School leaders in the crossfire
By Cristina Kumka
STAFF WRITER | July 15,2012
CRISTINA KUMKA/STAFF PHOTO
Debra Taylor, superintendent of the Rutland Central Supervisory Union, and David O’Rourke, chairman of the West Rutland School Board, get ready for a recent controversial meeting. They’re flanked by student-made signs in support of Principal Juanita Burch-Clay, who was subsequently fired.
It was Ken Page’s first day as principal at Calais Elementary School when he walked into the school’s gym and saw the broken wooden ladder leading up to the attic.
He immediately asked the School Board if he could replace it. It would cost $80.
Not a problem, he thought.
The board agreed to let him do it — after five hours of discussion.
Page, now head of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said he fondly remembered the largely thankless job of a public principal.
But he also knew from his experience that much could be done if school leaders were allowed to do their jobs — and if they were allowed to stay in place to do them.
Times have changed and, with them, the pressures of the job have increased.
There’s more going on in the principal’s office than a student getting scolded.
There’s balancing the needs of unionized teachers, demanding parents and political school boards.
There’s standardized test scores that, if not good enough, could result in that principal losing their job.
There’s poverty among many students, and busy families, making schools safe havens more than ever before.
Page is concerned that some or all of those factors are becoming a dark cloud over educators.
A lack of job security is evident, threatening what Page says is one of the most important elements in education — school leadership.
In the last three years, Vermont has come close to the national 30 percent average turnover rate among principals.
In that time, Page said, 90 out of about 400 Vermont principals have left their jobs.
He said the reasons included micro-management by school boards, or principals bringing too much change too fast — and sometimes for reasons not explained.
Most recent is the case of West Rutland Principal Juanita Burch-Clay.
The School Board decided to fire the principal this year, teachers were pitted against each other and parents have sued the board, claiming they were intentionally excluded from a meeting where Burch-Clay’s fate was decided.
In the next school year alone, Vermont will see at least 38 new principals. That was the figure as of July 3, and Page said he expects more before year’s end.
“Sometimes you don’t want a principal to mentor. Sometimes, you want change and other times, you get a leader whose pace of change is faster than people might want,” said Page, who has been an educator for more than 30 years.
“The issue really is change. If you ask if the job has changed, absolutely,” he said.
“I’m worried about the number of repeats,” Page said. “You can’t sustain growth. What will happen when all those (veteran) principals get old and die? Years back, many 20-year principal pins were given out (by the VPA). Almost nobody gets one now, or when they do, the pressure gets too much and they go.”
A harder sacrifice
Another principal recently called Page and said she was done being abused.
“One principal said ‘That’s the last time I am going to be yelled at by the board chair and have the superintendent sit back and let it happen. I have to go,’” Page recalled. “She broke the last year of the contract. I think she’s right. If they screamed at a teacher, there would be a grievance by the union filed right away.”
Could it have been an isolated incident? Page thinks yes — that not all school board members berate school leaders.
But it’s a sign of something even more concerning, he said, that public officials are not willing to give fresh principals a shot.
They must not understand what goes into the job and how much is sacrificed, Page said.
Most principals give all of themselves to the school, even sacrificing time with their own families to build one inside the walls of a school, Page said.
But with reduced job security, the sacrifice is becoming harder to make.
Most principals in Vermont have independent contracts, and are not protected by a powerful union. They are the easy target when the blame game gets started, Page said.
The perception of what principals do has changed — they are no longer just the head disciplinarians.
They are responsible for their students meeting test-score expectations, and a school’s adequate yearly progress (AYP) determination is based on it.
AYP results have been most recently tied to overall school performance. That performance is tied to federal grants. Those grants, called School Improvement Grants, come with strings attached — one of which may be firing the principal.
But the number one reason principals across the nation fail, surprisingly, isn’t AYP.
It’s how they maintain school climate, according to national research Page provided from 1997 and 2000. According to the National School Climate Center, this is broader than any one person’s experience in the school — it is how a school succeeds in safety, relationships, teaching and learning.
School climate is tied to students and teachers feeling safe and both groups achieving more academically. It also reflects goals, values, interpersonal relationships, organization and best teaching practices.
The number one reason principals succeed? Integrity.
“They (parents) want someone they can trust,” Page said.
All about the money
There might not be a better example of the trust issue that than Joyce Irvine, a principal who was fired, reassigned to an administrator job in the same district, then rehired by another school.
Trust and integrity weren’t the issues for her, according to Irvine and the man who hired her as principal again.
Her problem was that she couldn’t compete with the $1.5 million carrot waived in front of the face of the district that removed her — Burlington.
Under Irvine’s leadership, the Integrated Arts Academy at the H.O. Wheeler Elementary School in the city’s Old North End became one of the state’s two magnet, or specialized, schools in 2010.
That allowed more affluent students from middle-class backgrounds to mix with the remaining 40 percent of the school’s population — students who have English as a Second Language (ESL). These are mainly poor refugees from 20 different countries.
Fifty of those ESL students had been in the country less than two years and didn’t yet speak or read English. Because the tests were English-only, the school’s overall test score was substandard.
In 2010, the federal government forced Vermont to label its schools in need of improvement, following a $787 billion stimulus package that gave Vermont $8.5 million to give to its most under-performing schools. $1.5 million of that money was available for Irvine’s school.
But along with a label came change — all the schools tagged as under-performing using the latest two years of standardized test scores had to choose between firing the principal, replacing the principal and half the teachers, closing the school or reopening the school as a charter.
A charter school is an independent public school that is allowed to use innovation to improve student achievement and have more parent involvement, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Burlington chose to fire the principal — and it got the money.
Holes in the system
Irvine said she was assured in 2001, when No Child Left Behind was passed by the federal government, that there would be a growth model that took into account the progress of each student — even if they didn’t speak English.
Turns out, there wasn’t, and she lost her job.
She was reassigned to the position of school improvement coordinator, a central office position, in the Burlington district and stayed for a year before deciding she wanted to be around kids again.
Irvine now heads Highgate Elementary School, after getting offers from five different schools.
The best part of her job, Irvine said, is the kids.
She remembers a girl at Wheeler who kept coming to school dirty.
Irvine later found out she was “jumping porches,” or sleeping on a different porch in the city each night, because both of her parents were jailed at the same time.
Irvine got temporary housing for the girl until her parents, or at least one, was released.“You think you know what goes on every night when the kids go home, but you don’t,” she said.
The best part of being a principal, Irvine said, is sitting in her office and eating lunch with a student, or walking into a classroom of kindergartners during an otherwise stressful day and letting it all go.
Since Irvine’s departure, there have been three new principals at H.O. Wheeler in two years.
“The reason was she was forced out of her job in Burlington was of no fault of her own, she really did do some fantastic work there,” said Irvine’s new boss, Superintendent Jack McCarthy of the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union.
“If you are a Spanish- or French- or Swahili-speaking student and if you have an English test put in front of you, you could be a genius and not do well on it,” McCarthy said. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the right thing.”
It’s not for everyone
Rich Jacobs was the principal of the 100-student Orange Center School in East Barre for eight years before he left the profession for the private sector, becoming a financial analyst.
“What I ended up finding out was they were looking for a new kind of principal that could handle new expectations,” he said. “With No Child Left Behind, they had stronger expectations for a principal. They were looking for someone not afraid of making lots of change in a school if necessary.”
Jacobs started his 30-year career in education as a guidance counselor in New Hampshire. He was used to building relationships and working through problems.
After awhile at Orange, he said, that didn’t work for him any more. Jacobs now works in Morrisville, providing education in finance — to adults.
The bottom line was that Jacobs just needed to get away from the stress level attached to being a school principal today.
He said he laughed when his new employer asked him if he could handle the stress of being a financial advisor.
Page isn’t the only one concerned about the high turnover.
Stephen Dale, head of the Vermont School Boards Association, said that while some turnover is healthy for change, 30 or more principals a year “feels high” to him.
“It should be an ongoing concern,” Dale said. “Whether it is a crisis or not requires some sort of statewide analysis.”
To determine if the turnover is systemic or not, he said, boards, superintendents and principals need to work together.
“We have to continue to look at how we create the kind of environments that make it highly likely that good people will be attracted to, and remain in, good leadership positions,” Dale said. “High turnover is not healthy for any system.”
Who’s the boss?
Current Vermont education law allows school boards to take over the superintendent’s authority to fire or hire a principal. Some boards have taken it upon themselves to do just that. In the case of West Rutland this year, this meant multiple closed-door meetings and an uproar of public controversy.
All the other principals in the same union, the Rutland Central Supervisory Union, also resigned this year for undisclosed reasons.
The newly-adopted school consolidation law, Act 153, gives the superintendent the sole responsibility of negotiating a principal’s contract.
Without referring to any one principal case in particular, Page of the VPA said school boards in Vermont could be better educated as to their roles. Superintendents, not boards, are in charge of principals, he said.
VSBA head Dale agreed.
“The system says the superintendent is the CFO (chief financial officer) of the district or supervisory union and that superintendent is the direct supervisor of the principal,” Dale said.
But Dale acknowledged that different school districts handle responsibility for the principal in different ways. There isn’t one steadfast rule on who the school leader answers to, he said.
According to Page, more clarity is needed about the roles of boards versus superintendents when hiring school leaders.
“There is a question about who they (principals) answer to,” he said. “There’s a real contradiction.”