Center for Leadership program prepares local public school principals for success

Pictured above: Participants of the Principals Leadership Development Program’s 2017 Miami-Dade County Public Schools cohort perform a team-building exercise at FIU’s Riccardo Silva Stadium in which they must work together to build a path to cross the room without touching the floor.

On a principal’s mind at any given time: “I still need to hire a replacement math teacher… An angry parent wants to know why her son was benched at last night’s soccer game… Our ELA test scores increased by 3 percent overall last year… The lunch room is ready to erupt in a food fight…”

FIU is training principals from Miami-Dade and Broward counties to be incisive team leaders through a program offered by the Center for Leadership.

The week-long summer program helps principals develop skills to be able to set visions for their schools, determine performance goals and become more aware of how they carry out their responsibilities. It combines classroom instruction with hands-on activities and one-on-one executive coaching to fine-tune the skills that will ultimately help their employees and students succeed.

“[The Center believes] that strong leadership is the catalyst to make great things happen,” said program founder and Center for Leadership Director Mayra Beers. “We hope that by sharing some of the tenets of leadership we’ve found to be most effective with principals, the cascading effect will be significant, impacting teachers, administrators, students, their families and, ultimately, the greater community.”

The curriculum emphasizes introspection. Throughout the week, participants are asked to reflect on their personality types, behaviors and values; and they take tests that identify their strengths. All of these play a role in their leadership styles, and understanding oneself helps determine the basis from which they can enhance their skills.

“I approached the program as a kind of refresh. I was looking for more opportunities to broaden my perspective beyond the traditional professional development that I’ve been able to have in my career,” said elementary school principal Marlene Leyte-Vidal. “I came in with the idea, ‘What could I do differently? Where has my journey taken me? What kind of impact have I had, and where else can I go?’”

Since 2010, FIU has trained more than 240 Miami-Dade County Public Schools principals in effective team leading.  In 2017, the program expanded to Broward County Public Schools. In response to the success of these programs, the school districts have requested further programming from the Center for Leadership to train their other leaders, including administrators and supervisors, teacher-leaders and aspiring principals.

“We wanted to be able to give back to our community, and we identified school principals as having such a great impact on so many in our community,” said Beers of the inspiration for the program. “So we wanted to bring some of the leadership development we’ve learned through our research and other programs we’ve developed to the public school system to help them become even better leaders.”

In February 2018, and Leadership Excellence magazine ranked the Center for Leadership first place in custom content programming with emphasis on leadership or organizational development, for its work with principals in South Florida public schools.

Participants apply communication skills they’ve learned throughout the week in an exercise focusing on effective storytelling.

Learning by doing

Camille Pontillo ’82, MS ’98 is in her fifteenth year as a principal and was named Broward County Principal of the Year in 2014. She said the material affirmed that she has been on the right track and reminded her there is always room to grow.

Pontillo was particularly inspired by the nightly “gratitude journals” they began during the program.

“Journaling has reminded me that even though I’m always grateful for my team and all they do every day, I need to be more mindful about letting them know that I am,” Pontillo said. She now keeps thank you notes by her journal.

Elementary principal Juan Alejo appreciated a lesson on communication that taught participants to use acting techniques to enhance their delivery.

“It’s not about what you say, but how you say it,” said Alejo. “Any form of communication must be clearly thought out in terms of its message and the motivation behind it.”

Adult education principal Franklyn Glasford agrees: “The use of storytelling, hand gestures, imagery and the tone of your voice to generate strong feeling to inspire an audience… will allow me to connect with my staff in a totally different way.”

Participants met one-on-one with trained executive coaches to help identify specific areas where each individual does well or can improve.

“When we were in [the coaching sessions], we were really able to hone in on our strengths. It left us with something to think about,” Pontillo said.

Participants leave the program with a personalized action plan that identifies key challenges, and sets goals and strategies to overcome them. Participants will meet as a group periodically throughout the school year to reflect on their progress.

An emphasis on diversity

Participants come from varying personal backgrounds. They lead elementary, middle and high schools, adult education centers, and alternative education schools. Some are in the first few years of their careers as principals, while others have been leading schools for more than a decade.

“The variety of schools and experiences among participants make for a very rich learning experience,” said Beers.

Despite their differences, the program offered the participants – many of whom do not have frequent opportunities to interact with principals from other schools – the chance to open up about their ideas, their successes and even their failures.

“It was a great opportunity to hear everyone’s stories,” Leyte-Vidal said. “I gained a tremendous admiration for my colleagues and an ability to see, regardless of what your location is or the type of population you have or the programs you’re managing, there’s a common thread among us at a very human level and at a very pedagogical level: We all want our kids to succeed.”

Glasford said it felt like the group grew closer every day.

“We’re all dealing with the same problems and issues. We got a chance to learn a lot about one another and see each other in a different light,” he said. “We bonded and had the ‘What’s said here stays here’ mentality. I know that I can call or email them if I have questions or if I’m in need of assistance, and they will be there to help.”

The big picture

There are 350,000 students in South Florida public schools who depend on solid leaders to help them succeed.

“Public education is at the very heart of our society. The Center believes that this work is critical to the well-being of our community and is intrinsically tied to the future achievements of FIU,” said Beers.

“We have a really groundbreaking program and curriculum that we’ve developed that I believe can be implemented across the state, and my vision is that this would one day be a national program attracting educators from across the country to FIU.”

Said Nathan Hiller, the academic director for the Center for Leadership: “We really value our opportunity to partner with local districts to make a small dent in the capacity of these principals who impact hundreds of thousands of lives with their leadership.”

From the group interaction, to the hands-on activities, to the research presented, Alejo felt the program was among the most valuable professional developments he’s ever had.

“I was able to connect it all back to what I do at work each and every day.”