Florida Prepares Principals Through Experience in Schools

26 members of the first class graduating from the PROPEL program standing outside of a building at Florida Atlantic University.

The first class of the PROPEL program, which began in January 2013, has started producing school leaders. Nine graduates of the program have now been hired as assistant principals and two are now principals.

Selective programs turn teachers into leaders.  

Jenieff Watson started teaching in 2000 in St. Petersburg, Florida, and she loved her job. “I never thought of doing anything else,” she said.

She was such an effective teacher she was asked to take on leadership roles, first as a mentor and then as a reading coach. In 2012, Watson was asked to apply for a newly redesigned principal preparation program at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa that included a year-long, four-day-per-week internship with a successful principal as her mentor. Competition was stiff—dozens from her school district applied for only four slots—but after several rounds of interviews she was chosen.

In January 2014, less than two years after the program began, Watson was hired as an assistant principal at Dunedin Highland Middle School in Pinellas County. Several months later, she completed the additional State requirements for becoming a principal. “I didn’t see myself as a leader,” she said. “But leadership found me.”

Watson was part of the first cohort of carefully selected teachers to go through the Gulf Coast Partnership Job-Embedded Principal Preparation Program at USF, one of two new fast-track principal preparation programs in the State developed with support from the Federal Race to the Top program. The other is the Principal Rapid Orientation and Preparation in Educational Leadership (PROPEL), based at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton. Combined, the two programs have graduated 160 educators eligible to become assistant principals and principals over the past three years.

Year-Long Internship the “Best Part”

The graphic shows an overview of the Principal Rapid Orientation and Preparation in Educational Leadership (PROPEL) Program at FAU.  The first component is a "Partnership between university and Broward County Schools, Florida." The second, "classes in the evenings, weekends and summers." The third, "Internship at home school one day a week for three semesters." The fourth, "Apprenticeship for two semesters." The fifth, "Ongoing mentoring and support." The last one says "Participants earn principal credential in 24 months if they complete both phases."

Both programs stress preparing leaders who can help teachers improve instructionally and increase student achievement. The best part of the preparation program, Watson said, was the internship. Her internship was “with a principal who was a very great leader, and because of that I was able to learn so much,” she said. She worked with every assistant principal in the school and did everything others did. “That experience was totally invaluable.”

During their internship, they are required to organize a project at the school—such as increasing the retention of teachers, reducing the dropout rate or improving science achievement—and measure the results, said Eileen McDaniel, chief of Educator Recruitment, Development and Retention for the Florida Department of Education.

The programs “have to provide evidence of the kind of influence their graduates may have had on teachers and the effect those teachers had on student achievement,” McDaniel said. That wouldn’t be possible if the interns did not spend an extended time interning in a school.

Rigor, Relevance and Intensity

The graphic shoes an overview of the Gulf Coast Partnership at USF. The first point is that the program has a "Partnership between the university and the school systems in Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties in Florida." The second, "Classes one day a week starting in March, with additional summer classes." The third, "A year-long, four-day-per-week internship with a carefully chosen and trained mentor principal. The fifth day is reserved for classes." The fourth, "After one year, teachers earn a master's degree in education leadership and take the Florida Education Leaders Exam to become certified as assistant principals." The fifth, "Year two participants complete a residency and school improvement project and take classes in school law, finance and curriculum development." The last point in the overview is that "Those who complete both phases are eligible to be credentialed as principals."

The two programs were designed in collaboration with local school districts to ensure that graduates were prepared to step right into jobs without additional training. For instance, the four districts that partner with USF wanted more emphasis on cultural competency and using data for school improvement. So, USF added two new courses covering those topics to its curriculum. The PROPEL program invited the leaders of Broward County Schools, its partner, to review every one of its courses. The result was several new courses and a curriculum completely redesigned by workgroups made up of representatives from both partners.

These two programs are also highly selective, whereas traditional school leadership preparation programs in Florida and elsewhere tend to have broader admissions policies, according to Florida and university officials. Both require candidates to be nominated and then participate in a rigorous interview process. Only 40 percent of those nominated for the FAU program were admitted, and fewer than 7 percent of the 63 teachers nominated by Pasco County were selected for the four slots allotted in the USF program.

And both programs attempt to make training more rigorous, relevant and intense so that graduates are better prepared to improve instruction and step into an assistant principal or principal job as soon as they finish, which is much faster than typical placement.

Leonard Burrello, a USF professor who leads the Gulf Coast Partnership, said it typically takes people who complete principal preparation programs four or more years to get a job as an assistant principal. Furthermore, in Florida, assistant principals must satisfy additional requirements to become a principal, which typically takes three years. By then, Burello said, much of their training is either no longer relevant or has been forgotten. School districts usually provide additional training, which is uneven in quality, according to State officials.  These two new training programs merge the resources of school districts and the universities to ensure that this accelerated process incorporates both conceptual and technical training, Burrello said.

As a testament to the Gulf Coast Partnership’s success, 11 of 15 graduates from the first group of candidates were hired as assistant principals within six months of finishing the first phase of their training, and nine of the eleven also have completed the advanced training needed to become certified as principals.

Internship Puts Teachers in “Deep End of Pool”

Three teachers from the FAU PROPEL program sit at a table laughing in conversation.

The PROPEL program at FAU includes classes as well as internships.

Burrello said the biggest reason for that success is the year-long internship during which the program candidates get to demonstrate that they “have great human relations skills, they’re organized, they work hard, they’re open to feedback, and they’re committed to kids and to teachers.”

That experience gives them a leg up on applicants from traditional programs. “They’ve been put in the deep end of the pool and survived,” Burrello said. “They’ve done the job.”

Rebecca Sadusky, a classmate of Watson’s who is now an assistant principal at Wesley Chapel High School in Pasco County, had an internship at a high school where most new teachers quit after a single year. She set up a Professional Learning Community to support 14 teachers new to the school and, at the end of the year, six remained and said they felt well-supported and three were transferred to other schools where they were needed.

She said the internship helped her learn how to “work with teachers, finding value in their expertise and being able to express that to them, and be authentic in my interactions.”

Now she aspires to become a principal. “My dream in the next five to 10 years is to carve out a space where the school, the students and the community all work together to help all of our learners become college and career ready.”

At FAU, Opportunities to Learn From Experienced Leaders

Four teachers participating in FAU's PROPEL program sit at a table having a conversation. A fifth person is discussing work with one of the teachers sitting at the table.

Teachers participating in Florida’s PROPEL program at FAU.

Like the Gulf Coast Partnership, PROPEL incorporates multiple opportunities to learn on the job.

During the first half of the 24-month program, participants continue teaching four days a week in their own school, take classes part-time and do administrative tasks under the watchful eye of the school’s principal. During the second half, participants complete a four-week apprenticeship at a high-needs school, learning from the principal about leadership and how to give teachers helpful feedback.

Principal preparation programs nationally, like teacher preparation programs, are putting more emphasis on this type of real-world training. Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia also are using their Race to the Top funds to support such efforts.

Focus on the Needs of Students

Marie Hautigan, a member of the first PROPEL cohort poses with Daniel Reyes-Guerra, the director of the program, in front of a screen where slides about PROPEL are showing.

Marie Hautigan, a member of the first PROPEL cohort, with Daniel Reyes-Guerra, who oversees the program for FAU. Hautigan was hired as an assistant principal at Fort Lauderdale High School this past November.

Not long after she completed the PROPEL program, Marie Hautigan became an assistant principal at Fort Lauderdale High School, where she had previously taught English and served as the coordinator of a magnet program. She said she has different responsibilities and insights now that she’s an administrator but that her focus on the needs of students remains the same. ”You are always making decisions in the best interest of students and student achievement,” she said.

Since 2012, fifty-nine PROPEL students completed the assistant principal training, and 35 have finished the additional work required to be certified as a principal. Nine graduates are now assistant principals and two are principals.

Important Milestones

The two programs represent important milestones in efforts to improve principal preparation in Florida that began in the late 1990s, McDaniel said. The State rewrote its performance expectations for principals in 2005 and again in 2011. It mandated more job-embedded training and collaboration with school districts to ensure universities are meeting their needs. The State is also considering data-driven metrics to hold principal preparation programs accountable for the performance of their graduates and lessons learned from PROPEL and the Gulf Coast Partnership will inform that process, McDaniel said.

McDaniel expects both programs will continue, albeit with some modifications, now that the start-up money has been spent. “It has literally changed the way these principal preparation programs operate, and I don’t think they could go back to the way they were doing it before because they’ve learned a great deal,” she said.

So have the programs’ graduates.

Watson said that when she and her peers entered the Gulf Coast Partnership, they saw themselves as agents of change determined to improve teaching and learning, but they didn’t have the leadership skills needed to make that happen. Over time, she said, “We changed our thinking to take on a more modern type of leadership, where we are thinking about students first, where we are instructional leaders and we’re solving problems differently and we are working to help all students.”



 Selective recruitment leads to highly effective leaders.

  • Internships, apprenticeships and mentoring provide the programs’ graduates with greater confidence in their own abilities and make them more attractive candidates to school districts.
  • Mentors have to be carefully chosen and need intensive training and coaching so that the learning experiences of interns and apprentices are as productive as possible.
  • The partnerships between school districts and the university ensure that graduates have the skills, knowledge and dispositions that school districts are seeking in new leaders.
  • Program participants learn a lot from hearing about the experiences of their peers during their field-based training experiences.


  • Video explaining PROPEL
  • Overview of Gulf Coast Partnership Job-Embedded Principal Program
  • Presentation on lessons learned from the PROPEL program
  • PowerPoint on lessons learned from the Gulf Coast Partnership
  • The Principal Pipeline, a publication describing efforts across Race to the Top States (including Florida) to ensure that low-performing schools have effective leaders