UB Program Teaches School Administrators to Collaborate for Greater Effectiveness, Improved School Performance

Release Date: November 20, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Improved administrative leadership and improvements in schools' performance are the goals of an innovative collaborative effort involving the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education (GSE) and 13 Western New York school districts.

Begun in 1996, the program, Leadership Initiative for Tomorrow's Schools (LIFTS), has graduated 47 potential administrators, 36 of whom are employed as school principals, assistant principals or district administrators in 11 area school districts.

The program has had a distinct impact on administrative training and practice in the districts and its developers expect that it ultimately will affect academic achievement levels in many area schools.

"We've created a richer pool of qualified administrator candidates in Western New York and district interest in the program is growing," says Stephen Jacobson, Ph.D., a founder and co-director of the program.

"If we're successful in helping our LIFTS graduates engage the energies and talents of their future employees and students, then there will be a considerable ripple effect and improvements in school performance are likely."

Marion Canedo, superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools, echoes Jacobson's enthusiasm.

"LIFTS has already produced some outstanding administrators in our district," she says, "and the program's comprehensive, hands-on approach has us thinking outside of the traditional educational box when it comes to administrative training."

Jacobson, professor and chair of the GSE Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, co-directs the program with departmental colleagues Laurie Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor, and Robert Stevenson, Ph.D., associate professor.

LIFTS was developed in response to a projection that within a few years as a result of retirements, highly qualified administrators would be at a premium in school districts throughout Western New York. After assessing predictions of changes in the educational environment, faculty members in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy worked with several local school districts to design the innovative, non-traditional educational leadership program based on the latest theory and practice in the field.

The program, Jacobson explains, is unlike traditional school-administrator preparation programs, which emphasize the mastery of managerial skills, such as curriculum planning, instructional evaluation and scheduling.

It includes instruction in those areas, but its emphasis is on the development of interpersonal skills that promote group facilitation and team building. The purpose is to engage and use the talents of teachers, parents and students as part of the educational process. The program also has a lengthy and intensive field-based component with administrative internships offering participants 600 hours of contact with practicing school administrators in the area.

"It is our intention to assess changes in student achievement in schools administered by LIFTS graduates," Jacobson says, "but we are not ready to do so yet because the program is still quite new.

"New kinds of educational leadership take several years to show such results. The role of administrators alone accounts for only about seven percent of student academic achievement. What matters most is what goes on in the classroom and at home and that's what the program ultimately affects."

Jacobson says LIFTS represents a fundamentally different approach to school administration. It holds that schools operate most effectively in the current educational climate not by insisting that all of the available talent, leadership and decision-making skills reside in administrators, but by recognizing that leaders are found throughout the organization and should be promoted throughout as well.

He says that in more traditional systems, these people often are not only not given a voice, but their experience and knowledge are suppressed.

If administrative leaders engage teachers, as well as parents, in the process of learning and leadership, however, they, in turn, will engage the students, he says. When this cumulative process begins to take hold, Jacobson says improvements in academic performance and other areas are expected to follow.

"It takes time," Jacobson says, "because you can't just tell people what to do. You have to model the behaviors for them and then let them play these roles to which they aren't accustomed -- seeing how they feel, what works for them and what doesn't."

Jacobson says LIFTS does not appeal to controlling personality types, but rather to collaborative types who tend to value cooperative ventures and the sharing of authority and responsibility.

"By empowering such people through transformative leadership," he says, "many talents can be harnessed to improve the day-to-day efficacy of our schools."

Eleven LIFTS graduates now are school principals in the Buffalo, Sweet Home, Niagara Falls, Warsaw, Lyndonville, Pioneer and Erie 2 BOCES school districts. Twenty-one went on to become assistant principals in the Buffalo, Williamsville, Lockport, Niagara Falls, Kenmore, Sweet Home, Pioneer and West Seneca districts, and four are central office administrators, one the director of personnel in the West Seneca School District.

"With projected retirements and vacancies forthcoming, it is imperative that we have well-trained people ready to step in and fill the void," said Canedo. "Finding creative ways to prepare our teachers to be leaders will have a positive impact on student achievement. To that end, the Buffalo District is eager to take full advantage of LIFTS opportunities for potential administrators in the coming years."

Although individuals may self-nominate for inclusion in the program, Jacobson explains that LIFTS participants often are sponsored by individual school districts as possible candidates for specific administrative posts.

"We immerse them in the administrative experience so they experience the gestalt or 'whole-feeling' of such jobs," Jacobson says. "The consequence of such immersion is not that they never make mistakes, but that they are more confident when called upon to lead.

"The prior practice -- and in many cases, current practice -- in school administrator training was that a teacher who wanted to become a principal remained in her in own school building, grabbed time out of her workday to do administrative tasks and then took academic courses on her own.

"She would play with pieces of the role," he says, "with the assumption that somehow she'd figure out how it all goes together. Many such individuals spent their careers in only one school, often under one principal and even took internships in that school. The result was a very limited sense of administrative leadership."

Jacobson says the earliest program cohorts were made up predominantly of female risk-takers who felt that the traditional system of promotion and administration preparation didn't work for them and they decided to take a risk and try something new.

"Now we have a lot of people who are 'career-pathing,'" he says. "Because the program is very popular in so many districts, they understand that certification will jump them to the head of the pack as they seek administrative positions."

Area school districts involved in the LIFTS program are Alden Central School District, Buffalo Public Schools, Erie I-BOCES, Erie II-BOCES, Iroquois Central School District, Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District, Lockport City School District, Niagara Falls City School District, Niagara-Orleans BOCES, Pioneer Central School District, Sweet Home Central School District, West Seneca Central School District and Williamsville Central School District.

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