Claudia Velez, a third-grade teacher at Olinda Elementary School in El Sobrante, decided last year that she was interested in taking on the greater responsibility of being a school principal.

She accepted the nomination of her principal to join a program called Emerging Leaders, which gives teachers the chance to ease into leadership roles in their schools before transitioning into administration.

The sponsor of Emerging Leaders, a New York-based nonprofit, is convinced that strong leaders can help improve struggling schools in low-income neighborhoods.

"Our mission is to help develop leaders for schools with students in poverty and students of color," said Lydia Glassie, Emerging Leaders program director for the Bay Area. "Our motto is 'The harder you work, the smarter you get.'"

The program, which has been operating in Oakland for 10 years, is in its first year in the West Contra Costa school district, with 13 teachers participating. It hopes to sign up 20 teachers for 2013-14, Glassie said.

Teachers in the program gradually take on some of the duties of principals by supervising a team of teachers at a different grade level for a year as they teach their own classes.

With a year of supervision under their belts, teachers can decide to leave the classroom to join a program called Aspiring Principals, where they work as assistant principals in their districts. That experience potentially qualifies them to become principals.

"Even if you don't go on to the principal program, all the skills you learn will benefit the school site," Velez said.

Velez, who has taught at Olinda for 11 years, has been meeting with the school's two kindergarten teachers and observing their classes this year, and she is leaning toward stepping away from the classroom as an assistant principal next fall, if she is accepted into Aspiring Principals.

"Teachers join Emerging Leaders to get a taste of what it's like to be a teacher-leader," Velez said. "(The object) is building a college-going culture by believing every student can become proficient."

Emerging Leaders is committed to so-called data-driven instruction, a strategy that sponsors believe can be effective in increasing student learning.

Program participants help the teachers they are supervising to invent simple tests to identify what individual students learned and didn't learn in each day's lessons.

The strategy gives teachers an up-to-date picture of what students understand, which students are ready to move ahead and which need remedial work, Glassie said.

"Some schools do a lot of work around data-driven instruction, others do little work with data," she said. "Our teachers do weekly check-ins with the data with the teachers they're working with."

Emerging Leaders participants Leah Bishop and Jamie Allardice, both fourth-grade teachers at Peres Elementary in Richmond, say that working with teachers at different grade levels at Peres has given them a broader perspective on the school.

Bishop said she and the fifth-grade teachers she supervises are creating standardized performance assessments so that everyone is using the same tests to measure performance.

"If one class is doing better, we look at how the lesson is being taught there to make it more effective; then we're reteaching the kids to improve," she said.

This big-picture thinking and experience as advisers and supervisors will help them if they get the opportunity to direct their own schools, Glassie said.

"It's about working with adults as well as working with kids," she said. "If one of the teachers says, 'I don't want to do this,' they know where to go with that."

New Leaders, the umbrella organization for Emerging Leaders and Aspiring Principals, has a $2.5 million budget for this school year for its Bay Area programs and is trying to raise $1.6 million locally, said Kareem Weaver, New Leaders' executive director for the Bay Area.

"Great teachers love working for great principals," said Weaver, a Richmond native. "To use data in a logical way, you have to have leaders. It's nuts and bolts stuff that moves the needle."

to learn more

Emerging Leaders is looking for up to 20 West Contra Costa teachers interested in becoming school leaders. Apply at newleaders.org/apply-now/recommendations-form/. The application deadline is May 10. Email questions to bayareaelp@newleaders.org.