Mentoring Rockford Public Schools District 205 and Northern Illinois University Principal Preparation Program

Three years ago, the leadership of Rockford Public Schools (RPS205) approached UIC with an idea:  how about if promising teacher leaders from RPS205 applied to the UIC program and did their residencies in Rockford? On the possibility that this might happen, two strong candidates from RPS205 applied to the UIC program, and both were accepted.  But before they could matriculate, an even more promising idea pulled them in a different direction. 

Recognizing the potential for a completely independent leadership preparation program that could operate in the Rockford area, UIC program leadership and RPS205 leadership asked the leadership of  Northern Illinois University’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations whether they would be interested in developing a residency-based principal preparation program with RPS205, modeled partly on the UIC EdD Program.  As a long-established provider of principals for northern Illinois, NIU didn’t hesitate. This fall, the second cohort of one of the nation’s most innovative school leader preparation programs will begin at NIU—now expanded to include aspiring candidates from Elgin U-46, the second largest district in the state.  As two of the largest and most diverse districts in Illinois, with over 100 schools between them, U46 and RPS205 are both urban centers facing many of the same leadership challenges that schools in CPS face. 

To facilitate the routines of collaboration necessary for the emerging partnership to design and launch a new program, NIU and RPS205 asked for assistance from the UIC Center for Urban Education Leadership.  Then-Center Director Steve Tozer agreed to facilitate the process, first making a formal presentation of the structure and impact of the UIC program to an audience of NIU, RPS205, and Rockford-Area superintendents and stakeholders, and then leading a series of monthly meetings that has continued for the past two years.  NIU and RPS leaders together built on their respective strengths to create a unique principal preparation program that is in some ways similar, and in some ways important, different, from the UIC Ed.D. Program.  For example, the coaching structure of the NIU Residency Program looks different, but three UIC Coaches, including Program Coordinator Cynthia Barron, provided a webinar on UIC coaching to help the new partnership focus on the key differences between pre-service and in-service leadership coaching.

The innovative thinking reflected in the program design process is evident in  key program characteristics below: 

  1. The program includes a two-year residency experience that is a full-time, fully paid leadership position in the candidate’s home school district. 
  2. That two-year residency runs concurrently with two years of NIU Master’s degree coursework, tailored to address national professional standards in the context of the needs of these urban districts, leading to the Illinois P-12 Principal Endorsement. 
  3. Not only do the partnering districts pay for the two-year residencies; they also pay the tuition for each candidate selected for the program.
  4. With that kind of district investment, it is not surprising that the program is highly selective. Candidates apply to their districts to become part of each year’s cohort, and only some are selected; then at the end of the first semester of their residency  and coursework they receive notice of whether they have been formally admitted to the degree program itself. 
  5. Residents are coached during their residency period, and in their first year of principalship, by leadership coaches provided by the Illinois Principals Association. Those carefully selected coaches participate regularly in sessions with NIU and school district leadership to monitor program progress and identify any problems of practice that might arise. 
  6. All partners are committed to a continuous improvement model for the program’s success over time, and all partners—districts, NIU, and IPA, collect and share data on candidate experiences and program progress as part of the ongoing continuous improvement process. 

Now entering its second year with the admission of Cohort 2, the NIU Principal Residency Program has broken new ground for Illinois in a way that is both sustainable and replicable for other districts and universities in the state.  Not all colleges and universities will choose to embed their principal preparation program in an Ed.D. Program as UIC does, and the NIU/RPS/U46 partnership is showing that a Master’s Degree program can provide the structure for an ambitious, 2-year residency-based program that meets all state requirements.  Moreover, not all programs in the state can provide full-time leadership coaches as UIC does—but the partnership with Illinois Principals Association is showing how experienced leadership talent from IPA can provide cost-effective coaching during and after the residency—and the potential reach of IPA is truly state-wide.  And the district-level investment in the paid residencies as well as tuition demonstrates a grow-your-own approach to leadership pipeline work that places these districts at the front edge of the field. 

Perhaps equally as remarkable is that NIU and RPS205 launched this innovative and ambitious program in August 2020, in the middle of a pandemic that could have derailed the entire initiative.  It is a tribute to the NIU/RPS leadership—and to the 20 ground-breaking, first-year candidates from RPS—that the program had a successful first year despite the challenges of the pandemic—and that year #2 will add Elgin U46 to this growing partnership.  

Read about the success of the NIU College of Education and Rockford Public Schools principal preparation program one year after its launch here.