Soon after new Illinois standards for school principals were introduced in 2010, Jim and Becky Surber joined the NIU College of Education’s efforts to modify its program to comply.
NIU’s program soon became one of the first in the state to gain approval for its updated curriculum and, five years after the initial cohort was launched, the Surbers remain an integral part of NIU’s preparation of new school principals.
What they and their Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations colleagues deliver is anchored in rigor and relevance.
“The role of the principal has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” Jim says.
“Back in the day, principals were just managers of the building. If they were good at keeping a clean building, keeping the lunch lines moving, making sure behavior was under control and that students were safe and orderly, that’s how principals were evaluated,” he adds. “Now they have to be the instructional leader, making sure that the teachers are implementing current research and best practices that we know are going to have the best outcomes for students.”
Principals also serve as “leaders of learning.”
“They have to make sure that students are learning and progressing. It’s not OK to just say, ‘I’ve provided the best instruction I can provide but my students aren’t learning,’ ” he says. “The goal and responsibility of a principal is to understand that kids are all at different levels and that you have to make sure that they’re all moving in an upward trajectory.”
“We have such an emphasis on accountability,” Becky says. “A certain percentage of how principals are evaluated is dependent on student growth, which is built in by state law.”
NIU’s 36-semester-hour M.S.Ed in Educational Administration comprises six semesters, which include the internship.
Spanning three consecutive semesters during the second year of the program, the internship requires candidates to work full time at their current jobs while they apply the knowledge and skills acquired through their coursework.
During its summer residency component, the internship fully immerses candidates in a more intensive administrative role to gain required experiences in P-12 settings.
Lasting 80 clock hours, the summer residency asks candidates to take full responsibility for a leadership role, such as a summer school program or an extended-year school service program for students in special education.
Assuming such leadership means dealing with late buses, phone calls from parents, behavioral issues, distributing resources to staff, training teachers and more.
Over the scope of the three semesters, candidates are “getting all the experiences we know they need to have,” the Surbers say, including conducting teacher evaluations, reviewing budgets, observing school board meetings and interacting with parents.
“My internship was only six weeks during the summer, and that does not prepare you to become a building principal at all. I tell students that the first time I did a teacher evaluation was on the job as a principal,” Becky says.
“We need to equip them for today’s schools, and that’s what the State of Illinois recognized when it revamped principal prep programs,” she adds. “We’re providing students with content in the coursework that will prepare them for their future positions, and we do this by really relying on a lot of current practitioners. We’re recruiting strong administrators to come in and serve as guest speakers in our classes and on panels in our classes.”
The talent pool of alumni is vast.
One out of every 12 principals in Illinois is an NIU graduate; the roster counts more than 400 principals and around 150 assistant, associate or vice principals.
Contributing to the excellence of the NIU pedigree is the admissions process, the Surbers say.
“It’s much more selective. It’s pretty difficult to get into the program,” Becky says. “The candidates have to develop a portfolio that they submit to us for review; they have to document two years of student growth to show that they have the ability to positively impact students. They have to do a written response to a scenario so that we can look at their communication skills. They have to go through an interview process with two faculty.”
However, she adds, “once they get in the program, we’re going to make sure they get through. It’s 100 percent graduation. One important component is that we use a hybrid model – two courses each semester, one face-to-face during the week and the other online. The majority of our students are working full time.”
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Becky and Jim bring their own pedigree to principal prep, each bringing more than 30 years in education to the table.
For Becky, it’s the family business: Her father, Louis M. Grado, taught for four decades at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, where he chaired the Department of Elementary, Junior High, and Special Education for 25 years. A campus building is named in his honor.
She began her career as a special education teacher, followed by roles as a school psychologist, special education consultant, special education director, building principal and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction before her retirement.
Districts in her journey include Harlem, East Moline, Galesburg, Woodridge and Normal.
Jim, who grew up in the tiny southern Illinois town of Freeburg, attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque on a baseball scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, later adding a doctorate in School Psychology from Ball State University to his vita, and worked as a school psychologist in Normal.
His career also included stops at the Illinois State Board of Education, where he worked as state school psychologist; the Knox-Warren Special Education District, where he served as director Special Education; the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education, where he was executive director; and as a principal of a day treatment program in Galesburg for students with several emotional and problems.
Before coming to NIU in 2011, he taught as an adjunct instructor at Illinois State University, Western Illinois University and Knox College.
NIU offers “an opportunity to give back and share our backgrounds and experiences with people who want to become educational leaders,” he says.
“It’s also been our opportunity to pay it forward,” Becky adds. “Over the years, as we’ve gone through administrative work, both of us have had the benefit of individuals who stepped forward and mentored us. You kind of realize the importance of having that person, and that’s something we can do for these candidates.”
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Fall 2018 marks the launch of the ninth cohort since 2013, this one based in Naperville. Three cohorts run simultaneously, each with between 10 and 20 students.
“These are people who have the potential to be leaders. They lead by example. They lead by volunteering to be on professional committees. They’re that go-to person in their building,” Jim says. “This is the opportunity to move on to the next level and to advance and promote those leadership skills they’ve already demonstrated.”
Others cohorts are based in DeKalb, Hoffman Estates, Kaneland and Rockford; Crystal Lake and Rockford want to develop their own district-wide cohorts, Jim says: “We assume it’s because of our reputation and word-of-mouth because of the success of the candidates who’ve already come to our program.”
Cohorts provide “a natural process for developing collaboration, mentorship and partnership,” he says.
“We’ve had several people who’ve gone through the cohorts say they continue to collaborate and have contact,” he adds. “The other great thing is that there are opportunities to learn from one another. They may be from preschool programs through high school programs, but they meet together, collaborate together, share ideas and experiences, develop their portfolios together – and we encourage them to do that. It’s very positive.”
Diversity of practice is also a requirement built into the program, which requires students to log leadership experiences from preschool classrooms to high school buildings and every space in between; the summer residency helps achieve that.
So does the internship action plan.
“We have the leeway to individualize them for each students,” Becky says.
“We’ve even had students pick up some of their experiences in other districts. It may be a student population they haven’t had experience working with, or the benefit of technology in another district to which they want access,” she adds. “The internship action plan is based on their interests and areas they feel that they need to develop. With each one, we really tailor it to their needs.”
Adding to the excellent preparation are courses steeped in current best practices, the latest research and opportunities for fieldwork that include interviewing principals and evaluating their data teams.
The Surbers, who teach the first course in the sequence, also have developed two new courses for the program – one covers data-based decision-making; the other explores school law for special populations.
They also serve as the faculty supervisors during the internship year of each cohort.
“We go out and observe them a minimum of four different times during their leadership roles,” Becky says. “We give them feedback to improve their ability to facilitate meetings, to speak to in front of parent groups and to give feedback to teachers.”
“We travel all over the state, from Rockford to Naperville and to all points in between,” Jim adds. “We have to give some credit to Carolyn Pluim, the chair of the department, who’s been extremely supportive of this process. She goes out there as our ‘front’ person and helps us to make these contacts.”
Supervising students benefits the program as well.
“We’re literally in schools throughout the school year on a weekly basis, at all levels, from special education classrooms and special education cooperatives to preschools, elementary schools, middle schools and high schools,” Becky says. “It’s never the same thing twice, and it’s a real opportunity to keep our skills up.”
“The opportunity to stay connected with the schools help us with our teaching because we can see what’s happening in the schools,” Jim adds, “new things, how current good principals are applying the research, what they’re doing with data, how they’re monitoring ongoing student progress.”
By the end of the six semesters, the Surbers are happy to write letters of recommendation.
They’re also happy to conduct the students practice for job interviews or to even participate in mock interviews with them.
“My favorite part is watching the level of growth that we see in our candidates from Day One until they graduate in terms of the knowledge and skills, in terms of their enthusiasm, in terms of their confidence that, ‘I can do this,’ ” Becky says. “When they complete their admissions portfolio, they’re always shocked. They say, ‘I never realized how much I did!’ When you’re immersed in the day-to-day school life, you just don’t have that time to reflect on just how much you do.”