Published Online: April 16, 1997

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Respecting the Integrity of the School Year

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The game of musical chairs and tumbling dominoes in public schools.

In January, The Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island ran an Op-Ed piece I wrote laying out a simple New Year's resolution for schools looking to bring some order and reason to the leadership and management of our public schools. Basically, all I asked was that superintendents, principals, and teachers--anyone in the schools with direct responsibility for students--not retire or change jobs in the middle of the school year.

My piece was triggered, in part, by the announcement that Providence Superintendent Arthur Zarrella would retire from his position on Feb. 1, 1997, when his contract ended. His decision to resign made front-page news in the state--as it should have. The story talked about the difficulty of the job, the struggles of leading an urban district, and the accomplishments and disappointments of his five years in office. Nowhere was there even the slightest raised eyebrow over the timing of his departure.

Nor was that part of the decision ever questioned in the days that followed, when an impressive, if not surprising, public outcry urged the school committee to renew the contract and keep him in office.

During the week my piece appeared, two other superintendents in Rhode Island announced they were leaving immediately, one to take on another superintendency in a nearby state, the other to retire. In the latter case, especially, the disruption to students was palpable: The superintendent was replaced by a principal from another district who in turn was replaced by a veteran 6th grade teacher, who presumably would be replaced by a permanent substitute for the remainder of the school year. The parents of those 6th graders learned about the teaching change in a letter sent home the same week the change was to take place.

This game of musical chairs and tumbling dominoes in public schools is not a Rhode Island phenomenon. A couple of years ago, while editing a book called The First Year as Principal, a collection of essays written by current and former principals across the country, I was struck by how many principals talked about being appointed to and starting their new positions on the day before school opened in September, three weeks into October, or the middle of February. It was the rare public school principal who reported getting the appointment in the spring, starting the job in the relative calm of July, spending the next two months getting to know the place and gathering thoughts about where the school needed to go, and being in a strong leadership position when the doors opened in September.

In most cases, the awkward timing of these new appointments is the result of a retirement or some other midyear departure that could have been postponed until the school year ended. There is little concern for the rhythm of the school year or the needs of teachers, students, and parents. The clock strikes one, and out they run, leaving behind them a rippling effect throughout other schools as a string of educators are tapped to fill the vacancies.

Meanwhile, school boards, the unions, the public--all of us--have come to believe that such a pattern is OK.

The harshest critics of our schools might argue: If one of these so-called educators wants to leave the system for retirement or any reason, good riddance. It opens the door for a fresh face. Teachers and administrators might point to their contractual rights, the hard-won trophies from the negotiation wars: We deserve it; it's in the contract.

Sadly, both of these arguments have merit.

We ask students and parents to respect the continuum of the school year; it seems fitting and fair to expect the same from those who lead the schools and direct the learning.

We pay a high price for these midyear changes in terms of the impact on the professional and personal development of the educators tapped to fill the vacancies. By even permitting such transitions, schools are saying that the incoming person needs no orientation to the position or time to plan for how his or her vision might be shaped and shared with the school community. There is no time for gathering a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and students, or for communicating anything to a disparate and dispirited public. The new person gets the keys to the office and immediately is bombarded with the daily pressures of school life. Running for cover replaces any idealism and hope that the new administrator might have brought to the office.

The best educators, of course, find ways to come up for air and even flourish. They eventually hit their stride and lead their classes, schools, or districts to better places. Still, it is hard to justify the unnecessary lost time and missed opportunities.

For the many others, however, who might have served better had they had a good beginning, the costs are incalculably high. Communication breaks down. Teaching and learning sputter. Wrong signals get sent to the students and parents. All of this turmoil because a birthday or contract anniversary provides one person with the opportunity to walk away from the schools financially intact or because a more lucrative or interesting challenge elsewhere allows someone to walk out on a current contract.

My point is not to focus on any individual, but to wonder what has happened to the basic culture of our schools when any teacher or administrator can leave in the middle of the year for any reason other than poor health, gross incompetence, something criminal, or perhaps because another family member's move requires it. Nothing else should count.

We ask students and parents to respect the continuum of the school year; it seems fitting and fair to expect the same from those who lead the schools and direct the learning. Between September and June, teaching and learning supposedly are the primary concerns for all educators, and it makes sense that they would venture through those months with a vision of what needs to happen and a commitment to see those plans through to the end.

What benefits might our schools enjoy if we simply insisted on a more orderly approach to transition for administrators and teachers, if we simply asked that people departing for elective reasons consider the end of the school year as the only time to leave their schools? Perhaps we can agree--within the profession--that, except in the most unforeseen and necessary instances, educators should start and end the school year with their students. The gains might be small, to be sure, but any gain is worth considering, especially when it costs nothing to implement.

Then, again, changing this pattern among educators might trigger a number of other adjustments in the way schoolpeople think about their work. Whatever we do to help schools keep their focus on the children and on what it takes to promote learning for all children, every day, is worth doing and will move us in the right direction. Who knows, we might even discover a few other good ideas along the way.

By the way, the Providence school committee did succeed at convincing Superintendent Zarrella to stay on the job, and they gave him a three-year contract. Sadly, this new contract was written so that it, too, will end in the middle of the school year--Feb. 1, 2000.


Ronald Thorpe, a former teacher and administrator, is the vice president for programs at the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence, R.I.

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