LAWRENCEVILLE - Susan Bearse always looks forward to the first day of school.
"I've been in education many, many years, and I still get butterflies in my stomach the day before the children get here," she said.
This year, the start of the school year will be especially memorable for Bearse. It will be her first as a school principal.
Thirty-three schools will have new principals this year, and Bearse is among a growing group of leaders who have received training from the Quality-Plus Leader Academy, the school district's program for aspiring principals.
The program began in 2007 as part of Gwinnett County Public Schools' talent management and succession plan, said Glenn Pethel, the district's executive director for leadership development. Over the past five years, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks has recommended more than 85 people for principalship, and the district needed a qualified pool of candidates to fill vacancies created by retirements, attrition and the opening of new schools.
"We need to know that those who become a principal have the knowledge, skills and talent that we expect in Gwinnett," Pethel said. "We cannot rely totally on universities to prepare these people. There are things specific to the school system's strategic direction that can only be learned in the district."
The program, which has a competitive application process, includes 12 days of instruction, several performance-based activities such as case studies and developing the ideal job description for a principal, and a 20-day residency.
Bearse said she completed her residency at Cedar Hill Elementary after her appointment as the school's principal was announced in February. She said the 20 days she spent in the school was a gift.
"The Quality-Plus Leader Academy is where we get the theory, but there's no price tag you can put on the experience (of the residency)," she said.
Being immersed in the school has helped her feel more prepared for the upcoming school year.
Without the Quality-Plus Leader Academy, "it would have been a lot more difficult to come to a school cold," she said, "but I know people do it."
Penny Clavijo, a 2007 graduate of the program who was tapped to lead Hopkins Elementary this year, said the academy helps develop effective leaders.
"You can read all you want to in books," she said. "But to be effective, a principal must have the knowledge, skills and talent."
A Gwinnett graduate whose father served as a principal, Clavijo said it's been her goal to become a principal since she started teaching. She said she feels fortunate to work for the school district.
"The Quality-Plus Leader Academy shows the importance and value that is placed in developing leaders from within," she said.