Janesville52°

Education’s revolving door

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Esther Cepeda
May 27, 2012
— When you live in a school district where 64 percent of the students come from low-income homes and budgets have been squeezed to death, every official school communication has the potential to ruin your day.

So it went when I read a letter from my youngest son’s school informing us we’re getting a new principal next year. We got the letter a few weeks ago, but only now, in the last days of this academic year, has it becoming gut-wrenchingly real.


Our current principal is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and by far one of the best in our community. And though his move is cause for celebration—he’s being promoted and not leaving the district—it’s a deeply painful loss to our neighborhood.


Painful, but not surprising. Our school leaders come and go all the time.


With principals, it is much different now than when I was a kid, or even when I began my teaching career. Back then, principals usually only ascended to the top job after working in the same school’s classrooms for decades. They’d climb the ladder from teacher to principal and then stick around in that role until they retired.


No more. Today, principals routinely step into the thorny spot between education and administration after only a few years in the classroom, though that’s not actually as bad as it sounds.


Yes, the number of years a school leader spends walking in the shoes of classroom teachers is vital to his or her success. But these days, many educators start their careers with the specific goal of becoming a principal because the job is no longer merely about managing a staff or ensuring that the school buses run on time.


New principals today are younger, more diverse, have post-graduate degrees and training in sophisticated data-analysis techniques. The bulk of their instruction is in the art of “instructional leadership,” which basically means being able to implement programs to satisfy No Child Left Behind requirements to close the academic achievement gap, especially among minority, special education students and English-language learners.


The problem is that these principals tend not to stick around very long and, as opposed to the already familiar issue of teacher turnover, the study of their longevity and impact on schools is just in its infancy.


In my experience, even the marginally good principals get poached from one low-performing school in hopes of turning around another one. And if they’re not, they simply flame out.


According to “First-Year Principals in Urban School Districts,” a report recently published by the RAND Education Corp., more than one-fifth of first-year principals will leave their schools after one or two years on the job.


The ones placed in a school that isn’t making adequate yearly progress (AYP) before their arrival are likelier to quit after one year than those who begin at start-up schools or schools that have already been meeting AYP. In their wake, student achievement tends to stall or decline in the following year.


Successful principals are likely to have had experience as an assistant principal and share the educational philosophies and culture of their new school. They thrive by hiring strong staff and working closely with them and with students and their parents.


This perfectly describes our wonderful departing principal, and we were extremely lucky to have him so long. With a tenure of eight years, he is in the scant 28 percent of first-time principals who have worked at their current school for six years or more, a percentage 10 points lower today than a decade ago, according to a recent Illinois study.


But like so many other low-income schools, churn is our district’s standard mode. Just in the last five years, we’ve seen district superintendents, principals and countless teachers change over.


Last fall, my older son got a new principal—the superstar we’d had for three years left to save another school—and it was rough at first. The new principal started off on the wrong foot but turned it around, proving to be OK so far. Most parents I’ve talked to are glad she’s staying put next year, though it’s not like we have any say in the matter.


Like scores of other families with no choice but to make the best of whatever our local public schools provide us, we just hope for the best while enduring the teacher and principal revolving door.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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