Schools nationwide struggle with principal shortage

Sunday, September 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

As the academic year begins for the nation's 53 million students, a growing number of schools are rudderless, struggling to replace a graying corps of principals at a time when pressure to raise test scores and other new demands have made an already difficult job an increasingly thankless one.

In Vermont, one of every five principals has retired or resigned in the last few months alone, some of them replaced temporarily by other principals who retired several years earlier.

In Washington state, nearly 300 principals, or 15 percent of the total, left their jobs at the end of the last school year, with some moving to the private sector and others to Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and California, where desperate districts are offering signing bonuses and other perks, Washington school officials said.

In Kentucky and Texas, where principals are fleeing just as fast as in Vermont, job openings that drew more than a dozen applicants as recently as five years ago are now attracting as few as three, according to principals' associations there.

In New York City, 163 schools will open this week with a temporary administrator welcoming students back from summer vacation. And 200 schools opened with interim principals last September.

Principals who have left their jobs in recent months often cite the mounting stress of a position that once mostly involved establishing an orderly and nurturing environment and displaying a firm disciplinary hand.

But with new emphasis on accountability for schools, the principal has become as visibly accountable as a football coach and must suffer the wrath of parents and state monitors if a school has a losing season, as measured by falling test scores and unmet statewide standards. Some principals are being fired with no clear successors waiting in the wings.

Once given wide latitude, principals have seen their autonomy hemmed in: The accountability movement has spawned thousands of school governing councils, in which parents, teachers and community members weigh in on matters from teacher hiring to lunchroom menus, with the principal left to forge consensus.

Meanwhile, newly savvy parents have seized on obscure passages in special-education law to wring additional services for their children, leaving principals buried in thick binders of federal and state statutes.

"You want them to have a legal background and a business sense, to know children and child development and adult development, plus statistics, accounting and certainly technology," said Robbe Brook, the superintendent of the Washington Central Supervisory Union in central Vermont, who had to fill vacancies at three of her five elementary schools this summer, two of them with temporary hires.

And then there is safety. Highly publicized shootings have forced some principals to affect the hawklike vigilance of Secret Service agents, panning the cafeteria for the early warning signals of an attack.

It doesn't seem to matter that principal positions are usually among the highest-paying in public education. Neal Powell, the superintendent of schools in the small Snohomish district, 30 miles north of Seattle, lost three of his nine elementary school principals this summer.

In replacing them, he tapped a shallow pool almost entirely filled with untested rookies. He offered a starting salary of $72,768, much more than the $50,000 that is often the standard in rural districts.

"A lot of the young stars, people we identify in the teaching ranks, increasingly they turn to us and say, 'We see what our principal does; we don't want to do it,'" Mr. Powell said.

The vacancies are only expected to grow. Most of the nation's 120,000 public school principals began working in education in the 1970s – the median age is about 50, according to national surveys – and many will be eligible to retire within five years.

To fill the chair in the principal's office, schools are often making one-year appointments, twisting the arms of veteran teachers or turning to not-so-recent retirees. But those patched-together arrangements can be disruptive, with teachers unsure of what precisely they should be teaching and the principal striving to make an impact as an acknowledged lame duck.

Four years ago, at 63, James King retired as the principal of a Vermont middle school to fulfill his longtime dream of becoming a sports announcer. But soon after his debut on a local radio station, Mr. King was flooded with offers to serve as a temporary principal at schools around this state.

This week, just days before the doors opened at the 150-desk elementary school in the small town of Calais, Mr. King set aside his dreams again to slide behind another principal's desk. He has committed to serve through June. It is his third interim principalship in three years, and his learning curve remains steep.

He could not, for example, figure out how to turn on the laptop computer on his desk to compose a welcome message to his staff. And as the children's arrival loomed, he was still working on pronouncing teachers' names correctly, when he was not reading Windows 98 for Dummies.

Though his little red schoolhouse looks bucolic, with cows from a nearby farm wandering into recess, Mr. King must scale a mountain of new state requirements. A flow chart directs him to write new policies on promoting students, develop uniform curriculums and devise an "action plan" for meeting the state's academic goals.

As a reminder of what awaits his school if he fails, a front-page article in The Burlington Free Press on his first day listed 39 schools that were reprimanded by the state for "substandard performance" last year. That Calais Elementary was not among them gave Mr. King and his staff little comfort.

In taking his temporary job, which pays $55,000 annually, Mr. King had to suspend his pension for a year. But Kentucky and Maryland, trying to lure retirees back, recently passed laws that permit them to take a principal's job and still draw pensions.

Those states, and others, are also working to make the principal's job more attractive to young recruits, often through paid internships. More than a dozen educational foundations and nonprofit organizations are engaged in similar work.

Larry Myatt, the principal of Fenway High School in Boston, said such programs would help prospective principals decide if they could handle the new rigors of the job – a sense they might not get in a traditional after-school master's degree program.

"If you're a cobbler, you train in a shoe shop," Mr. Myatt said. "The idea of continuing to train principals for the crucible of leadership in night school is an idea that is now being reconsidered across the country."