This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
It’s a few minutes before 8 a.m. and Krystal Hardy, the principal of Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary, a charter school in New Orleans, is greeting a line of third-graders as they shuffle down the hall.
“I like the way you keep your eyes forward and your voice turned off,” she says to a student with a green bow in her hair who has been ignoring a whispered conversation behind her. The girl shoots Ms. Hardy a cautious smile.
“Tuck in that shirt,” Hardy says to another. The young boy hastily shoves his green polo shirt into his khaki pants. “We need you to be ready to learn, so you need to look like you’re ready to learn,” says Hardy.
It’s the second full week of instruction at the start of the second year of Hardy’s tenure as principal, and the administrator, a wiry, intense young woman, is cautiously optimistic. This time last year, she and thousands of other public school principals around the country began their first year in the front office and stepped directly into what many consider one of the toughest jobs in America.
And one of the most important. In the age of the knowledge economy, education increasingly shapes the future success of individuals as well as nations. So the Monitor and The Hechinger Report decided to follow a principal through her inaugural year at a struggling urban school to find out how hard the job really is, how it’s changed, and what it reveals about the state of American education.
Being a school principal has never been easy, of course. Traditionally, the role was like being the chief executive officer and face of the school. The principal hired teachers, interpreted directives from the district and state, and balanced the budget (in theory). Day to day, this meant wrestling with innumerable smaller tasks: handling the concerns of parents, disciplining unruly kids, negotiating food service contracts, and figuring out what to do with the balky air conditioner in the gym.
The new generation of principals, though, especially those who work in urban schools, have become far more involved with what happens in the classroom. Spurred by new state laws that call for improved methods of teacher evaluation, many districts across the country are looking for principals to serve as instructional leaders and talent judges – ones who will help teachers improve, rewarding those deemed “most effective” and firing those who aren’t.
“There is a big shift in what the principal job looks like these days,” says Robyn Hansen, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. States are under pressure to make sure teachers are being regularly evaluated, and “the teacher evaluation system requires principals to be in and out of the classroom and to drive instructional practices to be better.”
The new role, though, has come with new expectations, pressures, and risks. This is one reason nearly 30 percent of principals who lead troubled schools quit every year. By Year 3, more than half of all principals leave their jobs.
Hardy’s challenge would be a similarly daunting one at Sylvanie Williams – a squat, 1960s-style building with about 400 low-income African-American students in the Central City section of New Orleans. The previous year, about 50 percent of its students were performing below grade level, behavioral infractions had risen, and the state had dropped Sylvanie Williams’s performance grade from a C to a D.
The former principal departed, along with a raft of teachers. The charter school operator, like so many that lead district and charter schools around the nation that serve this vulnerable population, scrambled to find a proven leader.
But finding a principal who could bring calm to Sylvanie Williams, deliver stability to the staff, and improve learning was difficult. In fact, the charter management organization that runs the school, New Orleans College Prep (NOCP), offered a $10,000 referral fee for anyone who came up with a successful candidate.
When NOCP founder Ben Kleban hired Hardy, though, “there was no question she was the right person for the job,” Mr. Kleban recalls. She didn’t have experience running a school, but her background made her well suited to take on what they all acknowledged would be a difficult task. “She herself had been the first in her family to go college. She had been in the classroom. She had experience working with teachers.” And, he adds, “she was driven.”
Still, basic questions loomed: Could she really help revive Sylvanie Williams – and would she even survive long in the job herself?
• • •
It’s perhaps not surprising Hardy ended up doing something in education. Growing up without much money in Selma, Ala., she experienced how empowering the classroom can be.
“I know what it is for people to think that because of what you look like, or where you live, or how you dress, that you can’t succeed,” she says.
It was a hardscrabble existence. At one point, her mother was navigating two jobs – driving a school bus and working as an administrative aid at a public school. Her father was a carpenter. The family often got Hardy’s clothes and toys from the Salvation Army.
Hardy excelled academically. She was awarded a substantial aid package to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where she majored in sociology and African-American studies – an experience she describes as “transformative.”
She joined Teach for America in 2007 and worked for two years as a teacher in Baton Rouge, La. Then she spent two years as a TFA instructional coach in central Alabama. In 2011, she was appointed assistant principal at a school in New Orleans, a job she held for two years, before arriving as “principal in residence” at NOCP a few months before the former principal departed. She was 29 years old.
Hardy’s first challenge at Sylvanie Williams was simply getting to know the staff, the parents, and the 400 or so children who attended what was then a pre-K through fifth-grade school. (This academic year, the school has added a sixth grade.) Ten years ago, a newly appointed principal would probably have already known the school community well. The administrator would likely have done a 10- to 15-year apprenticeship, serving as teacher, lead teacher, and assistant principal in the district and sometimes even in the same building. But with turnover in the front office so high, the new generation of administrators, many of them very young, often have to start their introductions from scratch.
Under the new organization at Sylvanie Williams, old-style principal duties such as discipline, scheduling, and outreach were taken over by the dean of students, Jimmie Brown, who patrols the hallways to head off conflicts and check on children, and the chief of operations, Erin LaBostrie.
Hardy’s job centered more on academic progress, which demanded both a broad vision and a pointillist attention to detail. She had to provide teachers at Sylvanie Williams with a general blueprint for educational achievement as well as specific guidance to improve their instruction.
Her first weeks were spent bobbing in and out of classrooms, holding an open laptop, observing the teachers, and giving them oral feedback. She would hand them hastily scrawled sticky notes and follow up with comments about what she had observed. All through the fall, Hardy felt as if she had to hurry.
“We have good teachers. My challenge is this: How do I, as a school leader, grow their effectiveness and grow it more quickly?”
Sometimes, at a teacher’s request, she would jump in front of a blackboard to help refocus a class.
“Eyes on the ceiling,” Hardy said forcefully one day, redirecting a lesson one of her teachers was delivering to a restless group of kindergartners on forming letters. “Eyes on me!” she commanded, then taught the class with broad, hard-to-miss gestures. Later, she sent the teacher a directive by e-mail.
Researchers say that getting principals out of the front office and into the classroom is central to driving schools forward today. “The desire for principals to focus and work with teachers and students on the quality of teaching and learning is really spot on to what the research says should provide meaningful improvements in student achievement,” says Ellen Goldring, a professor of educational policy and leadership at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Different voices who want to improve education have been calling for this for a long time.”
In those early months, Hardy’s office became something of a war room. Colorful line graphs affixed to the walls showed student progress on interim standardized tests – an attempt to forecast the kids’ progress toward meeting standards on the all-important state and Common Core exams. Hardy planned every school day around maximizing opportunities to provide guidance to her staff. She assigned daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals for teachers. All were written out in crisp detail and color-coded.
Each day, she held a mini-lesson for teachers about instruction. She would also set aside time to see how her instructors were improving and where they needed help. Often, the instructions were linked to teaching students a specific state or Common Core standard.
In the evening, Hardy checked her teachers’ lesson plans and sought out programs and opportunities to provide her staff with targeted professional development. She was also reading books on business leadership to improve her own skills.
“I believe that if we are going to move forward it is not because I am a visionary leader,” Hardy said at one point, “but because we are a team.”
Yet not all was well in the buffed halls of Sylvanie Williams.
• • •
On Sunday afternoons, Hardy spent time writing a newsletter to her staff that singled out teachers for “glows” and “grows.” It also set goals for the coming week.
In one of her early reports, Hardy noted that when it came to “establishing and maintaining appropriate school culture, 19 percent of teachers have been off-track, 81 percent of teachers have been on track, and none have been exceeding expectations.”
Most of the teachers were happy to be given the opportunity to improve their practice and appreciated the feedback. But a small minority also found her dogged focus on data, her lengthy directives, and her attention to detail overwhelming and intimidating.
Such granular guidance, however well intentioned, can have big repercussions. Even the most energetic and tenacious school leaders need tact and good people skills to retain and inspire staff. In a 2010 survey of 40,000 teachers conducted by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “supportive leadership” was the top reason teachers opted to remain in the classroom.
But if Hardy’s delivery sometimes grated, many teachers looked beneath the surface and saw just how passionately she wanted Sylvanie Williams to become a safe, calm oasis where children could get the education they needed.
“We had to get used to each other, but I think many of us recognized that we all wanted the same thing: to help these children learn,” says Leah Logan, then a third-grade science, social studies, and math teacher. In interviews over the course of a school year, many Sylvanie Williams teachers said they believed that Hardy’s approach might help them get there.
Still, the relationship between principal and teacher is often a complicated one. “The principal is highly dependent on teachers to increase student learning and achievement,” says Ms. Goldring of Vanderbilt University. “But how you motivate, support, and create a climate of mutual trust and accountability is equally important to helping teachers improve their practice.”
Throughout the autumn, Hardy set a grueling pace. Her weekdays started at 6 a.m., and many days she remained at the school past 7 p.m. On weekends, she worked from home – answering the 120-plus e-mails that piled up each day in her inbox and critiquing, in writing, her teachers’ lesson plans. Kleban and William Murphy, then NOCP’s chief academic officer and Hardy’s direct manager, recognized that their newest principal might need to rethink her pace.
“To an extent, a 17-hour day, at least at first, is part of the turnaround model,” says Mr. Murphy. “But over time, a good principal needs to dial it back and create a more sustainable balance. That becomes a professional objective like any other.”
Researchers say that, next to teachers, principals are the most important factor in improving student achievement. About 25 percent of a student’s academic gain can be attributed to an effective chief administrator. But effective school leaders also need time – usually about five years – to build trust with faculty and parents, set a vision for improvement, and hire the right people. The majority of principals who head up schools that serve low-income students leave before they can make lasting changes. The ones who remain in the profession often move to schools that serve more affluent students whose needs are less overwhelming.
The departure of a principal, in turn, often sets off an exodus of teachers. School culture can also be disrupted, and parent engagement wavers. Looking broadly at the effect of principal turnover on student learning, researchers from Mount Holyoke College studied 12 years of data from North Carolina public schools. They found that when principals leave, student achievement generally declines for two years. Kleban, who served as both a teacher and a principal in his 20s before becoming a charter management CEO, knows the importance of stability in the front office. “We want to make sure the needs of our students are met, while at the same time creating a school environment where a person like Krystal could be a principal for years and meet her own life’s goals,” he says. “Have we gotten to a place where we can create a job that a principal would want to stay in for 15 years? No, I don’t think so.”
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Kleban decided to shut down e-mail service for his teachers and administrators after 7 p.m. on weekdays and on the weekend. His goal: forcing “our team to manage our time better during the workday, think more intentionally about how we communicate with each other, and experience our downtime more peacefully.”
Yet it is not just long hours and an avalanche of e-mails that drive principals from their job. Researchers say that isolation and lack of professional support pose enduring problems as well. By Christmas, Hardy, who had been participating in a school leadership program through a teachers college in New York City, began to integrate some of what she was learning in New Orleans and through her long-distance lessons to fashion a more personal approach to school improvement.
“She made some very necessary course corrections,” says one of her mentors, Richard Streedain, a professor of educational leadership at National-Louis University and a school principal for 25 years in the Chicago area. At her core, “she knows that achievement is about academic progress but also about character and social justice. I think she wanted that for her school.”
In the new year, Hardy’s leadership style began to evolve. The school had grown calmer, and the state had renewed Sylvanie Williams’s charter. Although Hardy was still dipping in and out of classrooms, she let her teacher-coaches work with teachers directly. She still provided her instructional staff with mini-lessons during “morning circle” but not five days a week. Sometimes, she let others lead the meetings.
Hardy got her staff to encourage students to join after-school programs. She established intramural sports teams, a cheerleading squad, and a drum line to complement the academic tutoring the school was offering. With significant attention to outreach and marketing, the number of parents attending the school’s open house rose.
One evening, Hardy gathered her instructional team together, not to review a video on best practices for classroom management, but to play laser tag and eat Buffalo wings.
Yes, she still wrote the newsletter on Sunday afternoon, but she might send a friendly text to a staff member as well. She began to make time for her personal life: She even set a date for her wedding (and recently got married).
In the spring, she took a group of top students to commemorate the civil rights march of 1965 from Montgomery to Selma, Ala. In the aftermath of the news about the police shootings of young black men, she urged her teachers to discuss law enforcement and racial issues in class.
“We have to think of the world that these children exist in,” Hardy says. “And prepare them for it.”
• • •
As the school year drew to a close, Sylvanie Williams, with Hardy at the helm, had shown improvements. But more needed to be done as well.
Behavioral infractions, which had soared the year before she arrived, continued to drop. But the number of students who were chronically absent from school rose from 31 percent to 37 percent.
When the state test scores measuring achievement in social studies and science were released, the results were disappointing. Although the youngest students showed improvement, less than half the students were, on average, at grade level in those subjects.
More important – and nerve-racking for Hardy – are the results of the exams aligned with the Common Core, which still aren’t known. (The state hasn’t released them yet.) On the interim tests, student achievement was inching up. But more than half of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders were still not reading at grade level.
The school experienced considerable turnover as well. Five of the 14 teachers who taught kindergarten through fifth-grade classes left. Murphy, Hardy’s direct manager and chief of academics, moved on, and a more experienced principal in the charter school network who had become a friend and colleague to Hardy announced that she would, too.
When the front doors of Sylvanie Williams opened up again this past August, the routines that administrators put in place to restore order the previous year were in full force. Children were chided for touching their hair. They were encouraged to not let their eyes roam, to not talk in the hallway, and to line up on a taped line in their classrooms. Yet another administrator had joined Mr. Brown to deal with disciplinary infractions.
While her teacher-leaders do many of the classroom evaluations, Hardy herself again began visiting the classrooms of some of the least experienced teachers. She sent them content resources and offered management pointers. For new teachers, the scrutiny was unsettling.
“I get so nervous,” one rookie teacher says breathlessly a few minutes after Hardy takes a seat in her classroom, laptop at the ready. “I can hardly teach.”
This year, though, Hardy’s tenor has softened. “It’s not about teachers doing it wrong,” she says later. “It’s about creating a climate where we feel comfortable admitting what is going well, what is going not so well, being vulnerable with each other.”
It’s an important development. In their zeal to create new models to help vulnerable children, mission-driven education reformers across the country have created schools where the days are demanding and the goals grueling. It’s why even the most gifted principals and teachers leave so quickly.
“I’ve evolved a lot,” says Hardy. “I’m thinking a lot about soft skills. I’m a good technical executor. Now the conditions are right for me to be more of the people person that I really am.”
She’s still pushing for change. She is just more at peace with the progress of her students, her staff, and her evolution as a leader.
The question now is, Will Sylvanie Williams take a great leap forward?
© 2015 The Christian Science Monitor and The Hechinger Report