This fall, the new group includes six aspiring administrators from Elgin School District U-46.
- Ryan Corcoran, Huff Elementary School
- Gladys Crespo, Creekside Elementary School
- Sarah Hansen, Ridge Circle Elementary
- Patty Kenyon, Specialized Student Services
- Cody Papp, Ontarioville Elementary School
- Jeron Shelton, Clinton Elementary School
Part of the college’s PLEDGE (Partnering to Lead and Empower District-Grown Educators) initiative, the program reinforces the strong commitment to Rockford as well as Elgin, where 15 new teachers graduated in May after completing all of their coursework close to home.
Course delivery this fall will take place in a hybrid model, alternating weekly between online and face-to-face classes at NIU-Rockford for all students. Joining those from Elgin in the new cohort are Rockford students Heidi Dettman, Rick Durso, Ben Epperson, Kyle Heinze, Tom O’Brien, Braxton O’Hearn, Dustin Printz, Matthew Russey, Kelsey Scarpetta and Bob Walton.
The future administrators earn two-year master’s degrees grounded in exceptional curriculum, professional practice, strong mentoring in their local buildings and coaching from the Illinois Principals Association – all with tuition paid by their school district.
During the program, the aspiring administrators will complete, on-the-job paid internships in their districts to immediately apply the knowledge and skills they are acquiring through their coursework.
At the conclusion of the program, the districts will thrive with a stable cohort of experienced administrators who have an understanding of the local culture and a desire to stay there.
“Rockford’s done an excellent job of selecting candidates, and that’s also the case in U-46. It’s an opportunity for them to grow their own leaders from within the district,” says Jim Surber, a clinical assistant professor and co-coordinator of NIU’s Principal Prep program with his wife, Becky.
“These districts put their people into leadership positions with the belief that it’s going to make them stronger candidates. They’re going to have real-life, practical experience moving forward through these next two years.”
Meanwhile, Becky Surber adds, “the diversity of our cohorts has always been a real strength.”
“Not only do we pull from different school districts, but our candidates are from different grade levels. We have some who are in positions at the elementary, middle and high school level, and some in roles at the district level,” she says.
“We have classroom teachers. We have people who are deans. We have counselors, social workers, school psychologists and nurses. They all bring different perspectives that, I think, everyone benefits from and everyone learns from – including us.”
Suzanne Johnson, deputy superintendent of Instruction for U-46, calls the partnership “exciting.”
“As we continue our COVID-19 and eventual post-COVID-19 response to learning, it has become even more critical to prioritize our instructional leadership development,” Johnson says. “By partnering with NIU, we were able to immediately invest in the present and future of U-46 by growing our own administrators and preparing them to guide our equity-focused continuous improvement work.”
Johnson and her colleagues in U-46 leadership can expect just that, Jim Surber says.
“One thing we found out last year with the effects of COVID was the tremendous amount of pressure and stress these candidates were feeling as they were moving from a position of being a classroom teacher to moving into an administrative role and then also taking on the coursework and, this year, the internship,” he says.
“It’s a real load and burden that, fortunately, they all survived. They’re all still in the program,” he adds. “I think it’s something that they will always look back on as a really important and unique learning experience.”
Further benefit stems from NIU’s continuous assessment and improvement.
Benjamin Creed, assistant professor of Educational Administration in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, is collecting data in “real time” for the Surbers.
“He’s interviewing the candidates at two or three different times throughout the year. He’s looking at survey data. He’s getting information from the mentor principals,” Jim Surber says. “Long term, he’s going to be looking at outcome data: How many people completed the program successfully? How many people stayed in leadership positions? How many of them quickly advanced into the principal role?”
The program incorporates and reflects that knowledge simultaneously, Becky Surber adds.
“We are making adjustments to the current cohorts as we’re moving along, and then we’re also planning for changes for future cohorts as well, based on the data that he’s been collecting and sharing with us,” she says. “That has been a great addition.”
Enthusiastic support from NIU’s K-12 partners also bolsters that effort.
“The district administrators are very much on board,” Becky Surber says. “We meet regularly to plan and to get input from them to get feedback on how things are going.”
Adding the second-year, local internship – something that can prove difficult for full-time teachers in principal preparation programs offered elsewhere – along with the coaching accounts for an unparalleled experience.
“I think that’s reflected by the fact that, around the state, enrollment in principal prep programs has been dropping,” she says, “but while other programs are seeing a decline in enrollments, we’ve actually seen an increase, and we currently have three cohorts running simultaneously. Ours is growing, and we anticipate our numbers to remain steady for next year as well.”
Children are the main benefactors.
“Research tells us that school leadership is really second only to classroom instruction as the primary reason for positive student outcomes and performance. The more effective these leaders are in terms of being better trained is going to have long-term positive outcomes for students,” Jim Surber says. “That’s our goal for this. We want to have better leaders for improving student performance because the ultimate outcome is that students get better.”
The Surbers credit Carolyn Pluim, chair of the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, for her advocacy and assistance.
“This could not happen without Carolyn. She’s been a tremendous support to us personally and to the program,” Jim Surber says. “As Becky said, we make adjustments as needed throughout the year, and Carolyn’s been extremely supportive in that process along with the recruitment process by contacting local districts and getting them on board with this whole concept.”
Pluim says she is pleased with the results so far and eager to grow.
“I am thoroughly impressed with the display of genuine commitment that Rockford/U-46 have for this process and project. It speaks to their commitment to the professional development of their district teachers,” Pluim says.
“This partnership enables us to bring our program to school districts that are interested in the professional development of their teachers as well as the ability to grow their own leadership pipeline,” she adds. “We look forward to the opportunity to expand our current partnerships with surrounding districts that also share interest in this opportunity.”