For a principal, starting a school with support from North Carolina New Schools can be exciting but also intimidating. That's where Walt Sherlin comes in. An educator with more than 30 years experience, he works as a leadership coach to help guide schools toward successful innovation.
"Opening a new school is a difficult task, even for a traditional school. But for an innovative high school, it's more complicated," Sherlin says. "They're connected to a bigger school system, a higher education partner and NC New Schools, plus they're trying to learn a new way of looking at teaching and learning. So you've got a small school with a principal and five teachers trying to implement a philosophy of education that's influenced by a lot of big organizations."
Sherlin works with principals, typically during the planning stages of the school, to forge relationships between the new school and its key partners: NC New Schools, its host university or community college, and the school district. He continues to support teachers and the principal during at least the first year of implementation.
"The principal and the teachers feel an incredible responsibility to do everything right, please all the partners, run the school effectively and serve the kids with an educational program that is different than what they're used to," Sherlin says. "It seems like it ought to be easy to teach in a small school, but there's actually a lot of pressure. The model exists, but they haven't done it before."
As a leadership coach, Sherlin helps principals build the skills and attitudes they need to be successful with everything from sorting out scheduling issues to putting the philosophy behind NC New Schools' Design Principles into action. He also takes teams from new schools to visit established innovative schools to help them visualize the goals they're working toward.
"Sometimes early in the planning process, it can be hard for the partners to believe this can really work," Sherlin says. "It's very gratifying to see partners go from total uncertainty to complete commitment with a successful school on the campus of a college or university. To see something go from an idea to a success after two or three years, to see how much the students have grown and changed and matured, to see what you hoped for as an outcome really happen-that's really exciting."
Sofi Frankowski, a senior program director with NC New Schools, has worked with Sherlin as he guides principals through a school's initial years. "Walt brings with him a key background as a school and system leader," Frankowski says. "It's a vital support for a principal to have that one-on-one time with him to share concerns, ask questions, gain his perspective and hear suggestions based in real experience."
Looking beyond the individual schools that he works with, Sherlin is impressed by the success of the early college program across the state.
"We're getting traditionally underserved students out of high school and into college-that alone is worth the effort," Sherlin says. "We're changing expectations about what students can do and are capable of, and we've got student data to prove it. And if other schools are paying attention, it redefines what we should expect from all students across the state."
Sherlin worked in the Wake County Public School System for 30 years. He started in the classroom as an English teacher, moved into leadership roles as assistant principal and principal, and finished his career with the district in the central office as assistant superintendent and associate superintendent. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill and completed the Principals' Executive Program. He also holds a certification in administration from N.C. Central University.