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DISD Superintendent's "Leadership Academy" Graduates First Class

Members of the Dallas School District’s first-ever “Fellows Academy” just graduated. The Academy was created by Superintendent Mike Miles to custom- train future principals. It is focused on helping principals become better leaders.

It’s early Monday morning and class is in session. But there are no children here.  This is the Dallas Independent School District’s Leadership Development Fellows Academy, where adult educators who want to be principals make $60,000 a year to learn. Just 10 percent of the first year’s 600 applicants were accepted, and veteran teacher Pamela Ralston is one of them. She likes the academy’s approach, as laid out by Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles: To teach principals leadership skills, and inspire their own teachers to be better instructors. 

Ralston says “I think it was very rare for teachers to get feedback in terms of what they were doing in the class room, in terms of the type of instruction  they were providing. It really is new.”

Ralston is a language specialist with a Masters degree.

“In my 23 years, of teaching, I have rarely - and could count on one hand - how many times a principal talked to me about the kind of instruction I was providing in a classroom,” said Ralston.

That’s part of the change Miles wants to see.  He told trustees last year  that principals are key to reform. They’ll focus on quality of instruction, student achievement, and the campus’s climate and culture.

“All of us are focused on those three things, and we have metrics to show it. Now if you can’t do those three things as a principal you can’t be a principal in Dallas,” said Miles.

Denise Cooper runs the Fellow’s Academy, and did the same in Colorado Springs when Mike Miles was there. 

 “We taught them to develop their instructional lens around those three components. So after the first three months, they went into their residencies. We matched them with a mentor-principal, so it was like on-the-job training,” Cooper said

Fellows spend part of their 5-day week working in a school’s front office. Cooper says these principal-hopefuls learn skills not often taught elsewhere, like how to guide, coach and lead teachers.

 “To make sure that we have that good first instruction in the classroom so that we don’t have so many kids that are having to take summer school, so that we don’t have  kids that are repeating grades. They coach teachers. They can actually go in and model what good instruction looks like,” said Cooper.

Many of these Fellows have been picked to lead summer school soon. 25 year-old Fellow Jennifer Kastelein is already an assistant principal under this program. She agrees with superintendent’s core beliefs and shadowed him for a time. She started as a math at a low performing Dallas school through  Teach for America. Fewer than half her students were passing.

“I wanted them to be like kids in Highland Park.  A sign in my class said 100 percent of kids at Highland Park pass the test. You should be able to do that too. I never thought they couldn’t do it. I just knew that they would.”

Kastelein said after her first year, 94 percent of her students passed. She also concluded that, despite her youth, she might be leadership material.

“I envision this culture that’s so palpable, like college-bound kids, that, you know you’re going to interview me next year and my kids will be blowing it out of the water.  And I just know I can truly make this school like none other in DISD. So I just need the opportunity,” said Kastelein.

Rena Honea loves Jennifer Kastelein’s enthusiasm. But the president of DISD’s largest teacher group, the  Alliance AFT, has concerns about the Fellows program.

“Many of the ones coming in, we don’t’ know what they know. Many of them have two, maybe three years in the classroom, yet they’re going to lead, and are supposed to know what good teaching looks like. If they’ve only had two to three years,  have they grown and developed enough as a teacher to say ‘yes, that’s good’ or ‘no it’s not?’” said Honea.

Honea also worries the Fellows program is over-rated even though Miles says it worked in Colorado.

“We don’t’ know anything. We don’t’ know if it works, if it’s effective, we’ve not been informed of the program they’re using, the training they’re doing, who’s doing it. At this point there’s no credibility to it. Because we don’t know that much about it. The student achievement  hasn’t grown that much in Colorado under his leadership when he was there,” said Honea.

Fellows Academy graduates don’t automatically become principals. They must still apply, and have their Master’s degree and certificate,  like every other applicant. Then they’ll hope for the best. The “best” is what Miles is counting on. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.