Fewer step forward to be school principals

The Mellville School District in suburban St. Louis has 17 schools, and it's lost just as many principals in the past decade. Yet superintendent John Cary considers himself fortunate. As steward of a relatively prosperous district, he's been able to attract experienced administrators to fill the slots. Even for him, though, the task is becoming difficult.

"It alarms me that with what we have to offer, as far as pay and working conditions, we're seeing a dramatic dwindling in the number of candidates," Mr. Cary says. An opening for a principal at an elementary school used to attract 50 to 70 applicants five years ago, he says. Now the number is closer to 20. And often, only one or two of them are actually qualified for the job.

Administrators are bracing for the coming collision of two salient statistics: 40 percent of the nation's 93,200 principals are nearing retirement, according to the Department of Labor, and 42 percent of surveyed districts say they already have a shortage of qualified candidates for open principal positions.

Much attention is focused on a nationwide teacher shortage, but some experts say the education community can't afford to focus primarily on finding foot soldiers when it's also in sore need of generals.

"I've never been in a high-quality school and not seen a very good principal," says Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the national association of secondary school principals. "You can't really transform a school one classroom at a time. You have to look at the whole school."

Amid the current teacher shortage, there are at least some stopgap measures: accelerated-certification programs and overseas recruitment. But when it comes to the principal problem, education leaders say they are looking across a chasm, with few signs of a bridge under construction.

The problem is showing up in urban, suburban, and rural districts alike, though city schools are particularly hard hit. Some suburban districts can lure urban principals by offering raises of $30,000 or more, thus exacerbating the problem downtown.

With retirements, the pool of veteran teachers is shrinking. And surveys show that they are responding with a resounding "thanks, but no thanks" when queried about taking over management of a school. The reasons could fill a blackboard.

A modern principal must be nearly as accomplished as a university president - while still tending to bus schedules. Increased concern with discipline and school security means principals must act as chiefs of police. Vocal and diverse community groups require them to be master politicians. The current reform climate pushes them to be visionary educators. Budget cuts force them to be fund-raisers. To top it off, the standardized-testing and accountability movement threatens to make principals seem as expendable as pro-football coaches after a losing season.

"There's no doubt the job has gotten harder in the last few years compared to when I started," says Dennis Garber, principal of Hoffman Estates High School in suburban Chicago and a past Illinois "principal of the year." He will retire at the end of this school year after serving 20 years as principal and another 12 as a teacher. "There are more outside pressure groups saying you ought to do it this way or you ought to do it that way. I still love my job, but it's really tough to face that day after day and maintain a positive outlook."

Principals are facing longer hours in their day job, plus more nights than ever when they have to return to school for sporting events, theater productions, or community meetings.

And then there's money. "Salary compression" has narrowed the gap between principal pay and teacher pay. The average principal's salary remains higher than the average teacher's, but the difference between new principals' salaries and those of veteran teachers has narrowed, and, in some cases, starting administrator salaries are even lower.

Both local districts and states are seeking solutions. Ohio opened a Principals Leadership Academy in 1999 to train would-be principals and veterans alike. Philadelphia launched the Leadership in Education Apprentice Design. New York has a score of programs to identify principal candidates among the teacher pool. And a dozen states have passed laws allowing alternative routes to principalship, primarily for businesspeople with managerial experience.

Other programs focus on the structure of the job. The Texas Principals Leadership Initiative, which coordinates principal training statewide, is looking at ways to divide the principalship, for instance between business and education duties.

"We need to take a hard look at the job itself and make it something a human being can in fact accomplish," says Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "Right now, you don't have veteran teachers looking at the job and saying, yes, that's something I really want to do because I can make a difference with children."

It's not easy to get agreement on which approaches will be effective. "Solutions are difficult because of differences in perception," says superintendent Cary. "You have fewer and fewer qualified applicants because they think it's too little pay.... Yet there's a ... feeling now in communities and state legislatures that there may be too many administrators ... [and] they're overpaid."

Bring on the 'kid principals'

As the nationwide pool of principal candidates shrinks, school systems are faced with few options: They can recruit outside the district, recruit outside the profession, or "go young" - take a risk on 20-somethings who lack a decade or more of classroom experience.

Across the US, examples of willingness to take such a risk are multiplying. At Bloom Elementary School in Lithopolis, Ohio, Justin Knight has taken charge this fall, despite having only six years of teaching experience. He says his age (27) is a tricky issue, one his teachers are still coming to grips with. "A couple of teachers are retiring this year and the joke is, they've taught longer than I've been alive," Mr. Knight says.

He takes this into account in his managerial style. "At my age, if I came in here and ... made a lot of drastic changes, I'd probably lose my position."

While the hiring of young principals is a last resort in many places, in Compton, Calif., it is practically a strategy. The state took over the troubled district's 34 schools eight years ago. Since then, Randolph Ward, the state-appointed administrator, has hired a number of principals under 30, and currently oversees four in their 20s. They're nicknamed "the kid principals of Compton."

"Originally we were looking at [potential principals in their 20s] because of the shortage of qualified candidates at any age, but now we're looking for those kinds of prospects and even trying to grow our own," says Mr. Ward, who has made a point of promoting promising mid-20-somethings into assistant principalships.

"When you put people in principal positions who are smart and have a no-excuse, bull-headed attitude toward accomplishment, that tends to take away the risk factor associated with the younger age," says Ward, who himself became a principal at 32.

One of Ward's young hires is Stephen Schatz. Becoming a principal was the furthest thing from his mind in college. But he caught the bug when he joined Teach for America, a program that sends young teachers to needy schools. "I was so excited about teaching and being able to control the educational destiny of 20 kids," Mr. Schatz says. "The opportunity to do that with 500 or 1,000 kids - whatever the size of the school - the idea started to grow on me."

Indeed, at 28 he is in his third year as principal of Laurel Street Elementary School in Compton. Although the fresh-faced Schatz has yet to be mistaken for the crossing guard, nevertheless, he says, "About every day I have to say 'I'm the principal' to someone; it's not necessarily obvious."

"Sometimes the parents are surprised by how young I am, but it always comes back to: Are you going to provide the best education possible for my child?"

Part of the answer came last year with the results of the Stanford 9 achievement tests. The school's math scores jumped to the 59th percentile (in 1999, they were in the 39th percentile). According to Ward, it was the first time in more than a decade that any school in Compton had broken the 50th-percentile barrier.

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