High turnover of prin­ci­pals in Dis­trict schools threat­ens aca­demic progress

31 SCHOOLS HAD 3 OR MORE HEADS SINCE 2012 Short ad­min­is­tra­tions es­pe­cially rou­tine in South­east

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ALEJANDRA MATOS

More than a quar­ter of D.C. Pub­lic Schools have had at least three prin­ci­pals since Au­gust 2012, a pat­tern of up­heaval that wor­ries par­ents and teach­ers who say con­stant change in lead­er­ship can gen­er­ate in­sta­bil­ity, in­hibit trust and stall aca­demic progress.

Capi­tol Hill’s Eliot-Hine Mid­dle School, for ex­am­ple, is head­ing into its sec­ond straight school year with a new prin­ci­pal. In 2016, a fresh chief took over af­ter the pre­vi­ous one left for an­other school. But the po­si­tion will be filled anew this up­com­ing aca­demic year.

“With the con­stant churn, it’s im­pos­si­ble to build loy­alty to the neigh­bor­hood school,” said Joe Wee­don, fa­ther of a sev­en­th­grader at Eliot-Hine and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the D.C. State Board of Education.

DCPS Chan­cel­lor Ant­wan Wil- son is sym­pa­thetic, say­ing he ex­pects prin­ci­pals to lead the same school for at least five years. That’s how long he and oth­ers be­lieve it typ­i­cally takes to pro­duce strong aca­demic re­sults and build a vi­brant school com­mu­nity through strong re­la­tion­ships with par­ents, teach­ers and stu­dents.

Wil­son, who took of­fice in Fe­bDCPS ru­ary, ac­knowl­edged the high turnover at some schools. But he said that lead­er­ship con­ti­nu­ity is ex­tremely im­por­tant to him and that he will work to en­sure school lead­ers are in place as long as pos­si­ble.

“Our ef­fort go­ing for­ward is to do every­thing we can so that we have suc­cess­ful lead­ers,” he said. “We have to do every­thing we can do to keep them.”

Since Au­gust 2012, 31 of the 115 DCPS schools have had at least three dif­fer­ent prin­ci­pals, count­ing in­terim lead­ers, ac­cord­ing to

a Wash­ing­ton Post anal­y­sis of records. Some prin­ci­pals were forced out when their con­tracts were not re­newed. Oth­ers quit to take jobs else­where, and some re­tired. Still oth­ers moved within the D.C. sys­tem, land­ing at other cam­puses or cen­tral-of­fice jobs.

It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to know why ev­ery prin­ci­pal left the job, be­cause the in­for­ma­tion is con­sid­ered pri­vate per­son­nel data. The Post sought to speak to prin­ci­pals who are no longer in the sys­tem, but most did not re­spond to mes­sages. Oth­ers de­clined to com­ment on the record be­cause they were in other education jobs or still look­ing for a job.

Ed­u­ca­tors say prin­ci­pals are the key to aca­demic suc­cess. They set pri­or­i­ties for teach­ers and stu­dents and help build strong re­la­tion­ships be­tween them and among par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors.

But the de­mands on prin­ci­pals are stren­u­ous. They of­ten face pres­sure to turn strug­gling schools around quickly, even if they have just taken over. Many are yanked out of schools within a few years and are un­able to ful­fill their plans for im­prove­ment.

“The job comes with a lot of ex­pec­ta­tions, which re­quire a great deal of emo­tional strength,” Wil­son said.

DCPS of­fi­cials say they have made strides in sta­bi­liz­ing school lead­er­ship. The num­ber of prin­ci­pals stay­ing in the same school from one year to the next has risen over the past five years, from 84 prin­ci­pals re­turn­ing to the same school in 2012-2013 to 92 do­ing the same in the com­ing year.

Wil­son said it’s im­por­tant for prin­ci­pals to stay in place at least five years, but he also wants to have school lead­ers who are so ef­fec­tive that other dis­tricts will try to steal them away.

When most classes re­sume Aug. 21, 20 per­cent of DCPS schools will start un­der a new prin­ci­pal. Re­search shows DCPS’s turnover rate is not un­usual. Many sys­tems lose any­where from 15 to 30 per­cent of their prin­ci­pals each year, ex­perts say.

“That’s com­mon, but it’s cer­tainly not what we want for schools,” said Ed Fuller, an as­so­ciate education pro­fes­sor at Penn State who has stud­ied prin­ci­pal re­ten­tion.

While DCPS has im­proved its over­all year-to-year re­ten­tion, Fuller said the churn in the 31 high-turnover schools is a trou­bling pat­tern. Thir­teen of those schools are south­east of the Ana­cos­tia River in Wards 7 and 8, which have a large num­ber of schools and low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods. Just one — Wil­son High — is in Ward 3 in North­west.

“With rapid turnover, you can re­ally cre­ate a dys­func­tional school, in terms of struc­ture, and that’s when it trans­lates to less aca­demic achieve­ment,” Fuller said.

Aca­demic per­for­mance tends to drop when there is prin­ci­pal turnover, Fuller said, and it can take sev­eral years to re­cover. Teach­ers see a pat­tern of new lead­er­ship and tend not to buy into the new prin­ci­pal’s vi­sion, and the school also starts to lose teach­ers, which af­fects stu­dent achieve­ment.

Bur­roughs El­e­men­tary School in North­east had five prin­ci­pals in the past five years, count­ing in­terim lead­ers, most in the city sys­tem. In 2013-2014, a new prin­ci­pal took over, re­plac­ing one who had a four-year ten­ure. The new prin­ci­pal led the school for just over two years be­fore she moved to an­other school in the mid­dle of the 2015-2016 school year.

The sys­tem hired an in­terim for the rest of the school year. Then, a new prin­ci­pal was hired, but she quit in Oc­to­ber 2016 for per­sonal rea­sons, and an­other in­terim was ap­pointed. Be­gin­ning this school year, he will serve as prin­ci­pal per­ma­nently.

Regina Coleman, a par­ent at Bur­roughs, said los­ing Prin­ci­pal Aqueelha James in 2016 was “a big blow” to the school be­cause James had worked hard to strengthen the com­mu­nity there and was putting into prac­tice good ideas for school im­prove­ment.

But Coleman, a self-de­scribed op­ti­mist who leads the school’s par­ent or­ga­ni­za­tion, said the lack of con­ti­nu­ity meant more teach­ers stepped up for lead­er­ship roles and par­ents started get­ting more in­volved.

“We turned lemons into le­mon­ade,” she said. “It re­vi­tal­ized us to come to­gether.”

Coleman said par­ents are ex­cited that LeVar Jenk­ins is stay­ing on as prin­ci­pal.

“We need to be set­tled and need some­one who is go­ing to be here for a while,” Coleman said.

Eliot-Hine, with about 200 stu­dents, will start in Au­gust with a new prin­ci­pal. It also had a new prin­ci­pal last school year.

Wee­don said he and other par­ents at Eliot-Hine are up­set. He said en­roll­ment has fallen and some teach­ers have left. Al­though Wee­don didn’t blame prin­ci­pal turnover alone for the in­sta­bil­ity, he said it doesn’t help.

“It is in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing to see the lack of plan­ning, sup­port and con­ti­nu­ity,” he said.

The school had sta­bil­ity for five years, start­ing in 2011, with Tynika Young as prin­ci­pal. But Young moved to an­other school in 2016, and Isamar Var­gas took over.

Wee­don said Var­gas came with a vi­sion to im­prove the school’s tech­nol­ogy, over­haul stu­dent dis­ci­pline and boost the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate cur­ricu­lum.

But Var­gas left af­ter one year. She is now a prin­ci­pal in Mas­sachusetts. Eugenia Young will take over at Eliot-Hine. Wee­don said he hasn’t heard much yet about the new prin­ci­pal.

LaSalle-Backus Education Cam­pus in North­east has also had three prin­ci­pals in the past five years. In 2013-2014, Deb­o­rah Ann Cox re­placed Richard Rogers, who was pro­moted to the cen­tral of­fice. But two years later, Cox left. Justin Ral­ston has led the school since last year.

Ral­ston said he has no in­ter­est in mov­ing to an­other school or the cen­tral of­fice. He said it takes sev­eral years for a prin­ci­pal to build trust with par­ents and staff and to set a plan for meet­ing the aca­demic needs of stu­dents.

“Hav­ing a con­tin­ual leader and that con­ti­nu­ity is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant,” Ral­ston said.

“We need to be set­tled and need some­one who is go­ing to be here for a while.” Regina Coleman, DCPS par­ent

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