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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

'Grow-Your-Own' teacher programs are popular. Now, school districts are growing their own principals too.

Lathrop Elementary School principal Daniela Boer stands in front of a wall featuring student art of Inti, the Inca god of the sun. It looks like a gold sun with rays shooting off it, with a face in the middle of the sun.
Lathrop Elementary School principal Daniela Boer

Every teacher who makes the leap into the principal’s office makes a bargain. To become a school leader and impact kids outside of the four walls of their classroom, they have to sacrifice the reason they fell in love with teaching in the first place: teaching kids!

But most principals, like Desiree Wrightsel, still want to be in classrooms as much as possible. Wrightsel is a first-year principal at Nashold Early Childhood Center in Rockford.

“I carve out time to be in classrooms every day,” she said. “I'm just one of the observers and then I get right in it with the kids and get down on the floor with them building a lot of blocks and things like that.”

Wrightsell is a member of the first cohort of a Principal Residency Program. It’s a partnership between Northern Illinois University and Rockford Public Schools.

A growing number of schools are “growing-their-own” teachers as a solution to staff shortages. With this initiative, RPS wants to “grow-their-own” principals too.

It’s a two-year program where they not only take graduate-level classes on school management and leadership but learn on-the-job too. Because leading adults is very different from leading kids!

Like an apprenticeship, they spend both years as principal residents in the district as assistant principals with a mentor principal.

Laura Greier says mentorship was a major selling point for her. She’s another member of the residency program, now principal at Spring Creek Elementary School. Greier says it was extremely helpful to learn the ropes from her mentor before having to close the school doors knowing she’s the one in charge.

“We would go in [to class evaluations] together, we would leave, we would compare our notes to make sure we were consistent with that," said Greier. "From creating schedules to trying to promote positive culture within the building with staff -- there's a whole spectrum of really important stuff to learn."

They have a mentor principal, a mentor through the Illinois Principals Association, and each other. Greier says she still calls her IPA mentor every week.

“Being an administrator can be a lonely island,” she said. “You don't have 80 other teachers who are your partners that you go do things with when you're teaching. So, that was a change. But having this network of people makes that island much less lonely.”

Unhappy or unprepared administrators usually don’t stay at their school very long -- and turnover is higher in schools that serve low-income students of color. Principal turnover in turn leads to higher teacher turnover, which research shows negatively impacts student achievement.

The plan with NIU and Rockford is to give new principals the tools to succeed right away so that doesn’t happen. With the apprenticeship, they already have contacts in the district for discipline or special ed. It’s not hypothetical. They’ve studied the student code of conduct. And, obviously, they can bounce ideas off the other principals from their program.

But they’re still in their first year. Wrightsell and the other principals know, as prepared as they may be, they’re still learning. And they have to be honest with their staff.

“I think that's really important to be able to be vulnerable with people and let them see that, yeah, I'm a real person! I'm going to make mistakes," she said. "I own it. It's my first year. The motto I came up with was ‘growing together this year.’ We're all going to grow together."

It’s a tough job many principals say has only gotten more challenging over the past few years. A 2021 survey from theNational Association of Secondary School Principalsfound job satisfaction an all-time low. One-third of principals strongly agreed they were satisfied with their job. That was down from 63% in 2019.

Now, this first Rockford resident group is in their first year as full-time principals -- some of them even at the same school they had their residency. The hope is that with the program’s Rockford-focused preparation, they’ll have the knowledge and local experience to thrive in their new roles and improve outcomes for their students.

Daniela Boer is another first-year principal coming out of the program. She’s the principal at Lathrop Elementary.

Rockford Public Schools serves a diverse population of students. Around 30% of Rockford students are Hispanic. But Lathrop is unique. Lathrop is over 60% Hispanic.

They have multiple bilingual classrooms. So, it helps a lot that Boer, who is Brazilian, speaks fluent Spanish.

Boer says she’s one of just two Spanish-speaking principals at Rockford Public Schools.

There’s a poster right as you enter the building which talks about the iceberg of culture. Sure, there’s food, dance & language. But it’s much deeper than that.

“Even the eye contact you have with parents or how they’re responding to you. It's body language,” she said. “I understand that very well. Even though my first language is not Spanish, being a Latina connects me with many of the Spanish speakers. And our cultures look alike many times.”

As a middle school teacher, she learned how important it was for students to have a teacher who looked like them. And she knew that extends to having administrators who look like their students too.

But, she says, many bilingual teachers can be uncomfortable stepping into administration. They might be afraid of racism if they step into a more public role, or people not taking them seriously. And, Boer says, there are cultural reasons.

“Many of us like to have three months off. That's when we have the chance to go visit our families," she said. "So, people also don't want to give up going and living their culture and visiting their families. And I do miss that. Especially now, as I see my parents getting older. Sometimes I do question, ‘What is coming first here?’ ‘Do I really want to stay?’ But then it comes to those faces,” she said as a group of students walked over and gave her a hug. “I just love these kids. That’s what keeps me here. That keeps me motivated to work and stay.”

She does still miss the classroom sometimes too. But a group of four bilingual students just told her that when they grow up, they want to be principals. She says representing them and building a positive culture in her building? That’s a reward that makes it worth it.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.