Wallace Foundation Grant Helps WCPSS Cultivate New School Leader Development Continuum

Imagine and organization with more than 20,000 employees and 183 locations of varying size. Each of those locations requires a general manager, a small team of assistant managers, and leaders among the rank-and-file. In addition, each location is rated annually based upon the performance of the people it serves.


Business-minded folks would immediately think that the success of every location depends on strong leadership with a clear vision to guide the dedicated rank-and-file towards achieving a shared set of goals.


Finding those bold leaders can be the difference between being rated as poor, adequate, or excellent, and those ratings have a lot of weight with the public. This organization better have a succession plan to perpetually cultivate leaders from within who are steeped in the organization’s culture and recruit external leaders who can bring in fresh perspectives.


That organization is not imaginary. It is the Wake County Public School System.


The school system is in the early stages of a new program to support current and potential school-based administrators throughout their whole journey because study after study has shown that successful schools have strong, dynamic principals at the helm. Wake has been very lucky to have many successful leaders, and this program will help guarantee more will be on the horizon. Part of the program is funded by a Wallace Foundation grant.


One of the five main objectives of the Vision 2020 strategic plan is dedicated to human capital, which encompasses recruitment, retention, skill development, training, and cultivating leaders in all parts of the system. The ongoing strategic plan stewardship has led to a number of changes in employee recruitment and retention. Improving the way principal candidates are prepared and then mentored while on the job is another step in this human capital transformation.


In recent history, the pathway from the classroom to the principal’s chair was self-paced and self-guided. Teachers who sought a master’s in school administration would serve as an intern in a school in a format similar to the student-teacher internship for undergraduates. Upon completion of the master’s degree, the candidate could obtain an administrator’s license and seek a position as a school-based administrator.


At each step along the way, the candidate is subjected to increasing scrutiny to ensure that the best candidate is selected for each position. There is one flaw in the process that the new program will address, and that is the candidate pool only consists of those who apply. In the self-guided, self-paced format that exists now, it may mean the candidates who are applying aren’t as well developed as they could be. It may also mean there aren’t enough candidates to fill the expected upcoming vacancies caused by retirement or upward transition within the organization.


Having ready candidates for leadership positions is a real problem for every organization, large to small, and the most successful organizations have plans and processes to source new leaders. In the case of WCPSS, it means evolving the current system from one in which the ready candidates identify themselves, to one in which the potential candidates are nurtured from the beginning of their journeys throughout the rest of their career.


Leading this transition are Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Jackie Ellis and area superintendents Lloyd Gardner and Mark Savage. All three started their careers as teachers and worked their way through school-based administration before ascending to district-level leadership. Rising through the ranks is still the tried-and-true way to successful school administration.


This new program is implementing a new structure of support at all levels of the leadership pipeline. A broad overview of the program was presented to the Student Achievement subcommittee of the WCPSS School Board in November. It encompasses concurrent support at all levels:


  • Principals – participate in capacity-building programs and receive executive coaching;
  • Assistant principals – receive targeted leadership development;
  • Master’s degree candidates – nurtured stewardship through the master’s program; including strengthened partnerships with East Carolina and NC State universities;
  • Potential leaders – identified and encouraged to purse certification.


This is an improvement over the recent school administrator hiring process because the candidates will be shepherded through the process of become a school leader, and supported once in the leadership position. Instead of discerning through the recruitment process who is ready for school leadership, the program will develop the leaders so the ready candidates are apparent.


\"\"As a major component of the Wallace Foundation grant, WCPSS and NC State will collaborate to redesign the university’s school leadership development program. This is may be the most important piece of the program because the majority of school leaders in Wake go through NC State’s school administration program.


Typically, a university performs the academic preparation of school leaders while school system performs the practical preparation. That’s where the school administrator internship fits in WCPSS. Despite being part of the graduate degree program, internship programs don’t always connect the master’s degree academic program to practical application. This collaboration will bridge those two experiences to craft a program that is responsive to the ever-changing landscape of school leadership.


What WCPSS is doing with its succession planning isn’t novel, but it is the most comprehensive effort to develop the next generation of leadership that the school system has ever implemented. By supporting school leadership from interest to experience, WCPSS is creating a culture which shows leadership doesn’t always come with a title and an office, but when it does the organization will support its candidates throughout their continuum.

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