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Principals on the hot seat: As they've become more critical, they've become more vulnerable

Principals under fire

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I didn’t understood the critical contribution of a strong principal to a school’s culture until I saw a lackluster one in action — or, as it were, inaction.

Suddenly, the air in the building lost the crackle of excitement. Innovative and outspoken teachers fled, and their replacements displayed the same paint-by-numbers approach as the principal. The school and staff seemed to moving in slow motion or, even worse, backwards.

Fortunately, that principal’s tenure was short, and a successor blew in with such a gale force of enthusiasm, energy and expertise that the school doffed its malaise and sprang to life. Even the hallways turned cheerier and louder. One reason: The new principal immediately lifted the ban on lunch table chatter by the children.

Principals are more important than ever in setting tone, priority and academic benchmarks, according to Fulton County School Superintendent and former principal Robert Avossa.

“It is an increasingly complex job,” said Avossa. “The number of constituencies you must keep happy and engaged has grown exponentially. Before No Child Left Behind, there was a good old boy network of football coaches who could make the buses run on time, get the textbooks out and keep teachers happy — that was all you needed to do as principal.”

With the intense focus on academic achievement for all students, Avossa says a principal must now also serve as the school’s lead teacher.

“You have to look at their academic track record,” he said. “Do they have the academic chops to really be lead teacher in that building? You still have to make buses run on time, keep everyone happy and have a safe building, but you also have to be the lead teacher.”

Since Avossa arrived in Fulton three years ago, 46 Fulton principals have left their jobs. He makes no apologies for the turnover.

“Some of them were promoted, others moved or retired. I am not ashamed to say we have removed low-performing principals. Four of five of our south Fulton high school principals were changed. And if you look at the student achievement and the improvement in those schools, you will see why — the principals were key,” said Avossa.

As proof of the difference that his new high school principals have made, Avossa noted Fulton has risen to second in the state in SAT scores. In 2013, Fulton tied with Cherokee County for the second-highest SAT countywide average in Georgia. Since 2011, Fulton’s graduation rate has gone from 70.1. to 75.5.  Langston Hughes High went from a 64.7 grad rate to 73.6. The system has also seen a rise in ACT scores.

Yes, there are principals who are beloved by their communities, said Avossa, but that alone is not enough if school performance has stalled or slipped.

“If graduation tests and SATS are going in the wrong directions and principals aren’t holding teachers accountable, you are not going to succeed in this environment,” he said.

In large high school schools, principals face a range of challenges. Principals have to develop strong political acumen, be able to deal with angry parents, affluent parents and parents who aren’t engaged, he said.

Despite all the challenges, Avossa said, “I don’t have a lack of people applying for jobs, but a lot of people don’t make it into our pool because they don’t have these 21st century skill sets. I put parents on the interview committee because it has to be the right fit for the community.”

But even if the community believes a principal is the right fit, the administration may disagree. We saw that earlier this week at Benjamin Mays High School where students staged a large-scale walkout to protest the decision by Atlanta Public Schools to reassign principal Tyronne M. Smith and principals at six other schools in the district. (Some school campuses house more than one school so the actual number of ousted principals may be higher than seven.)

In a statement, APS said, “Our personnel changes have been contemplated over long periods of time – some a year or more, and we believe these decisions are in the best interest of all of the schools that will be impacted…Finally, know that we are making these changes in the best interest of our students, with a focus on what is best for the campuses that will be impacted by these decisions. “

Still, the decision shocked some schools and principals, including Karen Evans, the principal of Morris Brandon Elementary who sent out a note to parents: (A parent shared the email with me.)

Many of you have already heard about the changes happening at APS.  This time, the proposed changes will impact Brandon.  APS announced yesterday that there will be several principal changes for the 2014-2015 school year.  While I had originally planned to retire in 3 or 4 years, it appears APS would like me to retire at the end of this school year and informed me yesterday of their decision.  They will begin looking for a new principal for Brandon sometime next week.

The only reason that was given to me for this decision was that the district is "moving in a new direction."  At no time have any concerns about my performance or that of Brandon been communicated to me by my superiors or anyone else in the district.  All data from Brandon continues to indicate that we are one of the top performing schools in the system in the areas of preparedness and growth.  We have not had any issues with "non-compliance" of which I was made aware, and we continue to retain a strong and highly capable faculty, with very low turn-over. 

I did not plan to leave on this timetable or in this way, but since the system has made their decision, I wanted you to hear it directly from me.  I will retire at the end of this school year, and I am so proud of our school community and all we have done together these last 11 years at Brandon.  You are the best, and I know I can count on you to carry on the traditions we have all come to know and love.

I asked APS school board chair Courtney English whether springing such major changes on communities and staff was fair.

“Our parents, students, employees and community members deserve to be informed about changes in leadership,” he said. “While personnel decisions are made by the administration, I will work with my colleagues on the board to ensure that the district operates transparently when making decisions that impact our communities. Communication and engagement must improve.”

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