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The Principals' Center Turns 25

In 1981, The Principals' Center had just opened its doors to area educators by inviting nearly 1800 school leaders to participate. Roland Barth, then center director, became nervous when only four principals showed up to the meeting.

Now, 25 years later, The Principals' Center has attracted thousands of educators from around the world to its programs. The Principals' Center is fully dedicated to the personal and professional development of school principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders, using executive education programs at HGSE and a membership organization to connect education leaders with the school and one another. Earlier this month, The Principals' Center welcomed over 150 educators to HGSE for a new institute, "The Redefined Principals': Lessons Learned, Lessons to Learn".

At the dinner to celebrate the silver anniversary, Kathy McCartney, dean of HGSE, spoke of the importance of The Principals' Center work and highlighted an exciting relationship with the Miami-Dade Public Schools, which have sent a number of educators to HGSE programs during the past few years. "In its twenty-five year tenure, The Principals' Center has grown to be a central part of a large global community of educators, including those who convene each year at HGSE and bring the experience back to their colleagues, and those who have started other principals' centers throughout the world to provide a place for education leaders to gather together and reflect on their practice," she said.

"Research has made it very clear that effective leadership is a key success factor for any school, said Mary Grassa O'Neill, director of The Principals' Center and former superintendent of the Milton Public Schools. "We are pleased to offer principals, and aspiring principals, the opportunity for professional development, for reflection on their practice, and for learning alongside their peers from all over the world."

The Principals' Center overcame significant early challenges as recalled by Barth, a former principal and HGSE Alum. In the late 1970s, Barth was urged by then-Harvard president Derek Bok and HGSE dean Paul N. Ylvisaker to examine how the Ed School could reconnect with public school communities and leaders. This study provided the future groundwork for The Principals' Center, revealing that HGSE should refocus and reconnect with educators through school leadership development.

Once the study was completed, Barth became a faculty member and was urged to start The Principals' Center. Barth contacted 28 principals from the Boston area who were committed to leadership development. Each principal enlisted to help launch The Principals' Center and encouraged Barth to develop programs, and to provide a reciprocal, voluntary community in which school leaders could give information and learn from the diversity of others--ideals that still exist today at the Center.

At the time of the Center's birth, the role of principal was beginning a dramatic evolution. More principals spent time working on pre-service preparation and choosing the right employees for their schools; a need for in-service leadership development programs emerged.

"It was tough the first few years. We were sputtering. We could easily have folded," Barth said of the initial low turnouts. But, Barth said he used the initial four participants to attract more. The combination of participants' word-of-mouth and the creation of an advisory board, consisting of principals and HGSE faculty, fueled the Center's growth.

The Principals' Center flourished reaching individual educators from all over the world and, in some cases, teams of educators poised to be change agents upon their return to their schools. This was evident in this month's program, in addition to the team from Miami Dade, "The Redefined Principal" welcomed teams from Boston, Texas, and New York.

The influence of The Principals' Center can also be seen in the number of similar models that it inspired at other universities. This growth extended internationally, as educators from outside the United States developed their own centers. The Principals' Center continues to attract international educators to its institutes, providing a valuable global perspective.

"I think the center has made a profound impact across the country and other parts of world," said Milli Pierce, former center director. During Pierce's direction (1989-2003), participants from around the world and every state in the United States visited the center.

"In the first days here, [international educators] may have thought it was too geared toward the U.S., but by the third or fourth day, they would realize that it doesn't matter what color the kids, what religion we're talking about, but that all kids have an ability to learn," Pierce said. "Our job from a different perspective is how to make that happen and what the role of the principal is to make that happen."

Many principals continue to struggle with issues of poverty, diversity, impact of family dysfunction, building school relationships and cultures that foster learning, and overcoming educational myths in communities. The Center invested in educators and offered a variety of programs ranging from Outward Bound to courses in instructional leadership to address principals' needs.

The combination of institutes and programs worked for participants. "People enjoyed learning and learning at this institution," Pierce recalls. "Very often I would read an evaluation about how people feel so honored to be part of this professional development."

Participants continue to come back to the center every year. Karen Daniels, a principal from Brookline, Mass., has attended institutes for the past five years. "I get refreshed and can reflect," she said. "This is a safe place and I've made some incredible friends. It is nice to have someone in the battlefield so you don't feel as alone [in this job]."

The Principals' Center offers four summer institutes, in addition to its academic year programs, including "The Redefined Principal." The group has increased its enrollments and grown its membership base under O'Neill's leadership. "Our growth is a credit to the support we receive from the school, the incredible dedication of our faculty to working with practitioners, the efforts of our team, and collaboration with our national advisory board," noted O'Neill.