Good principals and good schools

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

It has happened again.

In fact, it keeps happening. So much so, it's worth writing about once again:

Recognition that the key to a successful school is the principal or headmaster/headmistress.

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The Ford Foundation set out this year to find some urban high schools that were, by their own definitions, successful.

The foundation invited all the high schools in 36 cities to nominate themselves for awards if they felt they had ''significantly improved their performance during the past decade.''

Then it sent out an independent panel of educators to the more than 140 schools that said they were succeeding to determine if they really were.

Four of the 16 site visitors lunched with a group of education writers May 17 and discussed what they found to be common among the 110 high schools awarded a citation and $1,000.

A determination by faculty and staff to stop being known as a ''lousy'' or ''troubled'' school was one common thread.

Another was the students' knowing what the school was about and feeling a part of it all. Also, a feeling of expectancy - a ''can do'' attitude - and a general feeling of pride in the school, both its physical attributes and its program.

But the key ingredient - the key as to whether the students felt welcome, whether the teachers felt proud, whether the building was abused - was, all site visitors agreed, the principal.

In school after school (that is, in those that were cited for awards), the principals were able to address hundreds of the pupils by name as they passed through the corridors.

In one school, when the issue of how teachers were going to be able to keep in touch with parents and guardians who couldn't easily come to the building, eight outside-line phones were added for just this purpose.

In most schools, the principals told the visitors that they regularly walked the halls; regularly expected to meet students in the halls visiting with friends and feeling at home; regularly expected teachers to have their doors open to relieve the tension for those students struggling in the academic theater.

Principal after principal had found a way to have administrative chores done, so that he or she, black or white, could be free to mingle with students and consult with teachers.

A reporter asked: ''Is it possible to find a good school with a lousy principal?'' The four educators, who had just visited about 40 schools, had no trouble with that question.

''No. Every good school had a good principal.''

Mortimer Adler, who will be presenting a dramatic plan for a revolution at both the elementary and the high school levels across the United States this fall, came to the same conclusion that so many other school critics have. At a Harvard symposium he stated: ''The superintendent of schools is not the key to a good school - for these people the work is administration and the delivery of services to school buildings.

''It's the principal who is the key. And a principal who is busy with administrative details will have a poor school.

''Needed,'' he maintained, are ''a head teacher; a master teacher; a teaching principal.''

For those who want to see improvement in a local school, it would appear there is a single place to look. If the principal is both a master teacher and focused on the same goals as the community, then he or she needs all the support possible to make a troubled school into a working school.

If, on the other hand, the principal is not a master teacher, doesn't love the children in the school, hasn't a clear set of goals and pride in accomplishing them (or his/her goals are different from those of the community), then take a leaf from these education experts:

Get a new principal.

Get a good principal.

Support him or her.

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