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Guiding Principals

At the Principals Leadership Academy, even school leaders have homework-- finding ways to become better managers.


Lucia Stewart didn’t need anybody to tell her how hard she works as principal of Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary School in Hilo. She was sure the addition of a vice principal would solve her problems. But when she entered the Principals Leadership Academy, which partners school principals with business executives, Verizon veteran Alan Okinaka introduced her to a whole new approach. He talked about data collection and time/task analysis—relatively unfamiliar terms in the world of education. Okinaka created a data sheet for Stewart to break down her days into 15-minute increments. Stewart’s priority had always been to support teachers in the classroom. But the time/task analysis revealed that she spent only 3 percent of her day doing what she most valued. “It has made me really look at how I manage my time,” says Stewart. “[The partnership] really gave us ideas about who we are and how we can do our jobs better.”

The Principals Leadership Academy is a 5-year-old program under a nonprofit organization called Collaborative Action for Public Education. According to executive director Karen Aka, its purpose is to introduce external perspectives to “jar the current paradigm.” Principals and business partners participate in modules designed to help people better understand their own leadership styles and improve their coaching relationships with others. The business partners then visit the schools to watch the principals in action and offer feedback on leadership skills they want to improve. The purpose is to guide the principals toward internal reflection and self-improvement.

The academy has grown from 12 participants to about 120 principals and business leaders throughout the Islands. All principals open-minded enough to seek new solutions to old problems are welcome. Aka then pairs them with business partners from companies such as Papa John’s, Coca-Cola, Four Seasons and C. Brewer, to name a few. Aka says she gets feedback from principals, who tell her the program—and budding relationships with experts outside the world of education—helped them examine their jobs with a new sense of purpose.  “[Business leaders] don’t just go to work and hope they make a profit; they’re very deliberate about what they do,” she says.

Keith Nagata, senior vice president at First Hawaiian Bank, has volunteered to guide several weekend sessions for the academy. He also visited Kapolei Middle School to help develop its technology center. “I suggested [the principal] really solicit her parent base,” recalls Nagata. Most parents, he notes, are more than willing to help—if they know how. In addition to sending out flyers, Nagata encouraged the development of a database to keep track of parents’ professions, enabling the school to personally request assistance on any given project.

Principals willing to spend extra hours, absorb some constructive criticism and implement new business models become better leaders.

“What is being done to effect change?” he asks. “You cannot just talk about it; you’ve got to see something tangible.” Nagata also believes in the business model of strengthening
middle management—which means turning principals into effective leaders.

The principals aren’t the only ones who benefit from the exchange of ideas. Nagata says that several of his managers participated in the program, and teaching forced them to crystallize business concepts in ways that were easy to understand and transferable. “Going through the process actually helped them,” he says. “There was a give and take. I thought it was a real worthwhile experience.”

Aka says that the principals willing to spend extra hours, absorb some constructive criticism and implement new business models become better leaders and operate schools that “flourish.” One principal told her that a self-assessment completely changed the way he interacts with his faculty, improving rapport and teachers’ enthusiasm.

Customer service is another concept usually highlighted in business and ignored at schools. In past seminars, front office staff have been trained to regard teachers as customers, improving morale all around. Another technique garnered from business was behavior-based interviewing. This enabled principals to interview more effectively and learn how to predict job performance. In addition, public relations and media training gave at least one principal the confidence to manage a potentially disastrous situation involving a gun on campus.

A particularly interesting angle Aka plans to attack next summer is transforming principals into executives. Most see themselves as glorified teachers. Their desks are often a mess, they spend too much time at work and they’re usually “running around like crazy.” Aka hopes to train them to clean their offices so they can conduct meetings there, and to delegate all scheduling, phone calls and email responses to secretaries.  This, in turn, will free them to solicit support from the community and interact more with teachers.

Unlike the Department of Education, the academy does not train principals by district, but focuses on individual concerns and leadership skills development. The result, says Aka, is that, one by one, these people “go back and make a difference.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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