From: Cayata Dixon

Principal-in-the-making gets advice 

Program links mentors with future leaders

By Meg McSherry Breslin
Tribune staff reporter

October 22, 2001

In some ways, they seem an unlikely pair, the church choir member and the hall of fame 
basketball coach, but both hope to transform a troubled Chicago public high school 
through the force of dynamic leadership.

This pairing--Juan Gardner and his mentor, Marshall High School Principal Donald 
Pittman--is part of a growing effort to revitalize the way principals are prepared in 
the Chicago public schools.

Never before has being a principal been such an important job. Under city and state 
school reforms, school leaders are accountable for everything that goes on in a 
school, the good and the bad. And no one takes the credit--or the blame--for a 
school's reputation more than the principal.

Frustrated by what many consider to be the failure of university education schools to 
train effective principals, reformers are paying increasing attention to creating 
break-the-mold leaders.

Pittman and Gardner are at the heart of that effort. They are taking part this year in 
the fourth class of the Leadership Academy: An Urban Network for Chicago, a program 
run jointly by Northwestern University, the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago 
Principals and Administrators group.

The goal of the program, called LAUNCH, is to give aspiring principals a practical, 
hands-on approach to their work that is far more helpful than any classroom work could 
be. Over the last four years, 36 of about 180 principal vacancies in the city schools 
have been filled with LAUNCH graduates.

LAUNCH selected about 30 aspiring principals from more than 200 applicants for its 
program this year, many of them already assistant principals at their schools or 
identified by their administrators as outstanding leaders.

They spent five weeks at Northwestern this summer, during which they attended classes 
at the university's Kellogg business school and with top school leaders. During that 
time, they are paired with a principal mentor who has proven leadership skills, whom 
they then work under for five months the following fall.

Pittman and Gardner decided over the summer that they would make a good team this fall.

Gardner, 41, is a former guidance director at Morgan Park High School who has traveled 
internationally with a church choir and has a quiet, calm demeanor. In an instant, he 
was thrust as an assistant principal into a pressure cooker at Marshall, a West Side 
high school that has been on academic probation because only 13.8 percent of its 
students are reading at or above national norms.

Ninety-six percent of students at the school are low-income and only 55 percent of the 
students graduated within four years, according to the 2000 school report card.

On the first day of school this fall, Gardner shadowed Pittman, an Illinois Basketball 
Coaches Hall of Fame member and a strong personality with more than 30 years' 
experience in the Chicago Public Schools. While Pittman faces a challenge at Marshall, 
his leadership since 1996 has helped turn things around.

When he arrived, just 3 percent of students were at or above national norms in reading 
and math. In 2000, those figures were at 35 percent for math and 13.8 percent for 
reading. The school attendance rate has also risen from 72.7 percent in 1996 to 81.6 
percent last year.

One of the first things the pair confronted that first day was a long line outside the 
main office, filled with dozens of students who hadn't paid school fees and couldn't 
get into class.

"You've got to anticipate you're going to have confusion," Pittman told Gardner. "If 
you're not prepared for it, you can't blame the kids, you can't blame the parents. 
It's you who should have expected the chaos."

As the two made their way up to the second floor, Pittman recognized some football 
players. As the second period bell rang, he stopped them and offered some good-natured 
teasing. "When the ball is loose, follow the ball!" he said.

Moments later, Pittman stopped a fifth-year senior in the hall. "Stick with it," he 
said, his arm on the student's shoulder.

Pittman said Gardner told him early on that he wanted to learn more about school 
finance. That topic is on the mind of a lot of aspiring principals, Pittman said, but 
it's also far from the most important part of the principal's role.

"You have 1,400 people you're responsible for. To go sit down with your budget is not 
going to prepare you for that," Pittman said. "You have to be able to see the big 
picture. And if that scares you, you shouldn't be in the job."

More than a month into their partnership, Gardner realized just what Pittman meant. As 
he toured the school one mid-October morning, popping in on classrooms, he found one 
new teacher struggling.

As that teacher directed a student to the discipline office, the student shouted, "For 
what!" and stormed off. Gardner said he would meet with the teacher later to offer 

"Mr. Pittman has done a tremendous job helping me understand how to approach teachers, 
things you just wouldn't find in a textbook," Gardner said. "You've got to firmly yet 
emphatically let them know what they need to do."

Gardner, like all LAUNCH principals, already has the so-called Type 75 certificate 
that qualifies him for leadership in the public school system.

He has a master's degree from Chicago State University in education leadership and 

But nothing has prepared him for the principal's job better than his management 
courses at Kellogg and his on-the-job training with Pittman, he said.

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune

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