At the start of this school year, leadership matters more than ever.
Across Duval County, many schools will be counting on the leadership of principals and assistant principals who were trained at the nation’s top principal preparation program at Columbia University.
Seven years ago, a coalition of local philanthropists began supporting aspiring public school leaders to attend the Summer Principals Academy at Columbia Teachers College in New York City. It was part of a $35 million Quality Education for All Fund, a comprehensive effort to improve the performance of schools in Northwest Jacksonville.
Today, the rigorous, hands-on leadership training Duval educators gained in New York City is making an impact for local students.
“It was an indescribable experience,” said Erica Little-Bartley, who was the first Duval County educator to participate in the program. “Not just because you’re in awe of the Ivy League. I’m in a room with people who care as much about education as I do, and who want to make an impact.”
Little-Bartley is now the Principal of Hyde Grove Early Learning Center, which serves PreK students up to second graders, to provide an extra focus on foundational skills like reading. She said what made the program so useful was the emphasis on hands-on, practical skills - like one class that required students to work on a case study every single day - troubleshooting operational, instructional and personnel issues - with a solution that put students first.
“The first time you’re looking at these problems is not when someone hands you the keys to the building and says, ‘Congratulations, you’re the principal,’” she said.
Kate Fulginiti, who attended the program and worked on the team that turned Matthew Gilbert Middle from an “F” school to a sustained “C” school, said one of the key benefits of the program was the cohort model - learning in the company of other aspiring school leaders from around the country who were committed to educational equity for all their students. Last year, Fulginiti was honored as Assistant Principal of the Year for the entire state of Florida, and this year she’s been promoted as Principal of Pinedale Elementary School.
“You’re in a cohort of 50 other people who are creative and innovative and care about education in a raw, real way,” she said. “It’s a diverse group of people but with a very aligned goal to help move achievement forward, specifically in communities that are underserved.”
Chelsea Matthews is the Principal of Fletcher Middle, where she’s responsible for a staff of 85 and a student body of 1,300. She said she still leans on her cohort of Columbia graduates in her work today. She often checks in with others as part of the self-care she learned at Columbia - mindfulness techniques that help her ensure she’s in the right frame of mind to respond to the barrage of issues that start as soon as she comes in the door.
Principal Matthews began her career in underserved schools in Northwest Jacksonville, including the Leadership Academies at Eugene Butler and Northwestern Middle. At Fletcher, she’s brought some innovative practices from her experience in other middle schools. For example, she changed the layout of the cafeteria so that every table had its own trash can, minimizing the conflicts that came up when more students were gathering around just a few.
Small changes like that have led to a reduction in referrals - by 175 percent.
Matthews is also focused on education equity even in a school like Fletcher. Although many students are achieving at a high level, there are always students who are struggling, and Matthews makes it her mission to ensure those students are moving forward.
“Those 400 students who can’t read are the ones who keep me up at night,” Matthews said. “At a school of 1,300 they can easily be overlooked. No matter what school I’m in, it’s using those skills and strategies that I learned at Columbia.”
In total, ten education leaders who earned their Master's at Columbia through this program are currently serving Duval County Public Schools.
Erica Little-Bartley is Principal at Hyde Grove Early Learning Center.
Chelsea Matthews is the Principal of Fletcher Middle School.
Jovana Hackman is the Assistant Principal at First Coast High School.
Kate Fulginiti is the Principal at Pinedale Elementary.
Jasmin Gomez is the Principal of Arlington Elementary.
Sabrina Hall is the Assistant Principal at Jefferson Davis Middle.
Latoya Council is the Assistant Principal at Matthew Gilbert.
Brandie Stallings is the Assistant Principal at Raines High.
Dante’ Jennings and Ruth Knight are Innovation and School Improvement Specialists at Duval County Public Schools.
The QEA Fund was based at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida and administered by JPEF. At JPEF, we're continuing the focus of the QEA Fund on education equity and school leadership through our School Leadership Initiative, which supports principals through a summer residency and fellowships.