For Connecticut educators aspiring to advance their careers and serve in roles as assistant principals, principals, or district-level administrators, the Neag School of Education is offering more preparation options than ever before.
First launched by the Neag School nearly three decades ago, the University of Connecticut Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP) – which received national recognition as an exemplary program as far back as 2007 – has expanded substantially over the course of the past two years in response to an ongoing demand across the state for competent school leaders.
“Our mission is simple: We exist to prepare highly qualified, capable principals and school leaders for every school community in the state of Connecticut,” says Richard Gonzales, director of Educational Leadership Preparation Programs and professor-in-residence at the Neag School.
As a former schoolteacher, elementary school principal, and district-level administrator, Gonzales is deeply familiar not only with the skills, hands-on experience, and knowledge one needs in order to succeed in a school leadership position, but also the sorts of fundamental values that can help shape a successful academic program for those pursuing a career move into this area.
What Makes UCAPP Strong
Gonzales emphasizes a number of key strengths that have come to distinguish the UCAPP program as a whole: from its degree of selectivity and its rigorous curriculum and robust internship component to the quality of its instructors and the one-on-one support offered to each student by “dedicated supervisors who are, in essence, on call 24/7 to be there as a coach and mentor,” Gonzales says. On the accreditation front, the program has also consistently demonstrated its alignment with state and national leadership standards.
But even beyond all of that, Gonzales adds, the program owes much of its success to two other important features – one is the cohort model on which all UCAPP programs are based, bringing together students in each cohort for all courses and assignments for the duration of the program. Cohorts typically comprise 12 to 15 students.
“It’s as much a core value as a design element,” he says. “We believe that is one of the best ways, if not the best way, to prepare future school leaders. It should be a shared experience. You benefit from working and learning with others – and growing together among a group of aspiring leaders.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT UCAPP’S TRACKS
The other is the UCAPP change project, a recently instituted capstone assignment that requires each student to identify a specific issue facing a school in which they teach, work, or are mentored – and to determine how they can serve effectively as a leader to make a positive change or enhancement. “The key is, they are not the implementers,” Gonzales says. “They have to be the leaders, facilitators, and supporters of this change. That is the kind of ribbon that they tie into a bow at the end of their UCAPP experience.”
Growing Program Choices
Initially launched with what is now known as the UCAPP Traditional track, which recruits Connecticut-certified educators with at least three years of teaching experience and an interest in securing a school-based leadership position, the UCAPP program has more recently evolved to include three additional UCAPP tracks – all aligned with the UCAPP Traditional model.
But why grow the program beyond what had already been proving successful?
“It has not been growth for growth’s sake,” Gonzales says. “The Traditional model has been working – and is still working.”
Each of the additional tracks is shaped to target a specific audience and to serve a specific need (See “Learn More About UCAPP’s Tracks” sidebar). For instance, one of the newer models, called UCAPP PLUS, caters to individuals who wish to become school leaders in the Hartford Public Schools (HPS) system. Launched in 2013, UCAPP PLUS evolved in part out of the HPS’ interest in improving the quality of their principalship pipeline. “They wanted a higher caliber of applicants for their principal vacancies,” Gonzales says, and “they wanted to develop that talent all the way back to the classroom.”
At the same time, the Neag School recognized that existing UCAPP cohorts were not necessarily coming from – or going on to serve – the state’s most challenging urban or small-community settings. “We weren’t making the same impact in those communities as we had been in the rest of the state,” Gonzales says. “There was an interest in changing that pattern. The leadership in Neag wanted UCAPP to evolve in order to meet the needs of urban centers and historically low-performing schools throughout the state.”
Hence, with HPS as a partner, the Neag School launched UCAPP PLUS in 2013, offering not only a clear path for those interested in school leadership within HPS, but also a special program emphasis on urban leadership. “None of this would have happened – or can continue – without the support of the Neag School leadership,” Gonzales says.
“We want to keep recruiting groups and offering a stronger experience for the students. We want our students to graduate, take jobs, and prove that this is working.”
–Richard Gonzales, director of Educational
Leadership Preparation Programs
Additional UCAPP models – namely, the UCAPP Residency and UCAPP Law tracks – have similarly evolved out of the needs of various school and communities across Connecticut. And the growth of these types of programs at the Neag School is not likely to slow any time soon. A UCAPP PLUS model based in the New Haven area, for example, is now also on course to launch next summer.
Those who complete the UCAPP Traditional, PLUS, or Residency tracks are eligible to receive the sixth-year diploma. In addition, they may be eligible to earn an endorsement from the Neag School that recommends them to the state of Connecticut for certification. Earning this recommendation is dependent upon how well students perform in class, the level of professionalism they demonstrate during the internship, their demonstration of knowledge, their disposition, as well as feedback shared with the Neag School by their mentors. Halfway through the program, regardless of the UCAPP track, every cohort receives an evaluation on their standing – with checkpoints scheduled thereafter for anyone who may be struggling.
As UCAPP continues to foster relationships with partners statewide and advance the program’s choices, Gonzales stresses the need to evolve. Over time, he says, “We’ve got to change whatever can be made better. The shift to partnerships reflects that priority. When [our partners] are part of the process and get to shape [the program], it’s better for our students because they are a better fit for what the districts are looking for.”
Ultimately, Gonzales says, the key is sustainability. “We want to keep recruiting groups and offering a stronger experience for the students. We want our students to graduate, take jobs, and prove that this is working. They have to be able to perform well in schools throughout the state.”