Stuck in the Middle

As students begin their adolescent years, middle school can be a time of monumental change. Yet, too often, these schools seem to fail their pupils. Here, we spotlight the local middle schools that are making the grade, and examine why others are not.

August 2012

The Will to Lead

A new DPS program gives current and future principals the tools they need to thrive.

Last year, John Youngquist was so inspired by a new DPS initiative—Lead in Denver, which aims to discover and develop the district’s next generation of great school leaders—that he left his “dream job” as principal of East High School. As director of principal talent management for the program, Youngquist is grooming new heads of DPS schools. Although there’s no single, universal quality that makes a school great, most agree that assessing a school’s quality starts with the person running things. We recently chatted with Youngquist about what the program hopes to accomplish in the near term and beyond.

Tell us about the new initiatives.
The district got a $12.5 million grant from the Wallace Foundation [a New York–based educational philanthropy group]. In urban public education, leaders often turn over too quickly because they get frustrated with their level of support and haven’t had enough professional development. I loved being the principal at East, but this was a way to support principals and leaders as a whole. It’s available to all district schools. We have 18 residents who have worked side by side with host principals and are about a year away from being ready for their own principal job. They’ll still need to apply for open jobs, but we prepare them for the experience. We also match residents with principals for one year in a charter school; then they can return to the district as principal of an innovation school.[See “Alternative Education,” next page]

How do you select the fellows?
Most are assistant principals in the district. This year we got 66 applicants for 18 slots. We’re doing full-time recruitment to draw leaders in, staying in contact with candidates to keep them in mind for future opportunities, and focusing on professional development with resumé screening, interviewing, and coaching. They’ll take over a school for a week as acting principal toward the end of the year. We also have them visit other schools, and even businesses, to learn to lead in a variety of ways.

What’s the benefit to the fellows themselves?
Having this on a resumé will be an impressive qualification that shows they’ve been prepared well to run a school. The Wallace Foundation is making a $200 million bet [nationwide] on school leadership. We’re attracting and keeping in play the types of leaders that schools need. We’re also looking at succession plans for the first time. We currently have four residents who will succeed their principals next year after retirement. Having these individuals spend a year getting to know a school’s policies and its culture is important in helping them lead that school later on.