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Principal program in spotlight

Gloria Thomas, right, an aspiring principal in residency, and Principal Angie Pacholke, left, greet passing kindergarten students at Rock Springs Elementary school, in Lawrenceville. Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, is drawing national attention with a program that gives aspiring principals a year of training before they take over a school.

Gloria Thomas, right, an aspiring principal in residency, and Principal Angie Pacholke, left, greet passing kindergarten students at Rock Springs Elementary school, in Lawrenceville. Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, is drawing national attention with a program that gives aspiring principals a year of training before they take over a school.

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — It’s a story told in hundreds of public school districts across the country: a star teacher works his or her way up through the ranks to become a principal, only to struggle with the juggling act of running a school.

But Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, is drawing national attention with a program that gives aspiring principals a year of training before they take over a school — akin to a residency for new medical school graduates. The idea is simple: principals should know how to do the job before they actually take charge of a school, but less than 100 school districts nationally have such programs and only a handful are as intensive as the one in Gwinnett County.

Aspiring principals in the district spend 90 days training under successful school leaders, helping lead teacher meetings, working on projects to improve instruction and meeting frequently with mentors. They attend workshops and seminars, often with district Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, to learn leadership strategies, budgeting and other skills.

“I will have been trained, I will have been tutored, I will have been taught by the best in the business,” said Gloria Thomas, a Gwinnett County middle school assistant principal who finishes the leadership training in December.

More than half of the district’s 133 principals have gone through the program since it began in 2007, and anywhere from 20 to 30 new aspiring leaders begin the program each year.

Gwinnett County is one of six districts nationally to get part of a $75 million grant from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation to help track student achievement fostered by the grow-your-own principal approach. And in June, former First Lady Laura Bush asked Gwinnett County to join forces with the Texas-based George W. Bush Foundation to map out the best ways to develop quality school leadership.

Similar programs are found in such places as New York City, Prince George’s County, Md., Hillsborough County, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Denver. In New York City, research showed that graduates of their leadership academy went into the lowest-performing schools and within three years were outperforming similar schools in English language arts and mathematics.

Gwinnett County’s program also was a crucial part of Georgia’s winning bid last year for $400 million in federal “Race to the Top” money aimed at improving schools. Gwinnett hopes to use the money to pilot its school leadership training in other districts across the state in the next few years.

“We know school leaders have an opportunity to have a positive impact on teachers and we hope then have positive impact on students,” said Glenn Pethel, executive director of leadership development for the district. “We needed to think very deeply about the quality of the people we ask to lead these schools, and what assurances do we have these people are being trained appropriately.”

Thomas, who has worked in middle schools since she began teaching in the district in 1992, had the chance to shadow and elementary school principal this fall, learning the difference between discipline at each level and the best way to approach younger students.

For example, during her first few weeks at Rock Springs Elementary in Lawrenceville, a fourth-grader called her a name, an infraction that would have resulted in detention at a middle school. But instead, Thomas used the opportunity to talk to the child about name-calling and appropriate behavior, a skill she learned by shadowing principal Angie Pacholke.

“It puts you in the seat, but at the same point, you’re not in the seat,” said Pacholke, who participated in the leadership training program in 2007 before the residency portion was introduced. “It’s important as a leader to not necessarily be on the dance floor, but on the balcony watching the dance so you’re seeing all the integral parts of what’s happening. You get to see the processes.”