by Margaret Tate
In 1984, when the College of Education’s Principals Center was first founded, it offered a session on “Women and Minorities in Leadership Positions,” designed to smooth the way for a diverse workplace that, these days, we all but take for granted. Fast forward to the summer of 2009, when the center conducted a session called “What Principals Should Know: The Virtual Lives of Teachers and Students,” so principals could help their community avoid the pitfalls of social networking on the Internet.
Clearly, the world has changed a lot during the Principals Center’s first 25 years, but one thing has not: its ongoing commitment to giving principals the tools they need for the times they live in.
New Leaders, New Ideas
Originally founded by Joe Richardson, the Principals Center has had five directors, and each has left his or her stamp on the program.
Today, the center is under the leadership of Rhonda Tighe, a Georgia State University alumna (Ph.D., ´88) and former high school principal with 34 years in public schools. She came to the College of Education to teach education leadership in 2003 and took on the additional role of Principals Center executive director in October 2007.
Tighe’s connection to the center actually dates to her days as a graduate student and through her years as a principal when she attended some of its professional development activities. Later, when she came to GSU to teach, she assisted then-executive director Randy Dobbs. “He asked me if I would like to be involved, unofficially, in my spare time,” she recalls. “So I would work at the registration tables just to go hear some of these expert leaders.”
Now, Tighe herself, aided by a two-person staff, oversees the center’s popular Expert Leaders Series, in addition to a range programs including the Tool Box Series, Turnaround Leadership, and the New Principals Celebration. The overriding goal in everything the Principals Center does is to help principals so they can help teachers and students. “Increasing student achievement. That’s it in a nutshell,” Tighe says.
One of her first strategies was to forge and strengthen the center’s relationships with statewide organizations such as the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals (GASSP) and the Georgia Association of Education Leaders (GAEL).
The idea is to further extend the center’s reach beyond the metro Atlanta area, as well as pool the groups’ resources. So far, the strategy has proved successful. One of the first programs to result was a mentoring program in 2008 for first-year high school principals. The GASSP, which saw an unusually high number of new principals coming in, funded the center’s design, development and operation of the program. “We had training for veteran high school principals on how to coach and be a mentor. Then, through the superintendents, we identified first-year high school principals throughout the state and matched those people up,” Tighe says.
Another of Tighe’s initiatives has been to revive the center’s advisory board, which had lapsed. Currently consisting of 17 education professionals, the board helps ensure that the center’s programming stays relevant. Lisa Guigino, an assistant principal at Ola Middle School in McDonough, Ga., who sits on the board, says she sees a definite strategy in the group’s make-up. “I was chosen because I was a brand new assistant principal. Dr. Tighe knew I could raise a lot of questions being fresh out of the classroom,” Guigino said. “She also has a first-year elementary principal on the board, as well as some of the most wonderfully wise people I’ve ever run into who have years of experience in education and leadership.”
A Safe Place for Principals
The revived advisory board meets approximately four times a year, and the question always is, Tighe says: “What is it that you principals and professional development people out there need?”
The answers, as one might expect, vary widely and stay the same. And they generally fall into two categories – what MaryAnne Gaunt, the Center’s associate director for 10 years, calls “hard skills” and “soft skills.”
The hard skills, she says, refer to areas like data collection, technology, accountability and curriculum, and the soft skills are more leadership oriented. Often, Gaunt observes, the soft skills learning comes by way of the hard skills training.
“We’re basically market-driven,” she says, noting that the practical sessions she markets are often an easier sell to budget-strapped school systems. “But one of the best things that we have to offer here is what we’ve called the ‘safe space’ for conversations around leadership and principalship that you can’t get at home, in your school system, in your school building.”
The conversations that take place during Principal Center events and the relationships that develop serve seasoned professionals as well as new. Gaunt remembers one “mentor” principal who said she had been under such stress, she was about ready to quit, but then her energy was renewed by the enthusiasm of her mentee. “She decided to stay the course,” Gaunt says, noting that the principal remains in education to this day.
Adapting to Change
The Principals Center is now one of about 40 nationwide, about 50 percent fewer than existed 25 years ago when it was founded. The drop has been due mostly to financial realities, Tighe says, but many still thrive, and new ones still form, like the fledgling center in Hong Kong that recently contacted her for start-up advice.
In the case of the COE’s Principals Center, Tighe says, the unprecedented economic downturn of late has created challenges but also spurred creative, cutting-edge programming that’s more accessible and affordable than ever.
They are taking some of their professional development programs on the road to school systems in the metro area and beyond. Another especially cost-effective program, for both the Center and its remote attendees, was the center’s first Webinar. Hosted by Tighe this past summer with the help of her tech-savvy graduate assistant, Anisa Lokey-Vega, the maiden venture proved very popular. “We will do more Webinars,” Tighe says. “That way people don’t have to travel and we don’t have to travel.”
When travel is possible, however, principals value the opportunity to learn from colleagues around the state. LaDonna Starnes, principal of Bells Ferry Elementary School in Marietta and an advisory board member, most recently attended a workshop on data collection and interpretation, and she also has developed an informal mentoring relationship with a principal she met at the New Principals Celebration. “Coming up with ways to celebrate teachers, ways to celebrate students, and ways to motivate and inspire children to be the best they can be – those kinds of opportunities come when you have a place like the Principals Center that is drawing from a number of different geographical areas,” she says.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Year after year, as principals have opened their school doors not just to teachers and students but to new technologies, new state and federal mandates, new social mores, and new economic realities, the Principals Center has been there for them. Now, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the Principals Center is poised to find more and better ways to serve principals with professional development that helps them meet the challenges they face every day.
For more information about the Principals Center, visit www.principalscenter.org.
This story was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.