House Calls: A Principal on Patrol

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On a cold, drizzling Portland afternoon, Greg Wolleck directs students and cars through

Kellogg Middle School's parking lot to ensure the two do not collide. As students dart safely into buses and cars, Mr. Wolleck dashes to his Honda Civic in the next block.

For this principal, his watch does not end as his flock leaves school. Wolleck spends the next half-hour driving to neighborhood bus stops. He passes several parks where students sometimes fight. Stacks of work await Wolleck in his warm office, but these patrols are important to him.

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School districts dream of a principal like Wolleck. But the job is becoming more difficult to fill. Educators across the nation are shunning the once-coveted position.

Budget cuts and the growing demands of the job are prompting many experienced, highly educated teachers to reject career tracks in school administration. Principals enjoy less job security than in years past, and the pay isn't much better than that of the teachers they supervise.

The Portland school district pays starting elementary school principals only a few thousand dollars more each year than an experienced teacher with a master's degree.

Next year, the district expects to lose 30 of about 100 principals to retirement. Officials don't know how they will fill all the slots.

It is a problem that they share with school districts across the country. According to a survey commissioned by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, more than half the districts surveyed were having trouble filling principal posts. Says executive director Tom Koerner, "In the next five years it's going to get critical."

The job offers fewer rewards, Mr. Koerner says. He compares the job to being the coach of a basketball team. "If the team is not doing well, who goes? The team or the coach?" he says. "The coach."

Persuading students to show up

One of Wolleck's greatest challenges this year is to make sure students show up.

On a given day, about 10 percent of Kellogg's students miss school. During the first semester, about 175 of the school's 688 students missed 10 days or more. Some had legitimate excuses, such as illness, but too many missed classes for other reasons. They might be fishing with a divorced parent or helping their mother run a baby-sitting business. One student, who lives less than a block from Kellogg, has missed more than 40 days. His mother can't figure out how to make him attend.

When students miss school, educators lose valuable time and tax dollars. District spokesman Lew Frederick estimates that absenteeism costs the Portland district about $30 million annually. State funding is based on attendance, and districts are not reimbursed for absentee students. In the past, the district has made up the losses with a contingency fund. This year, the money isn't there.

Enter Wolleck and company.

The district has asked principals to devise plans to deal with the problem. As an incentive, the district plans to give each school half the money it saves by improving attendance. Principals stretched thin aren't thrilled.

"I've heard enough principals say, 'I didn't get in the business to be a truant officer,' " says Mr. Frederick.

Wolleck has dealt with absenteeism for years. Two years ago, Kellogg's absenteeism rate was double what it is this year. Still, Wolleck occasionally feels overwhelmed. The problem has many roots, in discipline and the changing American family, yet principals are charged with dealing with it.

"It's an awful lot for a principal and the school staff to take on," he says. "Part of my job is to improve instruction in the classroom. And if we're out making attendance calls, it takes away time from that."

Wolleck and his staff have spent dozens of hours writing letters to parents and visiting homes to lure kids back. Students are pretty surprised to see him on their doorsteps. Some don't answer the door. But Wolleck says he isn't there to scold them. He just wants them in school.

The principal knows that if his students get into the habit of skipping school now, many won't earn a high school diploma. High school students who miss 12 or more days of school in a semester don't get class credit.

The Portland district has set other goals for its principals. By June, they must come up with a plan to improve achievement. This requires working with a panel of parents, teachers, and others in the community.

Next year, the district plans quarterly reviews of test scores and attendance records to make sure each school meets achievement goals. School administrators who fail to meet the goals might lose their jobs. Wolleck, who won't allow himself to dwell on the added pressure, says Kellogg already had a plan in place.

"One of the reasons I got into administration is, I like challenges," he says. "There are just a little scarier challenges this year."

Knowing his territory

The success of a principal today often depends on how well he or she connects with the community.

When Greg Wolleck patrols bus stops and parks after school, he's reaching out to his students and sending a signal to the community. It makes him feel good to hear parents say they saw him out there and appreciate it.

Wolleck knows the territory. He grew up about a half-mile from Kellogg. And as he drives around his boyhood neighborhood, he waves to students as they step off their buses. Most respond in typical teenage fashion: They pretend they haven't seen him. But they know he's there.

"That's important that they know that there is somebody out there," Wolleck says. "I think it's reassuring, but it's also a warning: Think twice before you do something."

Several months ago, some of Wolleck's students threw apples into the yard of an older woman who lived near a bus stop. She complained, saying a window would get broken or someone would be hurt.

Wolleck talked to the students, then went to the woman's home to listen to her.

The next day she called to tell him that one of the kids had come back to the house. He was there to apologize.

"Those are the nice moments," Wolleck says. "It helps you feel that you're making some progress."

* Part 1 of this series ran Nov. 17, 1997. The Monitor is following Greg Wolleck through a year at Kellogg Middle School in Portland, Ore. Today: the issues that bring him out from behind his desk.

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