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New principal training program will expand with Lilly’s support

Math teacher Thomas Hakim’s life has been effectively turned upside down in the three months since he became a Woodrow Wilson education leadership fellow.

While balancing his full time job in the math department at Washington Township’s Northview Middle School, Hakim (along with 14 other fellows) is in an intensive MBA program that teaches the management and instructional skills required to be an effective school principal.

Sometimes that means waking up at 4 a.m. to finish homework.

“It’s a crazy busy year, trying to juggle it,” Hakim said. “But these things that we’re doing are different and hopefully better than any other program out there.”

It’s not yet clear whether Hakim and his colleagues in the Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership will become great principals — the program just launched in June. But a major Indianapolis foundation is betting on the program’s success and chipping in $14.4 million to help it grow.

The grant from the Lilly Endowment will nearly double the size of the fellowship class at the University of Indianapolis, where Hakim is studying, and replicate the program at two other universities in the state.

Woodrow Wilson fellows, who are nominated by their school districts or charter schools, each earn $50,000 to complete a 13-month program designed by University of Indianapolis business and education school leaders. The fellows learn about human resources, law, data analysis, entrepreneurship, communications, change leadership and economic development.

Foundation president Arthur Levine said the program is unique because it gives prospective school leaders the training of both business and education degree programs, all while allowing the fellows to improve their home districts in real time — something that principal training programs have increasingly aimed to do across the country.

“Having strong teachers is essential, but it’s not sufficient,” Levine said. “We need leaders for a world in which everything is in flux. We have a chance of creating a new way to prepare leaders, a new way to strengthen the quality of our schools, a new way to help our children.”

The grant builds on Lilly Endowment’s existing relationship with the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation. The Indianapolis foundation has already given more than $15 million to the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, a program that recruits people to learn how to teach science, technology, engineering and math in high-poverty schools. There are about 300 Woodrow Wilson teaching fellows in the state.

“It’s clear to us that the quality of school leadership, in addition to the quality of classroom instruction, is one of the most important factors impacting student learning in schools,” said Lilly Endowment president and CEO Clay Robbins. “My colleagues and I are eager to watch the program’s development, and confident the scores of new principals that will be educated through it will significantly improve the effectiveness of schools throughout Indiana.”

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation hasn’t yet selected the two new Indiana universities that will host the fellowship. Levine said his organization is currently asking universities if they are interested and will spend the rest of the fall vetting candidates. A decision is expected to be made by 2015.

The program’s expansion means more opportunities for Indiana teachers who aspire to one day lead schools. For current fellows like Hakim, it’s also a shot to make a difference in their home districts, where they will serve for the next three years.

“It increases the stakes for everybody even more for (the fellows) to be successful,” Hakim said. “The last thing you want is for that type of commitment — with another big-hitter partner on board — is to be in the situation where this kind of worked and kind of didn’t.

“It’s like, OK, I better go roll up my sleeves and get it done.”