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How two districts are moving beyond traditional principal prep programs

March 29, 2024, By Jess Nelson, Associate Director, K-12 Research

It was not easy to narrow down my list of sessions to attend at the 2024 AASA National Conference on Education in San Diego, with high-priority topics ranging from chronic absenteeism, student mental health, and ongoing post-pandemic learning loss to the impact of AI on education, each competing for a shared time slot. Yet, regardless of the presentation I attended, many discussions came back to a common solution:  to make progress on any of these essential student priorities, districts need to do more to support and strengthen their school leadership teams.

Unfortunately, many principal preparation programs are not adequately training leaders for the growing demands of the role. In fact, 80% of superintendents are dissatisfied with the quality of principal preparation programs today and 94% of principals report wanting more professional development and support in their roles. With principal turnover on the rise, districts must find more ways to support and develop current and future building leaders. While in San Diego, I learned how two superintendents are strengthening the principal pipeline in their districts.

Define a clear path for aspiring principals (Mesquite ISD)

Strong interpersonal skills are one of the top leadership competencies in principals associated with improved academic outcomes. Mesquite Independent School District has made sure to emphasize this area in their leadership development framework, Leading Through Ownership, in which three of the eight competencies are interpersonal skills: effective communication, collaborative relationships, and recognition of others.

To develop all eight competencies, aspiring principals in the district, and their supervisors, have access to an online “Leading Through Ownership” hub. The portal offers many resources, including examples of job-embedded learning opportunities for aspiring principals to develop essential experiences and skills, like delivering effective feedback and analyzing historical academic data. Since launching this leadership development model, the rate of hiring internal candidates to fill principal openings in Mesquite has increased to almost 90%, retaining valuable members of their own community and lowering their risk of turnover.

Check out our Principal Hiring Playbook

Launch an apprenticeship program (Ector ISD)

In the summer of 2023, the United States Department of Labor approved the K-12 principal as an eligible occupation for registered apprenticeship programs. This “earn-and-learn” model allows apprentices to work for a year and receive compensation as an assistant principal learning under a mentor lead principal, while completing coursework through an approved preparation provider to secure their principal licensure.

Early adopter Ector Independent School District (TX) is in the middle of its principal apprenticeship program’s first year and praises it for unlocking state and federal funding to lower costs for participants, from covering program costs, such as tuition and books, to related financial burdens, like child-care. While it is too soon to measure the efficacy of the apprenticeships, Ector is already broadening and strengthening its principal candidate pool through the new program by expanding access to high-quality preparation within the district.

Principals are one of the most influential school-based factors for student success, second to teachers. In the face of worsening staff absenteeism and vacancies, a nationwide crisis of student-wellbeing, and the expiration of ESSER III funding in September, I regularly point to a conclusion from the 2021 Wallace Foundation study in my work with district leaders: “It is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership.”

Interested in further developing the leadership skills of principals in your district? Join EAB’s collaborative series for superintendents and principal supervisors this summer, Preparing Principals to Lead Change. You will receive step-by-step guidance and resources that equip your principals with the leadership skills to be change leaders who drive continuous improvement in their schools, prepared to address the challenges of today and the unknown demands of tomorrow.

Jess Nelson

Jess Nelson

Associate Director, K-12 Research

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