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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 1/18/17. Red Bank Middle School Principal Andrea Edmondson, left, and HMS Principal Robert Alford visit a sixth grade English class during a principal's professional development training session at Hunter Middle School on January 18, 2016. Educators visited reading and writing classes to see how HMS teachers blend them into the social studies curriculum.

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Hamilton County Schools takes a new approach to principal development, selection

Hamilton County Schools is working to revamp the way it develops and selects new principals, officials believing that hiring and retaining outstanding school leaders can go far toward moving the district forward.

Last week, Hamilton County's principals had a morning of hands-on professional development as they visited schools across the county and saw how their peers are working to boost literacy.

They visited Battle Academy, where teachers were giving literacy lessons, and sat in as a group of second-grade teachers planned with the school's literacy coach for coming weeks.

Jill Evans, assistant principal at Middle Valley Elementary, said spending the day at Battle gave her new ideas.

"It's so great to see Battle's literacy instruction in action," Evans said. "It shows me things I can do in my building."

Middle Valley Elementary doesn't have a literacy coach. Evans said she learned a lot from seeing how Battle's coach met with teachers and aided in the planning, and she is excited to think of ways to tweak that model to work at her school.

The traveling class was a change from a years-long tradition of district principals meeting in a big assembly filled with announcements and updates, several principals said.

Jill Levine, chief academic officer for Hamilton County Schools, said this type of professional development isn't one-size-fits-all. She said principals chose from a list of schools where they wanted to spend the day.

"This approach opens up our schools in the district," Levine said. "It's opening up doors and allowing us to learn from each other."

At the north end of the county, some principals gathered at Hunter Middle School.

Hunter Principal Robert Alford said the school has worked for years to integrate reading and writing strategies into its social studies curriculum.

The visiting principals asked some reading, writing and social studies teachers at Hunter how they plan lessons together, and how the social studies teachers work to strengthen and help kids apply the strategies they are learning in their writing and reading classes to the social studies content.

After the panel, Alford invited the principals to wander the building and step into classes to see what that approach looks like in action.

The district also is changing the way it hires new principals, moving away from a simple interview to a three-step selection process.

Over the years, many have seen principal selection as an extension of the "good-old-boy-system" where friends and allies of district administrators were picked for top posts. District officials say the new system gives the selection process more integrity and is more beneficial for all applicants.

An interview will be just the first step. Promising candidates will next go through a fishbowl-style interview together, discussing a given scenario among themselves while select community members and district officials evaluate, according to Levine.

In the final step, an assistant superintendent shadows the candidates as they work in their current positions.

The hiring committee will make final recommendations for new principals in May.

Justin Robertson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said in a statement the new approach broadens who's involved in the selection process.

"It's also designed to be more engaging for the applicants," he said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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