illustration of the same person in a suite, one individual higlighted

Prince George’s County, near Washington, D.C., is one of six urban school districts that is participating in The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, a program targeted to help districts develop a much larger corps of effective school principals by selecting and developing strong assistant principals to become principals. 

The initiative is also helping to determine whether this training for assistant principals improves student achievement across the district, especially in high-needs schools. Participating districts are bringing a new focus to cultivating assistant principals, according to one of a series of recent evaluative reports by Policy Studies Associates. 

NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti recently talked with Doug Anthony, executive director for talent management of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Upper Marlboro, MD, and Falecia McMillian, principal of North Forestville Elementary School in Forestville, MD, about the district’s strategic effort to develop assistant principals into principals. 

Bartoletti: Why is Prince George’s County now looking differently at the role of assistant principals?

Anthony: We’ve had some really thoughtful superintendents who saw the need for a viable bench and who said we have to develop our current assistant principals to actually lead schools as principals. Our current CEO really believes that, and so he has really invested in us to accelerate our work around assistant principals. Of course, support from The Wallace Foundation enabled us to do things more creatively. 

Bartoletti: The recent Policy Studies Associates implementation study on the Wallace Principal Pipeline Initiative says that most principals served as assistant principals and that districts are seeing that role as a training ground. What does that look like in Prince George’s County?

Anthony: Historically, we haven’t always been that strategic about how we supported assistant principals, and now we are more strategic in the opportunities we provide for them. My office, along with district leadership, created space for assistant principals to grow. We developed different professional development experiences for assistant principals, and Falecia McMillian here is a great example of someone who has come through the ranks. She went through our Aspiring Leaders Program for Student Success, which we affectionately call ALPSS, a yearlong program that identifies high-flying assistant principals whom we think are next on the bench to the principalship. 

Last year, we started an assistant principal induction program that provides an executive leadership team to support assistant principals, and we have assistant principal meetings every month. We also have a residency program for a few selected assistant principals who have come through one of our signature programs. It gives them the opportunity to receive daily, on-the-ground experience from a seasoned, credible, and highly talented principal in a safe environment.

Bartoletti: Is there a selection process to get into ALPSS?

Anthony: Yes, we’re trying to get better every year, because our first year it was a little loose … we had 23 people. We wanted to be more selective. Now you need a recommendation from the instructional director, because we want the full belief that this individual is ready for the next level, and that takes a commitment beyond someone’s personal interest. Our current cohort is about 12 people, but it’s the right 12 people. 

Bartoletti: Residency programs are always mentioned as a missing component, especially regarding assistant principal training. Most districts can’t do them due to financial constraints. It’s commendable of you to embrace residencies. 

Anthony: Dr. Kevin Maxwell, the CEO (and superintendent), and my immediate boss, Dr. Monique Davis (deputy superintendent), believe in that model. We were granted three positions this year. It’s really unheard of and really exciting. We’re being strategic about it. For example, we noticed that principals for middle and high schools are the hardest to replace. We generate a lot of elementary candidates, but high schools are a different thing. So, our residents are all secondary assistant principals.

We’re also trying to be strategic about the supervising principal who might spend half the year working with the budget office or human resources at the central office. The supervising principal gets a different view about future opportunities in the district. Our middle school assistant principals might actually go to a high school and shadow its principal so they can get that perspective. Now we have three people who hopefully at the end of their experience will be ready for a middle school or high school vacancy. 

Bartoletti: Does your pipeline include teacher leader-to-assistant principal training? 

Anthony: Yes, we have a teacher leadership program as well, and we’ve established several university partnerships. Our teacher leaders get certified to become assistant principals. We’re trying to help teachers make the distinction between being a teacher leader and an assistant principal. Too often, teachers have thought: “I need to make more money so I’ll become an assistant principal” as opposed to, “I’m passionate about this leadership opportunity.” We’ve thought a lot about how to keep people who really want to be teachers in the classroom. So, we have to address the pay structure, but we are trying to create options for teacher leaders. 

Bartoletti: Have your hiring practices changed?

Anthony: That’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of. Previously, it was a very traditional hiring model: You see a job announcement, and you apply. You’re selected or not. Interview or go on your way. Now, applicants must go through an exercise we’ve developed that shows how they solve problems. How do you discern who to bring into a conversation? How would you give teacher feedback? If you were doing a classroom observation, how would you begin a conversation? We generate a lot of interest. During my first year in this role, we had more than 1,000 people interested in 15 assistant principal positions. 

Bartoletti: It’s so refreshing to hear that number. I recall when I was assistant principal and became the principal, the AP position was open. Many of my teachers said, “JoAnn, no one wants this job. No one wants to stand in the cafeteria and scarf down a tuna sandwich while keeping an eye on everything.” There was a perception that becoming an assistant principal meant having to change your lifestyle radically. To hear that you have so much interest in these jobs is a real tribute to your district.

Anthony: The flip side is that we’ve actually had a bottleneck for the position. We just haven’t been able to offer a lot of positions to aspiring assistant principals because we have a great cadre of APs who’ve been there for a while. We always have a strong number of teacher leaders who are interested in becoming assistant principals in our district. The issue is: How do we provide space and opportunities for folks to get those positions? 

Bartoletti: What other things do you provide for assistant principals?

Anthony: We have developed a whole professional development calendar and plan. Our principal supervisors—whom we call “instructional directors”7mdash;work with our principals very closely and, in turn, support the work in the schools with the assistant principals. We offer training around culture. We also try to make sure we provide central office opportunities for assistant principals to grow. 

Bartoletti: Is there a formal mentoring or coaching program?

Anthony: Yes, last year we had one for assistant principals. Again, to the credit of our CEO and Board of Education, we were allotted three leadership coach positions. Now I have three full-time folks who serve as coaches for new principals, second-year principals, and assistant principals. We have enough principals now that we can say, “Can you help us with this group of assistant principals?” And some, such as Falecia here, serve as mentors to them as well. It’s a pretty robust program.

Bartoletti: Falecia, talk about your career path. 

McMillian: I was a classroom teacher from 2000–2007 in Prince George’s County. Then I provided regional resource teacher support for four years. I served as an achievement coach, a literacy coach, and a math/science coach in schools across Prince George’s County. In 2011–2012, I began my assistant principalship and served as an assistant principal for a little over two years. I was fortunate to become the principal of North Forestville Elementary School in October 2013. 

Bartoletti: Community engagement is often missing from assistant principal training. How have you learned more about community engagement?

McMillian: I had a very rewarding experience as an assistant principal. I had a principal who trusted me, and she said, “Okay, McMillian—whatever you want to do, I’ll listen.” After about a month, I noticed that our parent involvement needed strengthening. I proposed creating a Parent Engagement Program focused on instruction. We recruited teachers and specialists to stay after school to work with parents. We offered the program once a quarter to teach parents strategies we use to teach their children, such as how to sequence, how to summarize, and how to respond to text-based questions. It was very successful.

When I interviewed for the job at North Forestville, I said that it’s not enough that our students leave here college and career ready. We’re going to have a third “c” at North Forestville—community. My first day at North Forestville, I was greeted by members of the Boys and Girls Club, and they said, “Miss McMillian, I know you just arrived, but can we please redecorate your staff lounge?” I said, “Absolutely.” I spent my entire first winter break working with the Boys and Girls Club, partnering with Home Depot, and we renovated the staff lounge—new furniture, new paint, new blinds, new sink, new refrigerator, new microwave.

When my staff returned in January, I invited everyone to join me in front of the lounge. We had ribbons on both doors of the lounge. People were asking: “What’s going on? I can’t get into the lounge to make my copies.” I gave the nod. I had Home Depot on one door and the Boys and Girls Club on the other door, they cut the ribbon, staff walked in, breakfast was on the table. A staff member who’d been at the school for 32 years started crying. He said, “Miss McMillian, you spent your entire winter break doing this for us?”

Bartoletti: What advice do you have for principals looking to hire assistant principals? 

McMillian: You definitely want to hire someone who has come through a program like ALPSS. The opportunities I had in ALPSS really opened my eyes to what it truly takes to be a principal. My principal I served with would say, “I know you might think you’re ready, but it’s a totally different world when you sit in this seat.” But I know now that when I sit in the seat (which I rarely do during the school day as I’m engaged in classrooms), I’m ready beyond a shadow of a doubt, and it’s due to the ALPSS training. 

Bartoletti: What advice do you have for those who want to be assistant principals?

McMillian: They need to be instructional leaders. They need to know how to build teams and build teachers’ instructional capacities. They need to understand culture and the power that external partnerships bring to the school. They need to know how to organize structures such as schedules and resources that allow for maximizing student achievement. They need to be passionate about this work because we’re preparing children to take over the world. Some days are not going to be as rosy as others, but you have to be committed. You have to be determined to reach the goal of outstanding academic achievement for all students. 

Join the nation’s connected assistant principals on Twitter for #APChat every Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. (ET).