As Jer J. Soriano nears the end of his first year as a principal, he’s mostly proud of one thing — that he survived.
“I survived my first year and I am going into my second year with more valuable experience across the board as an administrator in regard to organization, building positive relationships, and professional networking,” said Soriano, principal at John E. Steinbeck Elementary in Salinas.
The new principal didn’t go into his first year unprepared. Last summer, Soriano participated in ACSA’s Institute for New & Aspiring Principals, a residential program held each summer at UCLA that brings together new and aspiring principals for five days of speakers, workshops and exercises. The Principals’ Summer Institute, another program designed for principals with three or more years of experience, is held at UCLA around the same time.
The programs were created as a place where principals could seclude themselves and focus on improving leadership.
“We take them away from family, away from school, away from any concerns other than self-improvement,” said Laserik Saunders, a team leader with the Institute. “Most principals say they love that opportunity … because how often do you have a chance to really delve into something without being distracted?”
Saunders was part of a group of ACSA members who created the Principals’ Summer Institute back in 1992. Modeled on a similar institute at Harvard, the program evolved to deal with issues specific to California administrators. Around 1994, the Institute branched off to create a separate institute specifically for new and aspiring administrators, which dealt with more of the day-to-day aspects of the job.
A vice-principal at the time, Soriano said the Institute for New & Aspiring Principals grouped him with other vice-principals and a team leader to examine topics crucial to school leaders.
“With information I received via the awesome and inspirational guest speakers, my [team leader], my colleagues who attended the conference with me, as well as my assigned group of vice-principals, I was able to absorb vital insights to prepare me for my next role as a school leader,” he said.
Soriano said those insights included developing a positive mindset, aligning vision, mission and core values to his school, and developing tools for deepening collaboration and communication.
Programs are led by team leaders who hold daily small group sessions and help participants digest the information, compare it to current practices and structure a plan for incorporating it into schools.
Saunders, who has served as a team leader almost every year since the Institute’s inception, said one of the unique aspects of the program is the ability to study and reflect on the profession in a safe space of job-alike colleagues.
“When we go in, we identify and acknowledge that we are all in the same job. We all have the same problems, so there’s no need trying to hide behind anything,” he said. “No need trying to put on a tuxedo and say things are going great — everybody has put on a T-shirt and they’re saying I need to get down and dirty and talk about how to move forward.”
Participants spend the entire five days on the UCLA campus with room accommodations at the Sunset Village Conference Center, a 600-room facility with single and double-occupancy rooms. Participants also eat at the residential restaurant, which offers fresh entrées, pizza, a salad bar and more in a cafeteria setting.
The “live in” aspects as well as the long days — starting at 8:30 a.m. and sometimes going to 9 p.m. — have led some to describe the program as a “principal’s boot camp.” Although, there are plenty of creature comforts, like air-conditioning, cable TV, wi-fi, daily maid service and access to the campus pool, weight rooms and tennis courts.
Relationships formed at the Institute continue beyond the summer, Saunders said.
“It’s kind of lonely [being a school administrator.] You get yourself stuck in a corner and you don’t know who to turn to,” he said. “Principals are encouraged to pick up the phone and call somebody and say, ‘Hey listen, here’s what’s happening with me.’”
Amy Chavez, a principal at Dover Academy for International Studies, also participated in last summer’s program and said the time spent at the Institute allowed her to be a better leader this year.
“The Institute gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own practices as an instructional leader, and gave me time to create a strategic plan for how to work with the adults on campus,” she said.
Chavez, who considers herself fortunate to get to attend this program with several colleagues from her Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, recommends the Institute to others.
“The leaders within the Institute modeled several team building activities, and a high level of positive energy, that I could instantly implement when school began,” Chavez said. “This time at UCLA allowed me to establish some lifelong relationships, and helped me grow my professional learning community. I am forever grateful.”
Principals’ Summer Institute
What: Residential program for principals with 3+ years of experience
When: June 23-29, 2019
Where: UCLA campus
Cost: $2,795 (ACSA members), $3,395 (non-members); includes housing/meal fees
Institute for New & Aspiring Principals
What: Residential program camp for first/second-year and aspiring principals
When: June 24-28, 2019
Where: UCLA campus
Cost: $1,550 (ACSA members), $1,950 (non-members eligible for membership); includes housing/meal fees