Fifteen years ago, many of New York City’s schools were struggling with rapid principal turnover. On top of that, the city was expecting to lose half of its principals to retirement in the next few years, creating a system of potentially “leaderless” schools. The NYC Leadership Academy launched in 2003 to fill this gap, developing a fast track to build the capacity of emerging leaders — particularly women and leaders of color — to lead the city’s most struggling schools. We didn’t have all the answers right out of the gate, but we were a learning organization that evolved as we realized what worked, what was missing, what it takes to create not just great principals, but an entire system of great leaders.

To start, we put out a call for aspiring school leaders who saw the principalship not as a promotion, but as a calling. They had to be willing to immerse themselves in intensive study for a year and make a 5-year commitment to lead one of the city’s lowest performing schools. Everyone had to have been a teacher, but after that we broke all the rules. They needed instructional expertise, but not, despite some common assumptions, content mastery. They had to be clear about their values, to be able to speak to them, and act them out. Our belief, backed by research, was that if you had school leaders who could develop a student-centered school culture where the principal was committed to developing the capacity of the adults in the building and where the principal understood that their role was to build systems and structures that would allow teachers to collaborate, you would see improved schools.

We looked for leaders with resilience. As a principal, you will never have all the resources or information you need. Regardless, you have a clear charge — the children in your school. We needed people who would move forward despite the conditions of the day, who understood that waiting was not an option. These leaders needed to understand that data was not a collection of numbers but a story that told you something, that everything a leader sees, hears, or counts is telling them something. They also needed to communicate clearly and powerfully so that teachers, parents, students, understood the rationale and purpose behind the work.

In our training, we really put those aspiring leaders through the paces: They went through intensive role plays that placed in them in real world scenarios, for which they got honest, sometimes brutal, feedback from instructors and peers. Our program instructors were a mix of former principals, district leaders, education researchers, all working together to design the curriculum.

We learned so much in that first year. For one thing, we had wrongly assumed that, after such intense training, these leaders would be ready to lead without supports. Not true. Many new principals struggled to move beyond putting out fires so that they could identify and address the root causes of their school’s challenges; they shied away from or failed in having difficult conversations with staff that inevitably come when you’re trying to make big changes in a school. They needed a thought partner, someone to practice these moves with. After the first year, we gave every new principal a coach.

We realized that coaches and principals needed a framework for identifying where leaders were struggling and what skills they needed to work on. With the Wallace Foundation, we developed the LPPW. We knew that leaders could build strong teams and move the work in their schools forward when they showed their own vulnerability, when they demonstrated to staff and communities that they did not know everything and engaged them in learning and developing solutions together. Some of our new principals found when they did that, though, their staff lost confidence in them. The LPPW allowed leaders to say, “I don’t know and here’s what we need to learn to do the work.” It shifted the culture of what leadership was supposed to be—from super hero to lead learner.

The ability to identify and address inequities was always a part of our work, but as time went on, we realized that work around equity needs to be done with more intentionality. It’s learning how to see and identify things that are occurring within the school environment that are about equity and sometimes very explicit instances of racism. When you see something, how then do you articulate what you are seeing, how do you talk about it, and how do you contain the emotion and the discord that is going to initially come from surfacing issues of equity in order to move to a better place? The intent was always there, but we have gotten much smarter about how deliberate you need to be to help people learn how to see it, learn how to talk about it and learn how to change it.

Realizing that leaders would be nowhere without strong teams, in our third year of the program, we started coaching the principals and their leadership teams. Our coaches supported leaders in identifying the leaders in the building, the strongest instructors as well as the big influencers, to bring them on to their leadership teams.

We also saw the impact these new leaders were having on district leadership. We expected the principals we developed would be a disruption to the system. They were doing things differently. What we did not realize was how much resistance they would get from district leadership who, on the one hand, knew whom they were hiring, but on the other hand did not want to take all of the negative feedback about the changes that were being made. We therefore started interacting with superintendents earlier so that they knew what to expect. We wanted them to understand that if you put someone in to disrupt a system, they’re going to disrupt the system, and not everyone is going to be happy about that.

As we have expanded our work nationally across 32 states, we have seen that while we hold to these universal beliefs about leadership development, different school systems have different flavors and are facing different problems. To do this work well, you have to stick to some universal truth while making sure that your leadership training is in line with what’s happening in that particular context.

For us, the learning continues with every leader and system we work in. While staying true to our values and mission, we expect our evolution to continue so that we can help schools meet the needs of every child.

As told to Jill Grossman