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Schools again rely on first-time principals to overcome budget crisis

Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY

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

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"Why on earth would you want to work in the Philadelphia School District?"

It’s the question the leader of city schools has been using to grill principal candidates all summer long.

The candidates must prove to Superintendent William Hite not only that they have the chops for the job, but also that they aren’t afraid to be held accountable for performance during a budget crisis.

The District has weathered a whirlwind of administrative turnover in the last few years. So Hite has posed this query many times.

Forty-seven schools will have a new principal this year.

Last year, 58 schools saw changes at the top.

"Those numbers are really pretty startling," said parent Terrilyn McCormick, whose son has seen four principals in two years at the Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA). "To me, it’s just mind-boggling. How could there be any sort of focus on improvement? It just can’t happen with that kind of turnover."

McCormick says the leadership tumult has created even more instability for students, parents and teachers who have already been dealing with reduced school resources.

At Bartram High, that instability contributed to headlines of school violence that rocked the city in late March.

When this school year begins, in a 15-month span, Bartram students will have been placed in the hands of four different principals. One of these four needed the help of an unofficial "co-principal" after a heavily publicized incident in which an unruly student fractured a staffer’s skull.

"A strong leader in a stable position is the best thing," said McCormick, whose younger son attends Penn-Alexander Elementary School, where the leadership has been constant since the school’s inception. "The teachers know what they’re getting. The families know what they have. The expectations are set."

Besides raising such concerns, rampant turnover also raises questions about the tenability of an education reform movement that, in large part, seeks change through strong, innovative principals who are given the autonomy to build like-minded teams of teachers.

Turnover

The 2013-14 school year featured a particularly high turnover, with 58 schools beginning the year with a different principal.

Of those, 37 were first-time principals.

Of that group of 37, 32 will return to the same position this year.

Of the five who won’t return, two have left the District entirely (John Dunphy from CAPA and Brian Shaffer from Solis-Cohen Elementary), two will be principals at different District schools, and one, Ogo Okoye-Johnson, will be on "special assignment" at another District school.

Dunphy resigned from CAPA in October after allegations were made that he helped students fabricate their course rosters by giving them credits they didn’t earn.

Okoye-Johnson was removed from Bartram a mere two weeks into her tenure for reasons the District will not disclose. From there, she acted as interim principal of Bache-Martin Elementary, and this year will be on special assignment at E.M. Rhodes Elementary.

In a telephone interview, Hite lamented that the high number of principal vacancies last year caused the hiring process to take longer than desired. Many principals weren’t hired until just before classes began.

"We were very late in the process," said Hite.

Turnover plagued the District in summer 2013 due to a surge of retirements that Hite partly attributed to a fear among principals that separation pay for unused personal and sick time would be eliminated in contract negotiations.

"Last year at this time there was a fear of the unknown," he said. "Individuals did not want to risk that, so they choose to take advantage of their eligibility to retire."

In March, the administrators’ union, CASA, signed a new contract, which retained full separation pay for existing members. New members, though, will receive this benefit at what CASA president Robert McGrogan characterized as a "far lower rate."

Principal retirements Principal resignations Total departures
2012-2013 55 8 63
2013-2014 23 22 45

‘Got it done’

Although admitting missteps, Hite defended the 2013 class of new hires.

"Many districts struggle with retaining principals who are new to that role," he said. "The fact that 32 of the 37 individuals that we selected a year ago are still here speaks to some of the support that we have put in place for these new principals."

One of the hires that Hite singled out was Gene Jones – an educator who last fall brought 32 years of experience in Virginia to George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

Hite praised Jones for running Norfolk high schools when the district was "acknowledged as one of the highest-performing urban school districts in the country."

Jones says he came to Philadelphia for the challenge, but admits he didn’t truly understand the severity of the funding crisis until he was given the keys to Washington.

The ranks of non-teaching aides had been slashed in half, and his 1,600 students had to share one guidance counselor, two nurses, and no librarian.

He says he urged staff, though, to avoid harping on the cuts and to keep a singular focus on the needs of the students.

"We have to provide a public education for kids," he said. "I can’t worry about what politicians and policymakers do. What I care about is what happens on this street – that on Bustleton Avenue, every day, for 180 days, we come in and we give our best to every one of these 1,600 kids who walk in here."

Despite fewer resources, Jones says Washington improved last school year – citing higher Keystone exam scores (based on preliminary results) and more students earning International Baccalaureate diplomas and passing Advanced Placement exams.

Student suspensions went down; teacher attendance rates went up.

"So you take that with some of the cuts that we had," he said, "we got it done."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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