoming more popular.

“It is extremely important for these skill leaders to learn and grow,” Leahy said. “If we want kids to learn and grow, they also need teachers and school leaders that are learning and growing.”

The state used to fund mentoring for all first-year principals, said Leahy, whose group provided the training before budget cuts ended the program about four or five years ago.

Principals, similar to other educators, are required to complete a certain amount of professional development each year, including 100 hours each five-year renewal cycle as well as one Illinois Administrators’ Academy course each school year.

Learning the “inordinate amount” principals need to know takes more than day conferences, said Carl Vallianatos, McHenry High School District 156’s director of curriculum and instruction. It takes a lot of different learning opportunities and a lot of reading at night.

“I think it is indicative of how complex education is today compared to 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “The multitude of demands, tasks, mandates, and yes, with every single one of them, there’s a plethora of things you have to know.”

District 156 has found success with bringing in speakers, especially on topics such as assessments where the district wants as many people to attend as possible, Vallianatos said. And with only two high schools, it hasn’t had a brand new principal in “a good long while” and so hasn’t found a real need to provide a mentor on a regular basis.

For Marlowe Middle School’s Zehr, the big benefit to having an out-of-district mentor is being able to talk candidly about proposed ideas, he said, adding that his assistant principals are fantastic. His mentor, a former school administrator in Chicago, could ask probing questions such as, “Is this idea what’s best for students and what are the alternatives?” –  questions Zehr could take back to his team.

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