Jack Hoke knows a good thing when he sees it. When it comes to hiring principals for his district schools, Hoke, the superintendent of Alexander County (N.C.) Schools, has hit upon a sure bet: Look for graduates of the North Carolina Principals Fellows Program (PFP).
"I've never had a bad hire with a principal fellow," says Hoke, whose rural district is located 70 miles north of Charlotte. "They're just real prepared, motivated, and want to be great administrators. And they've had great in-depth experience."
Hoke has hired fi ve PFP graduates in the last 10 years as principals or assistant principals in his nearly 5,800-student district. Four out of Alexander County's current 10 principals are graduates.
What makes the fellows program so special are its high standards, intense training and committed applicants, says Chris Hitch, the program's director until July 2007. Th e program, which started in 1984, is run by the University of North Carolina and financed by the North Carolina General Assembly. candidates must have at least four years of teaching experience, a 3.2 GPA in their last course of study, live in North Carolina, and be accepted to a master's of school administration program at one of 16 state universities to be eligible. Fellows receive their master's degree and on-the-job training in the two-year-long program, the only statefunded program in the nation that allows full-time study.
Fellows attend school full-time for one year at a state university and spend the second year interning as assistant principals at North Carolina public schools. Participants are paid a stipend for each year in the program. As of November 2006, about 1,000 people had gone through the program since its inception: three are superintendents, 230 are principals, and several hundred are assistant principals. "The Principals Fellows Program is showcasing talents and confidence of all our alumni," says Hitch. "We think the investment in it has paid off ."
For Sheila Jenkins, the fellows program was the best thing for her career. Jenkins applied to the program after six years as a teacher in Alexander County schools. After graduating, she spent seven years as an assistant principal, both in and outside of Alexander County schools, before becoming principal of East Alexander Middle School last year. Jenkins credits her internship year with preparing her for the demands of being an administrator.
"The internship was a phenomenal experience because it wasn't like I was a teacher trying to get a sense of what it's like to be an assistant principal. I was introduced to the staff, students and parents as an assistant principal and took on all those duties," says Jenkins. Jenkins has recommended teachers for the program and also has discouraged program offi cials from accepting some candidates whom she believed were not up to par. "This is a high-quality program with high standards, and it should continue to produce high-caliber graduates," says Jenkins.
Betsy Curry sees being a principal as a mission and a calling to help train teachers and improve education for all children. Her former principal was the impetus for Curry's applying to the fellows program.
"He inspired such passion in the staff and made us believe that we could make a difference," Curry says of her former boss. "I just saw the power of empowering people. I wanted to spread that word."
Curry taught for six years before seeking her master's through the program. "It really was the only way I was going to get my master's degree," says Curry, now in her seventh year as principal of Stony Point Elementary School. The $20,000 stipend she received her fi rst year of the program was almost equal to her salary, so she was able to focus on full-time study without financial worries.
The academic experience was tough but rewarding. The mixture of writing case studies on how to resolve issues in districts, intense discussions on instructional leadership, and her internship helped shape how Curry conducts herself as a principal. "The program gave me everything I needed in theory, but it also gave me practical experience to put theory to use. It's really invaluable," she says. Instructional leadership is a core component of the fellows program as the role of principal changes from a manager to instructional leader, says Hitch.
Camaraderie and Experience
Another benefit of the fellows program is the long-term camaraderie it builds, Curry and Jenkins say. When Curry started as a principal, she was mentored by a former program graduate who was also a principal in the district. Now Curry mentors two program graduates, including Mary Brown.
In fact, Curry inspired Brown to apply to the program and then encouraged her to complete her internship year at Stony Point Elementary, where Curry is principal. "She was really inspirational and I just thought that I wanted to inspire people the same way," says Brown, now principal of Wittenburg Elementary.
More than 50 percent of the participants in the program are women, a sign, Hitch says, "that the glass ceiling is being shattered with women becoming principals." At ACS Schools, eight out of the 10 principals are women, and half of them are alumni of the fellows program.
"I have found graduates from this program prepared to meet the challenges of a 21st-century school executive in strategic and instructional leadership, human resource issues, and more," Hoke says.
For more information about the North Carolina Principal Fellows Program, visit www.ncpfp.org.