When aspiring principal Maxine Cameron visited administrator-in-training Latishia Towles at her Queens school earlier this year, it was the professional equivalent of a first date.

The two had already met through the NYC Leadership Academy, which launched a program this year that pairs up first-year principals and assistant principals and sends the teams into struggling schools in the hopes of turning them around. Now Cameron was headed to P.S. 160 to observe Towles in classrooms and meetings to decide if the two had a future together.

Cameron sought someone with expertise in math and special education who had talents beyond school administration. Towles, it turned out, was a math whiz with an advanced degree in special education and training as an opera singer.

The two agreed to team up, and last month Cameron started as principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 13 with Towles as her assistant principal and “thought partner,” as Cameron puts it. They are one of 50 new principal-assistant principal pairs who will take over low-performing city schools over the next three years through the academy’s new “teaming” program, which is bankrolled by a $3 million federal grant and $450,000 in private funding.

“We all call it a marriage in the making,” quipped Cameron, who spent nearly two decades as a teacher, trainer, and assistant principal before deciding to become a school leader.

Each pair will receive training, three years of coaching, and help creating school-improvement plans from the NYC Leadership Academy, a fast-track principal training institute founded by the Bloomberg administration that operates independently of the city. The city Department of Education will help the teams find struggling schools with principal vacancies.

The program draws on an influential school-improvement model in North Carolina that sends squads of veteran principals, administrators, and teachers to take over troubled schools. Student test scores increased in most of the schools that were part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s “Strategic Staffing Initiative,” which began in 2008.

Mayor Bill de Blasio also borrowed from the North Carolina model, proposing a “Strategic Staffing Initiative” as part of his campaign-trail plan to turn around low-performing schools by inserting experienced principals and teachers. His administration floated a similar idea more recently in a federal grant application, and this month Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tapped the longtime leader of a successful Brooklyn school to take over one of the city’s lowest-ranked high schools.

Towles and Cameron have taken several steps to improve P.S. 13 since taking over this summer, from digging into student data to painting classroom doors a bright green.
Towles and Cameron have taken several steps to improve P.S. 13 since taking over this summer, from digging into student data to painting classroom doors a bright green.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall

The NYC Leadership Academy’s school-turnaround program, however, relies on first-time principals and assistant principals. While that means its teams don’t have experience running schools, it also helps the program avoid a weakness of the North Carolina model: A limited number of successful principals are willing to leave their schools to take over low-performing ones. In fact, just two years after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg program started, officials there floated the idea of recruiting principals and administrators from training programs instead of schools.

Still, the idea of dispatching newly trained pairs of leaders to rescue troubled schools strikes some critics as misguided. Geraldine Maione, a retired principal who helped turn around William Grady Career & Technical High School in Brooklyn, said such schools — like sick patients — require the care of seasoned practitioners.

“We have a chronic illness in the schools,” she said. “We need to seek out the best people with proven records.”

Back in East New York, Cameron and Towles face a tough assignment at P.S. 13.

When Cameron was hired in June, she became the school’s third new principal since its longtime leader retired in 2011. Consistently listed among the state’s lowest-performing schools, last year just 15 percent of P.S. 13 students passed the state math exams, compared to about 30 percent of students citywide.

One of Cameron’s first moves was to invite staffers — everyone from teachers to secretaries to school-safety officers — to meet her over the summer to talk about the school. Many mentioned concerns about school culture and discipline, including “runners” — children who fled their classrooms throughout the day. Third-grade teacher Laureen Trim said the building was loud and often felt unsafe.

To improve morale, the new leaders posted staff photos in a newly repaired display case in the lobby and painted classroom doors a bright green. They also reached out to families, inviting parents to sit in on students’ classes each month and asking one of the school’s longtime administrators to head up “public relations.” To restore order, they crafted a school handbook that covers everything from the school’s mission to proper bulletin board layouts, instituted a school-wide discipline policy, and launched a character-education program.

“You walk through the halls now, and everything is just so calm and quiet,” said Trim, who has taught at the school for 13 years. “It feels like a building where learning is taking place all over again.”

The pair took on the school’s academics too. Towles set up an online database for teachers to post student test scores, and the team dug into the data with their leadership coach, a former principal and superintendent. To help catch students up, they set aside time for teachers to work with small groups of lagging students, and they hosted lunchtime training workshops for faculty.

Cameron said that having Towles as a planning partner over the summer and a sounding board during the year helped her consider different ideas and actually enact the ones she chose.

“I think being a team was the best choice I could have made,” she said.