Resident Principal Brings Real-World Perspective to Washington
Linda Quinn has grown to expect the question by now, but it still makes her squirm.
Ms. Quinn, 45, has been asked the question dozens of times in the past year while she's been the principal-in-residence at the Department of Education.
"A lot of what I do is go to meetings and people ask: 'Would this work in a real school?'" said Ms. Quinn, whose temporary office is decorated with memorabilia from Seattle, her hometown, and Puyallup High School near there, where she has been the principal for seven years.
Throughout her one-year sabbatical here, federal officials have sought her expertise and opinion on topics such as technology in the classroom, teacher preparation, and early-childhood education.
Ms. Quinn is the fourth principal to serve in the one-year, salaried appointment at the department.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley also hired Terry K. Dozier, a former National Teacher of the Year, to serve on his permanent staff as an adviser. ("Teacher Adviser Provides 'Reality Check' in ED," Sept. 18, 1996.)
A Touch of Reality
Having led her 1,700-student high school through a major renovation, which included a technology upgrade, Ms. Quinn adds a dose of reality to dreams that new computers and phone lines will make everything better for schools.
After Puyallup High finished its renovation, she said, its receptionists fielded 400 calls a day because every teacher had a phone in the room for the first time.
The solution: installing a computer-assisted answering service that directs callers to the appropriate voice-mail box.
And, in the middle of the first year in the remodeled building, the school's budget for supplies such as printer cartridges ran into the red. The solution that time: reallocating money from other budget areas and curbing the printers' use.
"I've lived with no technology, and I've lived with lots of technology," Ms. Quinn said in a recent interview. "The technology is great. But it's hard getting there."
From the windowless office she has occupied for the past year in close proximity to a bevy of Mr. Riley's aides, Ms. Quinn also has prodded department officials on issues she feels are important.
For one, she has pushed to recruit principals to support President Clinton's proposed America Reads program, which could flood schools with volunteers recruited to help children learn how to read.
She's also reminded them that any federally funded teacher training needs to be "directly tied to curriculum" for it to be effective.
Advice on such practical matters is the reason Mr. Riley created a spot on his staff for a working principal to fill a one-year appointment.
"It's important to have people that are fresh from the field in a position like that," said Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
"It provides the Department of Education staff up-to-date information about what's going on," Mr. Sava added.
Wisdom, Peace and Quiet
These days, Ms. Quinn is spending time helping to select her replacement from nominations submitted by chief state school officers and national organizations.
By the time the next principal-in-residence moves in in August, Ms. Quinn plans to be patrolling the halls of Puyallup High again.
For everything that she's contributed, Ms. Quinn says she will take home wisdom collected in her one-year stint in the nation's capital.
"I imagine I'll take with me more than what I've left," she said.
She's discovered the resources available at the department, ranging from grants to publications. She also has learned that schools can seek waivers from federal rules they believe confine their ability to innovate.
And her temporary job's slower pace has helped her realize that she tends to "get caught up in the frenetic pace of the high school," she said.
"I'm going to go back and make a commitment to building reflection into my life somehow," she said.
But she wouldn't trade that peace and quiet for the crowded and noisy halls of Puyallup High School. "I've savored this time away," she said, "but I know that's where I want to go back to."