The Story of Tennessee’s Normal Park Museum Magnet

When I was hired in 2002 as the Principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, Tenn., the school was in crisis – with failing test scores, a dilapidated building, and low enrollment. My job was to transform the school into a museum magnet school, which utilized research-based teaching practices; organized weekly, hands-on learning expeditions to local museums; and provided students with the academic support and resources to deeply explore academic content through creative and cross-disciplinary projects.

Normal Park opened its doors with just 214 students in August of 2002. At the beginning of that school year, it was very hard to convince parents to send their children to our school.

With the help of a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant during the first three years of our transformation, and with support and encouragement from Magnet Schools of America, in just three years, Normal Park was recognized with the Ronald P. Simpson Award—considered the most prestigious award for magnet schools in the nation.

Throughout all this success, families began moving into the school zone to enroll in Normal Park. Our magnet applications increased dramatically, creating a waiting list of more than 600 students. In the years since, we have extended our program to include pre-K through eighth grade, expanded to two campuses, and enrolled more than 850 students.

Magnet schools can be an important part of a school turnaround effort. These schools often work within the existing structure of a school district while developing exciting theme-based instruction across the curriculum, which can provide incredible opportunities for students. Whether a magnet school is arts-based, technology-based, or focused on student leadership, students take part in meaningful learning opportunities that engage them in non-traditional ways.

In our nation’s data-driven education reform efforts, it is important to recognize that the avenue to increasing test scores can be found through student engagement in meaningful learning, rather than a “drill and kill” focus on test preparation. Recognizing schools that involve students in learning in creative, collaborative, and challenging ways is incredibly important.

Whether students are learning though dancing or debate, painting or poetry, graphic design or film editing, students who take part in high-quality, rigorous and meaningful experiences often become engaged and excited learners who achieve strong outcomes. Schools should be places where students love to learn and teachers love to teach.  In my experience, magnet schools can be those places!

Jill Levine is the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet in Chattanooga, TN, and a 2013-14 Principal Ambassador Fellow of the U.S. Department of Education.

This month, Jill Levine and Normal Park were recognized with a Value-Added Achievement Award from the nonprofit Education Consumers Foundation. For more, visit here.   

Leaders of Learning

It can’t be said enough, school principals seriously matter in any school improvement effort. They directly impact teacher engagement, school conditions, and family involvement, which are all big factors in increasing student performance. This is why the recent convening by the Department of Education’s School Leadership Program (SLP) is an important part in achieving our overall mission to promote student achievement for all of our nation’s students.

Bringing together 45 of its grant recipients for two days, the SLP program office provided an opportunity for districts, university programs, partner organizations, and federal policymakers to learn from each other and experts in the field about how to promote and improve excellent school leadership.


Cesar Chavez School of Public Policy students and members of the Chavez Slam Team ContraVerse, perform their original piece at the opening of the School Leadership Program conference at ED. Throughout the two day convening, these students, along with several of their classmates and their incredible teacher and coach Michael Bolds, shared insightful perspectives on education and the impact of current reforms and educators on students. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

From my perspective, that of an experienced district and charter public school principal, and as part of the Principal Ambassador Fellowship Program (PAF), the convening provided a valuable learning experience by those in attendance. In particular, I was struck by a presentation from Matthew Clifford, principal researcher of education, at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) who spoke about the Ripple Effect of principal influence. Principals, according to Clifford, need to be evaluated on what they can control – teacher engagement, community context, and school conditions – all of which strongly impact student learning but in an indirect way.

This concept, along with a recent report by Jason Grissom, Susanna Loeb, and Ben Master should make us all think again about what effective school leadership looks like and how our accountability systems honors the work of principals and truly incentivizes the types of behaviors our schools need from their leaders. The principal didn’t become the “most complex and contradictory figure in the pantheon of educational leadership,” overnight, as described by Kate Rousmaniere, another presenter at the convening. It is going to take a great deal of attention and thought for states and districts to create the type of learning environments and support systems required to improve school leadership practices. Luckily, there is a group of practitioners engaged in this work, and it was impressive to have them all in one room together.

A great deal of thanks goes out to the SLP team, the PAFs, to all the presenters who shared their expertise, to the students who thoughtfully challenged the adults through performance and provocative questions, and to the grantees who came with open minds and incredible experiences. Let’s hope this is one of many more such gatherings, because there is still much work to do.

Joshua Klaris is a resident principal in the Principal Ambassador Fellowship Program at the U.S. Department of Education

Principal Ambassador Fellowship Officially Launched

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan officially launched the Department of Education’s Principal Ambassador Fellowship yesterday by naming three principals to serve as the inaugural class of Campus Principal Ambassador Fellows. They are: Sharif El-Mekki of Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker campus in Philadelphia, PA; Jill Levine, principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, TN; and Rachel Skerritt at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, DC.

You can learn more about each of them on the Department’s Principal Ambassador Fellowship website in the coming days. In short:

SharifSharif El-Mekki has served since 2007 in the charter school serving 750 middle and high school students. The Shoemaker campus is a three-time winner of New Leaders’ EPIC award for being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating student achievement. El-Mekki serves on Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on African American Males and is an America Achieves Fellow.



JillJill Levine has served as principal since 2002 of two campuses which serve 850 pre-K to 8th grade students. Normal Park has been named a Magnet School of Excellence every year since 2005 and in 2012, Levine was named National Principal of the Year by Magnet Schools of America. Levine serves on Tennessee’s First to the Top Advisory Committee and Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee.



RachelRachel Skerritt has been principal of Eastern Senior High School since it was re-launched in 2011 as a turnaround high school. Under her leadership, Eastern has earned authorization as an International Baccalaureate school and last spring scored the second highest proficiency rates amongst comprehensive high schools in the District of Columbia on the DC-CAS exams. Skerritt is also a published novelist and frequent contributor to The Root, an off-shoot of the Washington Post.

In its inaugural year, the Principal Ambassador Fellowship program is meant to recognize the important impact that a principal has on instruction, the school environment, and talent management and to better connect this expertise and knowledge with education policy makers. The 2013 U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellows will work with our current Teaching Ambassador Fellows as well as our Resident Principal to help kick start and shape the new program.

In the Shadows of Principals

Principal Shadow DebriefI admit I was nervous.

Principals are busy. It’s almost a cliché that they are unsung heroes who move mountains every day with very little praise and backbreaking hours. So, when it was time for the culminating event of ED Goes Back to School Principal Shadowing, I worried. As a principal myself, on assignment for the year to serve as a bridge between other school leaders and the US Department of Education, I thought: “What if our 45 area principals were too busy to show up?”

Even if they did come, the stakes were high. Last year’s meeting produced real results. Our Principal Ambassador Fellowship was conceived at this meeting. Now, at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday, we were asking these principals to reach inward and pull off one more success.

My worries, naturally, were misplaced. The room was packed. With organizational help from NAESP, NASSP, and New Leaders, each school leader had been shadowed by someone from the Department. Now the principals and other ED officials were seated around a table with Arne Duncan, Deb Delisle, and Jim Shelton and their shadows. All were there to listen to them, and the principals were as candid as they were thoughtful.

The leaders spoke of disconnects between policy and practice. One principal was asked how much additional time his school system’s new teacher evaluation system was taking him- was it 20 percent, 50 percent more?


Joshua Klaris, the Department’s Resident Principal, speaks during the principal debrief following ED Goes Back to School Principal Shadowing week.

“More like 200 percent,” he responded.

That came across loud and clear. Secretary Duncan responded to the conversation, “While I know change is hard and that it takes time, you guys need our help and support if we are going to where we need to be. We know that.”

The group also discussed the many hats a principal wears—teacher, coach, leader, parent. More than anything, the folks at ED who shadowed these principals walked away with a clearer understanding of the principal as the linchpin of a school community. The principals came to ED because they see themselves as essential connectors between the world of policy and the work of teaching and learning. This is their job. They take it very seriously. And they always show up.

It’s my job at ED to use the information gathered from conversations with school leaders to inform our priority to help support and improve their work. As I reflect on the experience with these principals and my ED colleagues, it reinforces the knowledge that these one-shot experiences just aren’t enough. There is an almost desperate need for enhanced connections and cohesion. The shadowing experience is a good start, there is much work to do, and I’m proud to be part of the effort to figure out the right next steps.

Joshua Klaris is the U.S. Department of Education’s Resident Principal

Investing in Leadership

Arne with Principals

Secretary Arne Duncan met with principals after his speech at last week’s NAESP Conference in Baltimore, Md.

Last week, I joined Secretary Duncan as he traveled to the NAESP Annual Conference, and we got to talk about the role of a principal. With the Department of Education’s Principal Ambassador Fellowship now a reality, Arne wanted to connect even further to this vital group of educators. He listened carefully, took notes, and pried deeper as we spoke about ways to enhance and encourage leadership development, Common Core implementation, and issues of safety.

Soon I found myself sitting amongst the NAESP’s seasoned audience who has heard many promises before from all levels of government, and who know that ultimately it will be their job to implement whatever the policymakers throw their way. It was a group with integrity and know-how. It was also a group looking for help.

As he spoke, even though he was hitting on topics with which the crowd connected with, I had a growing concern that the core of our earlier conversation hadn’t resonated. One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of great principals is their disregard for their own needs. Arne was speaking about what principals cared about but he wasn’t talking about their needs. Just then, I heard him say:

“The benefit of a second term is that you get to address and resolve some of what you wish you had done before. One thing we didn’t do enough of during the first term was invest in principal leaders. That’s why I’ve asked for a 238% increase for funds to invest in principals, a total of $98 million dollars.”

Arne stayed late to talk and to listen and to take pictures with a number of attending principals, a large group of new supporters and re-energized colleagues.

Joshua Klaris is the Department’s 2013/14 Resident Principal.