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.

Announcing the Principal Ambassador Fellowship

The Department of Education is proud to announce that the first-ever Principal Ambassador Fellowship has officially launched!

The Principal Ambassador Fellowship has been modeled after the Teacher Ambassador Fellowship that the Department has offered since 2008. Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the program to the public at a National Association of Secondary School Principals conference on February 28 this year.  The Secretary noted that after Department staff spent a day shadowing principals across the DC area, one of the participants highlighted the lack of principals’ voices in dialogues surrounding education policy. The PAF program is meant to recognize the important impact that a principal has on instructional leadership, the school environment, and talent management.

Like the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows, Principal Ambassador Fellows will spend a year gaining greater knowledge of the content of key federal programs and policies, in addition to the context and process by which they are designed and implemented. Fellows will share their expertise with federal staff members; provide outreach and communication about federal initiatives to other educators on behalf of the Department; and facilitate the involvement and understanding of educators in developing and implementing these efforts at the federal, state and local levels, to improve the likelihood of their success.

The U.S. Department of Education believes that principals should have meaningful opportunities to both contribute to and understand the policies that impact their students, faculty and staff, and school communities. In order to implement needed reforms, all stakeholders, especially principals, must understand the intent of policy and be engaged in the outcomes.

As the Principal Ambassador Fellowship is just getting underway, ED is only considering Campus Principal Ambassador Fellows for 2013-2014. The Campus Principal Ambassador Fellowship enables principals to participate on a part-time basis from their home locations for the Department, in addition to their regular school responsibilities, working in collaboration with the Department’s Regional and Federal Offices.

We recognize that the two programs, the Principal Ambassador Fellowship and Teacher Ambassador Fellowship, will need to differ because of the different nature and responsibilities associated with each job. The first class of Fellows will therefore also be tasked with helping us design and shape the program for future years to be more beneficial for the role of principals.

We invite principals to apply for the 2013-2014 school year by July 16, 2013 at 11:59 PM EDT. To access the application and view eligibility requirements, please visit and apply for the Campus Principal Ambassador Fellowship.

We hope you consider applying, and encourage you to share this information with your colleagues! You can also sign up to receive further updates, and call 1-800-USA-LEARN or email us at with questions.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Note:  Some schools may use different terminology than “principal.” A candidate is considered eligible despite titling differences, provided that s/he is the highest administrative official in the school building.

Joshua Klaris is the  2013- 2014 Resident Principal at the U.S. Department of Education

Beating the Odds (and the Naysayers)

Teachers at the Department of Education were impressed with the Terrel H. Bell principals that we met during this year’s Blue Ribbon Schools National Celebration, but Blaine Helwig, the principal of Graham Elementary School, stood out because he has done what many thought was impossible: using home-grown strategies that others thought wouldn’t work.

Principal of Graham Elementary School Blaine Helwig

Blaine Helwig, principal of Graham Elementary School accepts a check earlier this year after receiving an excellence in education award.

A self-proclaimed “upstart,” Helwig said that his experience as a systems designer helped him plan systems that work for students in his school. “Yes, I am a rebel,” he told us, “There can be no doubt of that. I will not follow a curriculum that is designed for children to fail or produce the level of academic results we are seeing continually in these urban schools.”

Helwig’s school is about 95 percent low-income. As reported in the Austin Statesman, the school has struggled for years because “it’s not rich (and) it’s located on the wrong side of town.” Yet, against the odds, the students at Graham are exceling. Since taking the helm in 2007, the school’s academic achievement has grown so much that every student at Graham who took the state math exam passed it.

Helwig attributes his school’s success to focusing on the variables he can control. While he can’t change students’ home environments or fix their poverty, he said that he can ensure they get what they need in his school.

Read two stories from the Statesman that reveal insights into Helwig’s leadership style and strategies:  “Austin District Should Build on Graham Elementary’s Success” and “A Model of Academic Success at Graham Elementary.”

Laurie Calvert is the Teacher Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education, a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and a 14-year English teacher from Asheville, N.C.  

A View from the Inside: ED Staff Observes the Principal’s Perspective

Shadowing a Principal

Deputy Chief of Staff Tyra Mariani visited a classroom at DC Bilingual while shadowing the school's principal. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

A week ago, I had the pleasure of shadowing principal Wanda Perez at DC Bilingual Public Charter School. While Wanda admitted she spends more time in meetings than she’d like, we spent the majority of my visit walking the school and observing students and teachers in learning and teaching. I also observed Wanda planning the week’s professional development session with New Leaders Resident Principal Daniela. There was so much to talk about – home visits, instructional strategies, assessments and the like – with not enough time.

My visit was part of weeklong effort by ED’s senior staff to gain a glimpse into the daily work of principals, while also providing principals with the opportunity to discuss how federal policy, programs, and resources impact their schools. At the end of the week we joined the principals and Secretary Arne Duncan for a debrief at ED.


ED's Camsie McAdams (left) shadowed the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

We asked each of the principals to tell us, if they had a check from the federal government, what would they invest in based on the needs of this school. When I asked Wanda this question, her response somewhat surprised me. She said building teacher capacity. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised; Wanda had been trained to become a principal through New Leaders and it’s clear from my visit that she’s focused on instruction.

In our classroom visits, Wanda was on the laptop she carries around to take notes on what she observed of the classroom instruction. On one of our visits, two adults entered the room while we were there. I later learned one woman was the coach (let’s call her Monica) and the other was the coach’s coach (let’s call her Deborah). After they all observed the same teacher’s lesson, Wanda and Deborah were going to observe Monica giving feedback to the teacher so that they could build Monica’s skills but also to ensure alignment within and across teams.

We know the principal can’t do it all, so Wanda is building the capacity of her instructional leaders to help support and develop great teachers. Why was I surprised? Because Wanda walks between two buildings every day since neither of the two buildings can hold all of the students; because the playground is literally on the rooftop of the building; and because the gym may have been large enough for a standard court but nothing else.

So while Wanda could have easily focused on facilities, Wanda knew what her students were learning and the quality of the teaching to enable their learning was most important. I appreciated that.

We won’t get a highly effective teacher corps unless we have principals as instructional leaders who are surrounded by and supporting strong teacher leaders who in turn help teachers get better. DC Bilingual was one example of that idea in practice.

Tyra Mariani is deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education

Walking in Their Shadows: ED Officials Team Up with Principals

EducationIn celebration of National Principals Month, dozens of senior ED leaders and staff members are visiting schools today, tomorrow and Thursday across the country as part of an organized effort in which federal education officials are shadowing school leaders.

These shadowing visits, in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and New Leaders, will offer Department staff a glimpse into the daily work of principals, while also providing principals with the opportunity to discuss how federal policy, programs, and resources impact their schools.

To complete the week-long partnership effort, principals and ED staff who participated in the job shadowing will join Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Friday afternoon for a debrief discussion to reflect on their experiences and lessons learned. Earlier this year, ED officials shadowed fifty teachers across the country as part of Teacher Appreciation Week.

Stay tuned for stories from our participants and see a complete list of who is participating and at what location.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital engagement at the U.S. Department of Education

Teachers Reject “Captain Bligh” Principals

As Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz ends his tenure at ED, he reflects on what he has heard from teachers and principals about effective school leadership.

My wife has an uncle, Craig, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and, as with many of his colleagues, Craig has an utter fascination with all things nautical. Take, for instance, one particular t-shirt that Craig wears with the Jolly Roger, emblazoned with the slogan, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A satirical take on the ineffectiveness of punishment or forced adherence, this phrase, of unknown origination, says a lot about what qualifies one to take on a leadership role on a ship—or a school. Dictators only encourage mutiny.

The role of principals in student achievement is critical. Principals are in fact the “captains,” guiding the direction of the school through calm and stormy seas, tasked with ensuring the safe passage of all souls aboard in reaching the intended harbor. This is a tough job because lately school systems have been asking the principal to play multiple roles, including the quarter master, taking care of all of the supply ordering, furniture procurement, and food shipments. Many principals also juggle the role of boatswain—handling large-scale maintenance issues—or rigger—running the sails, and single-handedly analyzing the winds to identify the appropriate tack in order that the ship stay on course. The role of the principal is so overloaded that if we are asking these leaders to implement new evaluation systems or oversee college- and career-ready standards implementation, we need to shift their role back to being that of the captain.

Here’s why. According to the research,

    • Many schools across the nation are facing a money-crunch. This, compounded by a predicted uptick in student enrollment is causing districts to have their principals take on the yoke of many more executive-level decisions, including finances, hiring, and management operations. This takes a great deal from the time that a principal has to be in classrooms working with teachers and students.
    • The level of stress for administrators is increasing. Safety concerns, budgeting, teacher shortages, overcrowding, and a bevy of other factors are constraining administrators.
    • The Government Accountability Office finds that the amount of time administrators spend on disciplinary, referral, and suspension matters has begun to rise and that they are becoming less and less the instructional leaders they envisioned themselves being.

The job is certainly a challenging undertaking, but it has a great impact on student achievement. We’ve heard all year, from teachers across the country, that they would follow a great leader to the depths of the Earth and back. Teachers would probably agree with a recent research study that showed that these administrators were more likely to have “pervasive and sustained” student learning, communicated clearly, established priorities, and created professional environments where expectations were high for staff and students while ensuring that everyone felt like they had a stake in the success of the organization.

During my conversations with the NAESP Distinguished Principals and the NASSP Assistant Principals of the Year, these leaders didn’t speak a whole lot about textbook ordering or maintenance issues. Instead, they spoke about their passion for student learning, their willingness to get into classrooms, and their expectations that teachers continually grow and students continually improve. They spoke like teachers, like what we teachers call a “teacher’s principal.” And, given that the role of the principal is so critical, it might not surprise many that a core tenet of Title II, the same pot of money that is distributed to states for professional development, focuses on the preparation, recruitment and development of high-quality principals who can positively impact student achievement. We need these leaders in schools!

With the role of the principal being “maxed out,” the importance of a culture of shared leadership becomes paramount. The principal must be an instructional leader who can step into a classroom, observe and analyze teaching and learning, and offer the actionable and meaningful feedback that can help a teacher to “right the ship.” They are—or should be—Masters and Commanders of effective teaching.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Montgomery County, Maryland.