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Many Detroit school leaders have never worked in a high-performing school. This program aims to show them how it’s done

When a school is struggling, parents, community leaders and politicians often want a dramatic response — the principal fired, the teachers replaced.

But a Detroit nonprofit is pushing an alternative solution: a new effort to train school leaders — and to train them together as a team.

“We think teams have more influence than a single individual,” said Jack Elsey, who heads the Detroit Children’s Fund, which is backing the effort. “There are programs that train principals. There are programs that train assistant principals. There are programs that train master teachers. But we think there’s a value in everyone going through the same experience so they speak the same language and have the same high bar for excellence.”

The training is part of the fund’s stated goal of creating 25,000 “high-quality” school seats in Detroit by 2025. That would represent a major improvement in Detroit where the vast majority of the city’s 100,000 children attend schools that are persistently at the bottom of the state’s annual rankings. Elsey estimated that just 6,000 Detroit children are in schools that the fund considers “high quality.”

To change that, he said, the fund, which has so far raised nearly $16 million from private donors and corporations, plans to invest in the city’s strongest district and charter schools. It plans to recruit high-performing schools from elsewhere to open campuses in Detroit.

And, Elsey said, the fund plans to invest heavily in training Detroit educators to step up their game.

Today, he said, so many Detroit schools are struggling that many local educators have never worked in a high-performing school.

“We just have far too many people here who have never been developed to understand what a national-level high bar looks like,” Elsey said.

The Children’s Fund was created in 2009 by the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder) but recently became an independent organization with its own board. Elsey, who had been a top official at the Education Achievement Authority, Michigan’s now-dissolved recovery district, took over the fund last summer; it held its inaugural fundraising dinner this month.

The new $1.3 million Team Fellows program, which the fund announced to schools on Thursday, will work with three schools a year over the next three years. The schools — which could be district or charter schools — will be selected through an application process.

School leaders selected for the program — likely the principal and the assistant principals or deans who work closely with the principal — will get frequent visits from school leadership coaches and will travel to other states to visit high-performing schools.

Elsey said he hopes that training school officials together will not only improve schools but will also reduce staff turnover since educators who train together might be more inclined to stay together.

If a school’s leadership teams stabilize, he said, that could help minimize teacher turnover, which is a serious problem in Detroit.

The fund is also working on a program that would train teams of educators to take over school buildings that do need a leadership change. That program, called the Leaders Institute, will start its training program next year.