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Principals Are Exiting Schools in Droves

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When he is not happily perched atop his tractor on his 50-acre farm in Gaston County, N.C., where he says it takes him three days to mow the grass, Eugene Hanna spends his days pruning the greens in his garden or reading the daily news.

He is an immeasurable distance from the bustle of Cramerton Elementary School, where he served as the principal for the past 15 years.

Last year, though, the 61-year-old former baseball coach recalls, he decided that "I think it's time to put it over to the next generation.''

Mr. Hanna is part of a wave of older principals across the country who are leaving the profession in record numbers, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Of the 76,000 public school principals in this country, NASSP estiimates, one-fourth have retired in the last five years.

Simple attrition, the increased demands of the job, and--most tempting of all--lucrative retirement packages offered by budget-minded school districts have combined to precipitate this virtual exodus of veteran school leaders.

"We call it the golden handshake,'' said one former administrator.

In many places, like Cramerton, the shifts mark the end of one generation of principals and the beginning of another.

But the massive turnover is causing havoc in many school systems, which are scrambling to fill vacancies. Many schools have been left without a leader for the year.

"Last year was hellacious,'' says Carol J. Genera, a principal at Bromwell Elementary in Denver, where 26 of the city's 111 principals retired last June, marking the highest turnover in the state in one year.

"It was a total upheaval, a devastating change,'' she says.

'A New Face on the Scene'

Although figures are hard to come by, experts estimate that schools are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by offering incentives to higher wage earners to take an easy exit.

"A lot of schools are offering early-retirement packages so they can get younger ones for half the price,'' says Jamie Horowitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.

Last year, 186 principals retired from the New York City public schools, jumping at a pension offer of a three-year credit to their retirement pension for 30 or more years of service.

"We got severely hit with budget cuts, and this was a money saver,'' says Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the New York City schools. Mr. Sobrino adds that the city also cut 2,000 teachers' jobs through an early-retirement package.

"The sense of frustration, coupled with the benefits package, encouraged principals to leave in droves last year,'' says Jimmy Warren, the president of New York High School Principals Association.

Due to a slow approval process, fewer than half the positions were filled by fall last year, leaving 35 New York schools without a complete team in charge.

"It's a problem for students because there is a void in leadership,'' says Mr. Warren.

Many school systems, attentive to the diversity of schools populations, are using these openings to try to hire more minority and women principals.

"What we've had is traditional white male principals who haven't felt the need to keep up with the changes in the country in terms of the opportunity for students to see themselves reflected in the leadership in schools,'' says Milli Blackman, the director of Harvard University's National Principals Center. Ms. Blackman says she receives four calls a week from schools trying to recruit minority and women candidates.

"This is an exciting window of opportunity,'' she adds. "I am not saying the retirees didn't make a contribution, but it's time for a new face on the scene.''

Some schools have actively pursued minority principals, consulting professional "headhunters'' in an effort to entice minorities to their districts.

Mark Masterson, the assistant superintendent of the Plastow, N.H., school system--which hired 12 teachers and one principal this year--says he has attended conferences, quizzed university professors for referrals, and contacted placement centers in an aggressive effort to integrate school staffs.

"We need to recognize that this country is changing,'' Mr. Masterson says. "And for us to interact with the rest of the world, I need to hire a staff that will reflect that.''

But in many districts, the pool of qualified minority applicants is shrinking. In North Carolina, for example, the percentage of black teachers declined from 21 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 1991. Many are lured by better-paying jobs and are reluctant to enter a system that is undergoing dramatic changes.

"You are standing there coming from a poor family, the first in your generation to go to college; it doesn't take Socrates to figure out you'd make more money by going into the private sector,'' says Mr. Masterson.

Women, by contrast, have made notable headway into the principals' ranks in many places, including the District of Columbia.

"I have always loved education,'' says Persephone LaPrince-Brown, who took the helm in May as the principal at Gage Eckington Elementary in Washington after a long career of teaching.

Ms. LaPrince-Brown adds, however, that, as an African-American woman, she has few peers in the principalship.

"Because our population is so diverse, we must utilize people of all races in our drive to bring about positive changes,'' she says. "We must make what's going on in our building relevant in the real world.''

Pressures Too Much To Bear

While the early-retirement incentives have pulled many principals from their jobs, the pressures of the office have also pushed many out. Retiring administrators concede that they are exiting because the professional pressures have become too much to bear.

"Administrators are caught in the middle between the expectations of the community, the teaching staff, the state and the school board mandating programs,'' says Ann Dorr, a former principal at several Los Angeles schools. "Somewhere in middle is a frustrated administrator trying to please everyone.''

"The personal problems of students, whether they are gang related or drug related, are making the administrator's role increasingly difficult to perform,'' says Ms. Dorr, who is writing a book on crisis intervention in schools.

Mr. Warren of New York City also notes that, unlike today, principals once ran schools in collaboration with parents.

"But now,'' he says, "procedures are established downtown, and principals' creativity is compromised.''

But for some, like Ronald Makowski, who will not be returning to Sabin Elementary School in Denver this year, the offer to get out was a mixed blessing.

"If they hadn't offered the package, I would have stayed,'' says Mr. Makowski, who confesses that he misses the students already. "I feel kind of frustrated, because there are still things I'd like to contribute to the system.''

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