Philadelphia School District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon did not mince words. "We realize we must do something about the leadership challenge that we have in Philadelphia," said Nixon, a former principal herself. SRC member Wendell Pritchett called principals "the most important adults" in the district.
Inspired in part by an Action United/Education Voters Pennsylvania report on heavy leadership turnover at the city's toughest schools, the School Reform Commission focused its Monday night policy meeting on principal leadership. The numbers are sobering - more than two-thirds of city schools have experienced at least one leadership change in the last five years. More than a quarter of all schools have had three or more principals in that time; 20 have had four principals in those five years, and 52 have had three principals in five years.
Nixon said the district is committed to better recruiting, developing and retaining principals. She said the district is pursuing five recruitment pathways; one, a school-based future leaders program, follows a New York model of identifying top principals and having them in turn tap strong leaders within their schools to develop as principals.
But the most remarkable thing about the meeting was the number of actual working principals present, and the insights they shared. So much of what happens at district headquarters involves people who don't work in schools making decisions about people who do. On Monday night, the principals spoke loud and clear.
Here are some concerns/ideas/frustrations they shared:
-Many principals said they need help with more mental health/behavioral services. Budget cuts hit these areas hard, and that's affected school climate.
-Too many programs are being thrown at schools, one principal said. Schools should be able to do a few things well, not simply have to implement every edict thrown at them by the central office. (District officials have said they want principals to have more autonomy, but it's not yet clear what exactly that means.)
-Non-instructional staff need professional development. Training isn't something only for teachers.
-Principals need help getting parents involved in their schools.
-Principals need more time in classrooms, to be instructional leaders. With $700 million in budget cuts handed down during the 2011-12 school year, already-squeezed principals were forced to become nurses, school police officers, lunch aides and more. They need to spend more time as "master teachers."
-Principals feel they need more and better substitute teachers. One principal expressed frustration that when teachers go on leave, it often takes too long to get a qualified replacement into the classroom.
-One principal said she believes strongly that high-quality teachers need to be attracted. The district should be going into universities to find the best and brightest students.
-Principals spoke of the need to help them find community partnerships. As district funds dwindle, schools lose services they can't afford to lose.
-"We don't just need supports and systems," Sayre High Principal Khalia Ames said. "We need quality supports and systems."
-Some principals said they feel that the district often makes decisions without them, that they're often the last to know about decisions that directly affect their schools. They asked to be consulted, to be involved in conversations, not simply talked to in memos and e-mails.
-Principals said that figuring out how to run their schools in the worst budget situation anyone has ever seen is the biggest challenge they face.
-Climate is a real issue, some principals said. And that goes back to the mental health/behavioral services issue. "We can't educate them if we don't meet their needs," one principal said.
-Principals lamented the fact that they can't really use their buildings as community hubs. They'd like to open them to the community more, but when they open them, they have to pay facilities costs, and their bare-bones budgets can't stretch to cover those. They feel like they're missing an opportunity to build community involvement.
-One principal asked for more flexibility with professional development. Allow schools to tailor training to their needs, not just read from a script.
-One principal spoke forcefully about the need to get rid of "extremely ineffective people" - teachers and other staff.
-One principal spoke about a suburban company that funds multiple programs she can't afford to pay for, and suggested city companies be encouraged to do the same thing.
-One principal talked about how in prior years, her teachers were extremely dedicated, staying late and coming in on Saturdays to do extra work. The faculty was cohesive. But after budget cuts - many teachers were laid off and then called back at the last minute - morale plummeted, and teachers are hesitant to give as much.
-One principal pointed out that in 10 years at her school, she's had six regional/assistant superintendents. Every one came with a new vision, and that's affected her school.
-Ethelyn Payne Young, the principal of Overbrook High, spoke passionately about the need for central administrators to understand the reality of struggling schools. "You need to live what we live every day," she said. "There is no plan in place to properly meet the needs of these children every day." When schools are overhauled in-district - the Promise Academy model - the first thing that happens is that teachers perceived to be ineffective are cast aside. And they end up at schools like Overbrook, she pointed out.
-Longtime education advocate - and former district employee - Debbie Weiner suggested that the district's toughest schools become "no rookie zones," with very few inexperienced teachers allowed and no inexperienced principals.
-Frank Murphy, the longtime principal of Meade Elementary, now retired, talked about his long, successful tenure at the high-needs school. He had extensive training before becoming a principal, and built a cohesive, stable school. But toward the end of his tenure, "nothing was ever, ever good enough," and he now encourages people not to become principals in tough city schools because they're set up to fail, he said. Murphy said that instead of talking about how to get rid of bad teachers and principals, the district should be talking about how to support and retain good ones.
Pritchett, who led the meeting, said he appreciated the feedback and that the SRC would solicit more as it continues overhauling the district, focusing on school autonomy and a leaner central office.