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What makes a good principal? Good preparation

When it comes to improving education, leaders in the field and in the General Assembly usually talk about teachers. Often overlooked is the role that principals play in ensuring high-quality instruction in their schools. This series highlights the often unsung contribution that principals play in high performance, and it explores some of the issues that are holding principals back. Today, we're talking about the importance of high-quality principal preparation.

It used to be that the path to becoming a principal was a fairly simple one. An educator, usually a teacher, decided he or she wanted to move up into the role of administrator. The person would enroll in a university program for school administration, get a degree and license, and start looking for a job. They would likely start as an assistant principal, and then once they became a principal, they would start in elementary school and move up from there, eventually ending up being the administrator of a high school.

And while that is fine, Shirley Prince says it would be even more helpful if district leaders or other experts could identify the teachers that they think would be good for the role.

“We’ve got all these people out there who self-select into the profession,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is be more efficient with it and effective.”

Prince should know. Not only is she the executive director of the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals’ Association, she is also the program director for the North Carolina Alliance for School Leadership Development (NCASLD) — a program designed to improve the way North Carolina trains its principals.

While there are still teachers who decide on their own that they want to go into administration and make their way into the principal job market, the way principals are chosen and trained began to change around 2010.

NELA and Race to the Top

It started with NELA in 2010. NELA is the Northeast Leadership Academy, which is housed at North Carolina State University. The academy was the brainchild of Bonnie Fusarelli, director of NELA, who was building on ideas from her work on creating innovative principals in Kentucky.

She moved here in 2003. In 2010, with the help of Bill Harrison, she started expanding her ambitions. Harrison is currently the superintendent of the Alamance/Burlington School System but has been a leader in North Carolina education for years, serving as the chair of the North Carolina State Board of Education from 2009-2013.

He wanted Fusarelli to bring her ideas to North Carolina in earnest. When then-Governor Bev Perdue asked Harrison if there was anything he could do to help the struggling academic district in Halifax County, Harrison asked Fusarelli to seek out a grant for her principal program.

She put together a proposal for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and got some money for school improvement. That money became the basis for a principal prep pilot called NELA. It was supposed to be a two-year program, but she only had money for the first year.

Then in 2011, the federal Race to the Top program began offering education grants around the country. Fusarelli latched onto that and got funding for the second year. NELA was now sitting on firm ground and has continued and thrived ever since.

Along with NELA, two other principal prep programs launched in North Carolina thanks to Race to the Top funds: The Sandhills Leadership Academy and the Triangle Piedmont Leadership Academy.

So what’s the difference?

Perhaps the biggest difference between new principal prep programs and the former road to becoming a principal was that educators were no longer deciding alone that they should be principals. Professionals were evaluating them to be sure they had the chops to do the job.

NELA, for instance, is a two-year program that subsidizes tuition for higher degrees for potential principals, sets them up with internships, and gets buy-in from district superintendents ahead of time about potential candidates going through the program.

And NELA screens applicants. They are looking for a certain kind of person. Not someone who necessarily feels ready, but someone who demonstrates the characteristics that show readiness for the job.

“It’s not how many years have you taught. It’s not only about how great of a teacher you were,” Fusarelli said. “It’s ‘Do you love people and do you have high expectations for people?’ And ‘Are you willing to work your butt off?'”

She said the candidate assessment portion of NELA is robust. It’s important to be able to meet with someone, see how he or she interacts with other people, and begin to understand what he or she is like as a person. The other two leadership academies under Race to the Top had similar candidate assessments.

As an example, Fusarelli says when NELA candidates are touring a school, she and her staff will purposely make sure members of the non-educational staff are in the hallway.

“We will watch to see if they interact with the janitorial staff,” she said.

She said the candidates get a few passes. Candidates may be nervous and perhaps simply forget to say hi or introduce themselves. But eventually, staff expect to see candidates going out of their way to interact with the people they may one day supervise, especially if those people are support staff.

“That speaks volumes about the type of leader you will be,” she said.

NELA’s scope is limited, to a certain extent, by the target schools it’s trying to serve. The funding allows it to train principals for some of the most high-poverty, rural schools in the northeast part of the state.

But NELA, along with Sandhills and Piedmont, provided a fairly robust set of principal preparation programs in North Carolina. With the exception of NELA, that didn’t last.

What happened?

Simply put, when Race to the Top money began running out, neither Piedmont nor Sandhills could get funding to continue, so they shut their doors, leaving only NELA as the state’s standout principal prep program.

But that’s changing, thanks, in part to the General Assembly.

The North Carolina Alliance for School Leadership Development (NCASLD) ultimately sprung out of legislation in the last two sessions of the General Assembly.

During the long session of 2015, the General Assembly appropriated $1 million for principal preparation purposes. In the most recent short session in 2016, the legislature gave an additional $3.5 million to the issue. That money is administered by the NCASLD, which is supposed to identify principal prep organizations in North Carolina that can create strong programs for training principals.

NCASLD already has handed out a number of grants for programs, some of which are supposed to be up and running at the start of 2017 — right about now.

Two of those grants were received by N.C. State for programs that will be overseen by Fusarelli, including the Durham Leadership Academy, which was the first grant recipient from NCASLD, and The NCSU Innovation Project (TIP) Leadership Academy.

Other recipients include:

  • UNC Greensboro, Principal Preparation for Excellence and Equity in Rural Schools Program
  • Western Carolina University, North Carolina School Executive Leadership Program (NCSELP): Advancing School Leadership in North Carolina
  • High Point University Leadership Academy
  • Sandhills Leadership Principal Development Program

The fact that there will now be a number of principal prep programs not only training principals, but also screening the right kind of people to become principals, is good news for schools according to Prince.

“The beauty of this grant program is that now we have funding so that we can actually go to some the best teachers that we have that we know will be effective leaders of adults and say, ‘We think you would be great for this program,'” she said.

Fusarelli said these programs are also important because principal preparation is a bigger problem than many other issues faced by principals as a whole.

“We actually don’t have that big of an issue of principals leaving the profession. If you look at the numbers, they’re not leaving,” she said. “If we did a good job of selecting the right person, we would be better off.”

NELA itself has only grown through the years. It has now expanded to NELA 2.0, which, according to its website, “will include professional development for current principals and creates a succession plan for the Northeast North Carolina region with the ultimate outcome of increasing student achievement by achieving four objectives.”

Those objectives include:

  • A Principal Academy with “100 leaders of high-need schools”
  • An Innovative Leaders Academy (ILA) that will take 30 new “leaders prepared (Master Degree and License), hired, supported, and retained through an induction program and executive coaching”
  • Individualized executive coaching for Principal Academy and ILA participants
  • And taking lessons learned from the first three objectives to create training methods and materials for others

NELA touts the success of its original program on its website, saying: “Research shows it takes approximately five years to put a teaching staff in place as well as fully implement policies and practices that will positively impact the school’s performance, yet the NCSU NELA principals have documented notable improvements during their first year and those gains continue in schools with a NELA principal for two consecutive years.”

What’s to come?

So, it all sounds like good news. But the continued success of these programs relies on the General Assembly continuing to provide funding to be administered by NCASLD in the form of grants to principal prep organizations. And that is by no means guaranteed.

“If they don’t extend it, we’re really in trouble,” Prince said.

And infighting between the Senate and the House could stall the ability of the program to move forward.

During the short session of the House, certain House members originally wanted $8.5 million in 2016-17 for the principal prep grant program now being administered by NCASLD. That number was eventually whittled down to $7.5 million in the House. And then, when the Senate released its budget plan, lawmakers had excised the principal prep grant program altogether. In the budget compromise that eventually passed, the final number was $3.5 million. Those funds are recurring, but that could change during the upcoming long session.

ESSA on the way

Help in developing better school leaders is also coming from another source outside the state, and not just in the form of funding.

A recent report by the Rand Corporation called “School Leadership Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review,” emphasizes the focus on school leadership and talks about some of the evidence-based criteria for effective leadership. It also “acknowledges the importance of school principals to school improvement and effective instruction.”

It explains how ESSA gives states and districts the ability to use federal funds for improving the quality of principals and other leaders.

The report talks about how some of the federal funds — like those granted for school improvement efforts — could go to “leadership-improvement objectives.”

The report also goes on to describe what “evidence” is when it comes to “evidence-based activities, strategies, and interventions” that are required for funding from the federal government.

The report is extensive and a must-read for anyone considering what role ESSA will play in bolstering the quality of principals in North Carolina or any other state.


This week, we have reviewed the importance of principals in turning around low-performing schools, the changing state of principal pay, and the importance of principal preparation when it comes to training principals.

All of the interviews and research raise a few questions for policymakers to consider during the General Assembly’s upcoming long session.

The state Department of Public Instruction only has enough resources to help address the needs of a fraction of the hundreds of low-performing schools in the state. Do they need more funding for District and School Turnaround?

Should principals of low performing schools get more than two years to turn around a school before facing remediation or dismissal?

Andy Baxter, vice president of Educator Effectiveness for the Southern Regional Education Board, said during a Committee on administrator pay that nobody in the country has figured out the best way to handle principal pay. “There are no best practices,” he said. “This area of compensation in general, but in particular principal compensation, has not been a road that many people have traveled,” he said. What would it take for North Carolina to move from being 50th in the nation in principal pay to a national leader on this issue? The pay and the salary schedule need to be reconsidered.

Given the importance of high-quality principals in schools, and the need for robust principal preparation to train them, should the General Assembly be allocating more money to its principal prep grant program?

Editor’s Note: Shirley Prince serves on the board of directors of EdNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.