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Assistant Principal's Role Is Changing With the Times

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The opening lines of Catherine Marshall's new report on assistant principals read like the introduction to a horror novel.

"Gargoyle: A grotesque waterspout, made to resemble a human or animal figure with its mouth wide open, projecting from the gutter of a building (especially in Gothic architecture) in order to carry the rain water clear of the walls,'' the report begins.

But what follows is an upbeat account of how the assistant principal's role--sometimes referred to as "the educational equivalent of the gargoyle,'' Ms. Marshall says--may be far more satisfying than stereotypes suggest.

Although assistant principals still wrestle with their undying image as school disciplinarian, Ms. Marshall uncovered some surprising information about a position that often is ignored or misunderstood.

"I decided to focus on [the assistant principalship] since so few people in the world of practice and in the world of scholarship'' do so, says Ms. Marshall, a professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They tend to focus on principals and superintendents.''

But the assistant principalship, she points out, "is the place where the values of school leaders are formed.''

Working Behind the Scenes

Ms. Marshall, who published a book on the subject before undertaking the study for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, organized focus groups, conducted interviews, and "shadowed'' assistant principals on the job to create a rich and varied look at the position.

What she found is that assistant principals who remain in their jobs find satisfaction by creating an "internal system of rewards.''

Assistants "do expand the job and do create, in some cases, specializations'' such as adult education, Ms. Marshall observes. "In many cases, these are roles they take on themselves.''

"They build up credit and trust with other teachers and administrators,'' she adds, "but they work behind the scenes. That's the tradeoff.''

However, she notes, "by being behind the scenes, they can do what they want to do, like develop support for a particular student. They get no credit, but they do know that they can make a major difference.''

While many assistants aspire to the principalship, many are content being second in command, the report, "The Unsung Role of the Career Assistant Principal,'' reveals.

Many remain "low in the organizational structure in part because they stay closely connected to kids and communities.'' And, she adds, they do not have to move from school to school or district to district as many principals do.

But the role has also become more challenging, involving assistant principals in nearly every aspect of administration.

"Assistants and other educators are becoming increasingly involved in the kind of administrative team functions that deal with at-risk kids'' and other kinds of instruction, Ms. Marshall explains.

Working on the 'Three C's'

At Thomas Jefferson High School in Bloomington, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, Nan Mizuhata is the attendance, discipline, scheduling and registration, campus security, and special-projects guru. And, since the onset of site-based management, she handles more of the "three C's''--coordinating, committees, and curriculum.

But it is the students, like the 9th through 12th graders at Jefferson, that persuaded her to remain an assistant principal for over 15 years, she says.

"I like this role, so I stay in it,'' she says. "I like to stay close to kids.''

While she agrees that assistants still have to battle stereotypes, Ms. Mizuhata believes those negative images will disappear as their role expands.

"We are moving away from doing just discipline and attendance,'' she says, "because we work with the kids so much.''

And, as more women and members of minority groups enter the profession, the perception of assistant principals will change further, Ms. Mizuhata says.

"It isn't that you're carrying around a big stick, yelling at people in the halls,'' she says, "Now there's a lot more talking and counseling involved.''

"Principals are changing, too. The 'good old boys' network is dissolving,'' she maintains. "And, as the roles above us change, that will change who becomes an assistant principal.''

Assistant principals, she believes, need to do a better job of helping parents and the community understand what the job involves. Awards programs, she says, show parents, teachers, students, and other administrators that assistants can make a significant difference in a school.

"People need to know that we're here to work with the parents in the community, that we do operate on a wide range of tasks during the day,'' Ms. Mizuhata says.

As a member of the NASSP's national assistant principals' committee, Ms. Mizuhata and six others buoy the position by giving assistants "a voice and an identity,'' she explains.

"There are two veins of people'' in the position, she maintains. "Some assistants are tracked for the principalship, but many are rewarded by the role and want to stay in it.''

Those who remain may be the ones who accept that they are not going to get much recognition in the job, she adds. "If you're out for glory, it's not a glory job. That's the nature of the work.''

"I work in a situation where it's a team approach,'' says Salvatore Randazzo, an assistant principal at South Windsor High School outside Hartford, Conn.

Mr. Randazzo, who is also a member of the assistant principals' committee, spends his day working on many of the same tasks that Ms. Mizuhata does. And, like his fellow committee member, Mr. Randazzo finds student activities to be most rewarding.

"We have definitely moved away from'' simply a disciplinary role, he says, "because of the large number of demands being placed on school systems.''

"I have my hand in virtually every piece of the pie,'' Mr. Randazzo says.

School Politics

Some observers say that assistant principals are still too confined by their traditional role, which has not evolved as much as some assistants suggest.

Ann Hassenpflug, an assistant professor of educational administration and secondary education at Trenton (N.J.) State College, was an assistant principal in Madison, Wis., for seven years.

As the district's only female in that position, she says she faced several professional roadblocks.

"This still seems to be a male-dominated job,'' says Ms. Hassenpflug, who is analyzing how assistant principals are hired in small New Jersey school districts. Women who do get hired are often those who "fit in best,'' she says.

"Often, it is someone who has been in the district for a long time,'' she says, and who has been indoctrinated in the way things "should'' be done. "Or, principals hire a clone of themselves.''

And women, who seem to have a tougher time gaining administrative positions, may feel even more pressure to fit into the school culture, she says.

"People who get into [the position] and try to broaden its scope are not encouraged to do that by the principal,'' she asserts. "Unless you are an assistant principal for curriculum or some other specific purpose, you are simply supposed to control'' students.

She points out that most assistants "have the skills and training to problem-solve in the whole school. And yet, they are generally not encouraged to do that or any creative thinking about educational issues.''

And, she maintains, many teachers do not want to see the assistant's position expand to include more instructional supervision because the teachers want autonomy in the classroom.

"The politics of some schools,'' Ms. Hassenpflug says, "seem to keep assistants in the archaic role. They always seem to be caught between the students and parents on one side, and the teachers and administrators on the other.''

Assistant principals could be more effective disciplinarians if they were encouraged to try nontraditional methods of intervention and counseling, she says.

She advocates a programmatic approach that includes support groups for troubled students and courses that are appropriate for students with a wide range of abilities.

Such an approach is better than a case-by-case handling of problems because it helps keep students interested in their education.

For example, Ms. Hassenpflug launched a support group for some 9th-grade girls who continually got into trouble atschool. "All they really needed was to talk,'' she explains.

Although she believes that assistant principals still do not have enough room to grow in the profession, she emphasizes that some measures can be taken in schools to make the job as fulfilling for all assistants as it is for those profiled in Ms. Marshall's report.

"Enlightened principals, who are truly interested in improving education, instead of the politics of the job, would make a difference,'' Ms. Hassenpflug notes.

And, she says, "it might help if the position was renamed 'program developer' or 'manager' or 'director,' so it looks like assistant principals have more responsibility.''

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