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New Principals Have a Steep Learning Curve. Could Apprenticeships Help?

Educators on track to become principals don’t often get the full gamut of leadership experience before they take up the complex and ever-changing role in charge of a school. The learning curve—from teaching to leading—is steep and has become even more so as the pandemic has worsened ongoing challenges like absenteeism, poor mental health, and cellphone use.

To ease this transition and prepare a robust pipeline of school leaders, states are increasingly turning to “grow-your-own” principal apprenticeship programs.

In July 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor approved school principals as an occupation eligible for federal apprenticeship programs, meaning states can now leverage federal and state dollars to support a masters-level degree for apprentices, and give them the kind of on-the-job training and mentorship that isn’t always a part of traditional degree programs.

North Dakota was the first state to create its principal apprenticeship when the federal approval came in July 2023.

“We began planning as soon as we submitted our request to the Department of Labor in January 2023,” said North Dakota’s state superintendent, Kirsten Baesler. “We anticipated we’d get the approval, so we were able to stand up the program quickly.” North Dakota’s state education agency and the National Grow Your Own Center, a national nonprofit that provides technical assistance to districts that want to launch their own educator apprenticeships, were behind the initial application.

The approval has now paved the way for other states to begin the process of setting up their own apprenticeship programs—including Ohio and Rhode Island.

The motivation for North Dakota was triggered by a teacher retention problem, said Baesler. Effective leaders could help address this challenge, but Baesler and her team found that aspiring principals often completed their coursework over the summer and at night and didn’t get much actual coaching before being “thrown” into principal positions.

Almost a year in, the state’s new apprenticeship program has supported 21 candidates in three school districts as they’ve pursued leadership training. Over one year, the apprentices have worked toward an advanced degree in school leadership from North Dakota State University and received hands-on training from a mentor principal in their schools. These apprentices are working full-time, paid positions as assistant principals, or other leadership positions such as instructional coaches or dean of students.

Baesler and a state-level team have released a “playbook” on the key steps to launching a home-grown principal apprenticeship.

The playbook details an organizational structure for rolling out the program, the eligibility criteria for a university partner, and specific educational goals that the state has, like introducing personalized learning for all students.

For a successful principal apprenticeship program, identify key roles quickly

Baesler’s team worked with the National Grow Your Own Center to build broad support from all types of national organizations, including the elementary and secondary school principals’ associations, state-level teachers’ unions, and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

That support simplified the path to federal approval, said David Donaldson, the founder and managing partner of the National Grow Your Own Center.

The North Dakota playbook highlights three main actors—the school district that employs the apprentice, the instructional partner or university that provides the necessary coursework required for credentials, and the state education agency that strings together the entire effort.

The state education department must take charge from the beginning to ensure quality and establish non-negotiable criteria for education partners, school districts, and apprentices.

The agency sets up the memorandums of understanding with partners, secures continued funding, and prioritizes regions or districts where the principal apprenticeship program might be most needed.

Baesler aims to direct apprenticeship dollars toward rural districts, which often don’t have a robust leadership pipeline.

Set up strong non-negotiable criteria in apprenticeship program

Baesler, through the playbook, also emphasizes that both apprentices and the university partner must meet certain criteria throughout the process.

The North Dakota guide recommends that the department of education, or the sponsor of the program, should set up an early checkpoint or “probationary period” for apprentices—a point at which the apprentice may terminate the contract or the state education agency can find the apprentice’s performance unsatisfactory and ask them to repeat some steps of the training. This checkpoint would happen three months into a yearlong apprenticeship.

So far, none of the 21 North Dakota apprentices have dropped out or been asked to leave, according to Laurie Matzke, the state education department’s assistant superintendent.

“This is different from the teacher apprenticeship process, where we’ve had candidates drop out,” Matzke said. “It’s possible that principal apprentices were more determined because many were already on the leadership track.”

The playbook also recommends that principal apprentices have at least three years of teaching experience before they apply.

Additionally, the playbook recommends the state run a meticulous process to carefully determine the instructional partner or university. The North Dakota state education agency chose North Dakota State University because the university drove down the cost of the program, so the state could fund more apprenticeships.

For North Dakota, the apprenticeship coursework also had to include training on rolling out competency-based, personalized learning for students, which became a state-wide goal for schools since lawmakers passed a law to that effect in 2021.

Principal apprenticeships need a sustainability plan

The playbook also highlights the need for a sustainability plan to continue and scale up the apprenticeship program. So far, the North Dakota department of education has allocated some of its federal Title II funds that are earmarked for leadership development to the effort.

As the program scales up, though, Matze said it’s unlikely the state can devote more of its Title II funds to the principal apprenticeships.

She pointed to other potential sources, like the $4.1 million allocated to North Dakota as part of the State Apprenticeship Expansion Formula, a federal funding source that to date has been primarily used for the state’s teacher apprenticeship program.

Both Baesler and Matzke are also hopeful that the principal apprenticeship’s success will convince state lawmakers to find money to support it.

“We saw a high demand for our teacher apprenticeships, and the state stepped in with funding. They may do the same if they see a similar demand for principal apprenticeships,” Baesler said.

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