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Imagine this scenario. You walk into a school building as a new principal of the building. It's the third week of July and you have exactly two weeks to get the school ready. As you go to your office you are greeted my smiling faces. You feel great. As you get settled into your new role you receive an email with all of the data about the school. As you open it and read over it, your heart sinks. Your school is in trouble.
Looking at the data out of 1200 students..
- approximately ⅓ of all your students failed two or more classes,
- out of a junior class of 250 students you have 100 students who are not on schedule to graduate this coming May,
- out of a staff of 150, you have 25 teachers on Professional Development Plan,
- you have 10 teachers on stress induced leave and
- you have 2 who are threatening to sue due to what happened the previous year.
To make matters worse, you still have to somewhat start the year strong and struggle to keep your school afloat to avoid falling a level in the school turnaround model. At the end of the day you leave defeated and this was just the first day. As you prepare for school to open you are nervous,but you stay positive. Things can't get worse can they? However, three weeks into the school year things do get worse. You have a significant amount of students who are behavior problems and it's clear that the problems that your school faces are issues years in the making.
While this may seem extreme, this is what an urban school principal faces on a daily basis. Combine that with the fact that many principals are first year principals it's not surprising that many schools are struggling. According to the Cowen Institute's study "First Year Principals in Urban School Districts: How Actions and Working Conditions Relate to Outcomes",
evidence suggests that schools serving low-income children have a harder time retaining their principals and thus tend to have principals with less in-school experience.
separation rates for first-year urban school principals are over 10 percent per year.
Furthermore, principals placed in schools that are below AYP experience higher rates of separation than those placed in start-up schools or in schools that are above AYP standards.
So this begs the question- how can school districts hire principals who aren't just warm bodies in the building, but are the true essence of a transformational leader? It's a simple, yet complex solution that school districts should implement immediately.
1. Hire principals who were effective teachers in the classroom. There's nothing worse for everyone in the building for there to be a principal who either has NEVER been in the classroom, or who has only been a teacher for a short (less than five years) time. They key to being a transformational leader is to understand what it is like to not only be a student, but to work as a teacher in a similar environment. This perspective will shape the way policies are made and will activate the "empathy button" that all administrators need to be effective. Hiring someone from outside the classroom to work with children in an administration role is a quick way to have turnover at any school.
2. Create a learning path for all new principals. Just like in any new job, principals need help to learn all about the things that can consume their day- budgets, IEPs, conflict resolution and a host of other issues. It's critical that from day 1 all new principals have a mentor principal and professional learning community (with seasoned principals) that they can learn from. The mentor principals should be in the building on a weekly basis and should be one of the first lines of defense when things aren't going as planned.
3. Make support staff readily available. In urban areas all principals need not only an assistant principal that can address discipline issues, but they need instructional coaches that can implement their instructional plan. Principals need time to be in the Instructional Leader, but they also have to run all aspects of the school that's why school districts must give them the staff they need- especially in urban schools. Many schools across the country are in Priority or Focus status and the only way to get out of those statuses is to employ staff that monitor instructional programs and report on what's working and what's not working.
4. Let principals leave the building for professional learning. How many times have we sent a struggling teacher to another teacher for them to observe them in action? I'm sure countless so what makes it different for principals? Principals need time where they not only leave the building, but they go to schools similar to their school and they observe other principals and have time to ask questions and receive feedback.
5. Understand that data will not change overnight. So many times district leaders want change immediately not realizing that nothing in education changes overnight. New principals need 2-3 years to show significant gains so districts should remember that when CCRPI or AYP reports are released to the public. Measure these principals on what is displayed in school visits, not what an end of the year report looks like.
6. It's better to have a principal who cares about kids then someone who is looks good on paper. How many times have we seen principals who could care less about the kids who they are with, but more about what this job looks like on paper? An effective principal in an urban setting should stay at least 3-4 years and this should be stressed when interviewing candidates.
When school districts realize that the key to transform a school starts with a leader, we will all start at the same point in transforming schools- one principal at a time.