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At a time of upheaval, widespread turnover in principal ranks

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

About one quarter of the District’s schools will open in September under new leadership, a rate of principal turnover that is higher than normal as the District is coping with unprecedented upheaval and major questions about its financial stability.

According to a listing of principal appointments provided by the District, 58 schools will see new leaders. Among their number are neighborhood high schools like Overbrook, George Washington, and Roxborough, magnet schools like GAMP, Carver, and CAPA, and a cross-section of elementary schools all over the city.

"There is a tremendous proportion of schools under new leadership, and research shows that administrative stability is a key indicator for success in a school," said Robert McGrogan, head of the administrators’ bargaining unit, CASA.

Among the new leaders are 26 that are either new to the principalship or new to the District. Of those, 18 are new to the position but have been promoted from other jobs within the District. Eight are District newcomers who have been principals or assistant principals elsewhere.

The relatively high rate of turnover is largely the result of retirements and school closings.

Fourteen principals who had led closing schools were reassigned elsewhere; for instance, Timothy Stults of University City High will be the new leader at School of the Future. At 10 closing schools, the principal retired.

Fully 115 members of CASA, which includes principals, assistant principals and a few other supervisory positions, retired this year. A Notebook review of the retirees found that of that number, 46 had been leading schools at the start of last year. Many assistant principals also chose to retire; nearly 130 were among the more than 3,800 employees laid off as the District reduced school staffs to their bare bones in order to make ends meet.

Superintendent William Hite acknowledged that the turnover is high, but said that he sees an upside.

"Yes, a large number of individuals are being replaced in one year, but I also see it as a tremendous opportunity to attract new talent to the role of school leadership," he said. "Leadership matters, especially when we are going through as many things as we are going through now."

On the other hand, he said, "We had some talented administrators who left the District that we hate to see go."

McGrogan said that the new principals are facing some daunting problems, including the lack of any other staff to help them become acclimated to their new surroundings. All secretaries and most support personnel were also laid off, and none have been called back because the District’s financial picture is still up in the air.

He said there will be a week-long orientation for new principals beginning Monday.

"None of the people are starting under optimal circumstances," he said. "They are sitting in a giant empty building with just a key and an alarm code." Other than a custodian, there is no one who can help the principal find out where records are kept, not to mention help with making contact with the local police precinct and key community stakeholders, McGrogan said. "In many places, the leadership team includes people who have been laid off."

But Hite said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the number of applications he got from outside the District from people who wanted to work in Philadelphia despite the problems.

"The applicants understand fully the environment in our schools, but they also recognize that to navigate through this period it will take leadership," he said. "These are individuals attracted to the notion that they will have the ability to lead schools and be held accountable for outcomes. These are individuals excited about the opportunity to work in a system where they get to make a lot of decisions about what will occur in their schools."

In addition to the District’s state of upheaval, there were other incentives for principals to retire, McGrogan said, with the state considering changes in pension benefits and the District seeking to reduce termination pay as part of its cost-cutting efforts. To close a $304 million budget gap, the District sought $180 million in state and city money — only some of which has so far materialized — and wants $133 million in union concessions.

According to the District, vacancies remain at three schools: Bartram High, and E.W. Rhodes and Bryant elementaries. Rhodes is converting from a middle school to K-8.

In all, the District had to fill more than 70 principal vacancies. Principals had to reapply for their jobs at many of the schools receiving students from closing schools. At 10 schools, the principal vacancies were filled by the current principal.

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