DANVILLE – As a longtime principal and mentor to aspiring principals, Carol Stack knows both the pressures of the job and what makes a successful school leader.
Stack retired in 2007 after 31 years in education, almost all of it in the Champaign school district. But she hasn't left behind her interest in seeing talented educators take on leadership roles.
She's been developing a computer software template aimed at helping principals do their jobs better, and administrators in the Danville school district will pilot it this spring.
New principals mostly learn on the job, Stack said. Illinois requires first-year principals to participate in a mentoring program, but, she said, "The reality is, practicing principals don't have the kind of time to be available as a mentor or coach."
With all the responsibilities of the job, principals often don't find the time to do any professional development, or learn more about the research and skills that will improve student learning.
"That's what we hear from principals. 'I don't have time to get into the classroom. I can't get away from the building to go get professional development,'" Stack said. "When you feel you can't leave the building, something's wrong. You need support."
Stack saw a business software program with an interactive screen or "dashboard" with the data and tools its users need, and she thought it could be used for educators. She's been adapting it for principals. It's a work in progress, and it will be refined as Stack gets feedback on the template, starting with Danville administrators.
About 22 people in the district have volunteered to test the software template, including principals, assistant principals, administrative interns and Director of Human Resources Dianna Kirk – more than 90 percent of its administrators, said Danville Associate Superintendent Mark Denman.
"All (Stack) is asking is they be honest with her about what they found to be most valuable and not valuable," Denman said.
Stack was in Danville earlier in December providing training on working with the software template.
Her goal is to give principals or aspiring principals a quick resource on the primary areas important to student achievement and on the strategies that principals can use for their schools, as well as ways to stay organized.
"I'm not trying to reinvent or replace professional development or training programs," Stack said. "I'm trying to find another way to get information to principals."
The template includes: research articles on various areas and why they are important to student achievement; diagnostic tools, such as surveys to gauge how students and staff members feel about the school climate; questions principals can use to reflect on what is happening in their schools; and tools to help principals work on issues such as decreasing test anxiety, meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind, or teaching multicultural literature.
It also includes organizational information, such as the district calendar, teacher and staff contracts, the school's master schedule, its budget, the Illinois school code, forms, and links to Web sites such as those of the Illinois Principals Association or Illinois State Board of Education. It can help principals keep track of due dates for state reports or dates for parent-teacher conferences or school board meetings.
The idea is to minimize the time spent on management, so the principal can spend more time in the classroom or working with teachers and staff.
"What I like about her proposal is it can be personalized to fit the need of any user," Denman said, adding Stack already has downloaded information specific to the Danville district and to individual schools for administrators who will use the software.
"We'll have access to so much information," he said. "It's sort of like a library that's available for your use. There are things you can read to see if you want to spend more time on them by going to a workshop or following up on the research. It's designed for someone who has the desire and the need to expand their horizons on information, research, trends, but doesn't have the time available to travel, to go to four or five different Web sites or books, or make the phone calls.
"I think it will be nothing but beneficial for us," Denman said.
"I'm hoping I'm on to something that will help support principals," Stack said. "If it just intrigues them or piques their curiosity to learn more about the primary components to student achievement, and lets them sit back and think about what they are not doing or what they need to keep doing, or it gives them one idea, then I think it serves a purpose."