Earlier this month the world lost a great leader and visionary in Steve Jobs. Jobs’ leadership and drive led Apple to become one of the greatest companies in history. Jobs said, “Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products.” Our schools’ goals are similar: to educate and enrich students to prepare them to be good citizens and lead productive lives.

Leadership drives a company’s success, and it is critical to the success of schools. Part of Tennessee’s Race to the Top program is devoted to “Great Teachers and Leaders.” In addition to collecting better data, improving standards, and turning around failing schools, we need to focus on fostering great leaders in our school buildings. We all recognize the tremendous role teachers have in shaping our kids’ academic achievement.  Without exceptional principals, those same teachers would not have the time or freedom to do their jobs properly. Principals set expectations, oversee instructional departments, and work with teachers and families to ensure a child lives up to his or her potential.

Here in Hamilton County we are grooming future leaders in our Principal Leadership Academy. In 2009, the school system partnered with the Public Education Foundation, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to create a framework matching local business leaders with aspiring principals. The business executives mentor aspiring principals by coaching them on everything from financial leadership to human resources. These high-level executives, including several area CEOs, engage in one-on-one sessions with program participants.

Many of our teachers have been outstanding performers.  The PLA allows these teachers to work with managers to ensure that the management and executive skills are developed before taking the reins at a school.  Most business executives participating in the program have told me that they learn just as much from seeing the schools in action as the teachers do, cementing the  executives’ admiration for the outstanding job many of our educators do on a daily basis.

“My job is to make the whole executive team good enough to be successors,” Jobs said. “So that’s what I try to do.” The PLA has created a pathway to sustainability for school leaders in Chattanooga. The inaugural class of 2011 saw close to half of its members become principals for the 2011-2012 school year. Future principals learn how to wear many hats: manager, HR director, instructional coach, financial planner. Maybe the next graduating class of the Principal Leadership Academy will trade caps and gowns for black turtlenecks in honor of one of our great American leaders.