Reporter's Notebook

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Revitalized Leadership, Instruction Central to Principals' Agenda

Developing a new style of school leader was a common thread through the week's workshops and general session at the National Association of Secondary School Principals' annual convention, held here Feb. 4-8.

Nearly 6,000 principals, other administrators, and scholars packed the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center to hear speakers and to hold discussions on instruction, leadership, school safety, and professional training.

Principals also were introduced to inventive ideas, including a revolutionary one from Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he is also a professor of humanities.

Reiterating an argument he made in a 1997 book, he called for the end of the American high school as educators know it.

Mr. Botstein, who is the author of Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, wants to eliminate the 11th and 12th grades, allowing students greater choice in their educational and employment paths starting at age 16. He argued that because young people reach physical maturity more quickly now than they did earlier in the century, they need new options for acquiring emotional maturity through work or further study.

He called the final two high school grades as they currently exist an "utter waste of time," and said Advanced Placement courses are "a massive fraud" because many instructors lack the subject knowledge required to teach the classes. Mr. Botstein also called for education colleges to de-emphasize teaching "education" and instead integrate teacher preparation with the other academic disciplines.

Other speakers also had ideas to share at workshops that were held between visits to San Antonio's nearby Riverwalk and the Alamo historic site. Here is a sampling:

  • Principal C. Alex Martin of Greenville Senior High School in Greenville, S.C.—the alma mater of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley—discussed how his 1,200-student academic magnet school had appointed a vast array of committees, inviting parents, businesspeople, faculty members, and students to help govern the school and address such topics as publicity, safety, and the school environment.

    "Who comes from a state that has a report card?" Mr. Martin asked, as about 30 educators raised their hands, showing that the increasingly popular accountability tool had affected more than half the people in the room. "Anybody worried?"

    Against a backdrop of such heightened scrutiny, Mr. Martin said, tapping the expertise of dozens of people has united wealthy and poor parents in his community and helped reverse declining enrollment. He added that principals can't be experts in the many fields required to run an effective school, and need the help of others to be successful.

  • Assistant Principal Donna Gurss of Haysville (Kan.) Middle School explained her school's three-step discipline policy that allows teachers to set their own classroom rules within the school's broader guidelines.

    She said the system has improved the confidence that teachers have in administrators to handle student behavior, and has made clear to students the steps leading to expulsion or suspension.

  • Louisiana's school leadership plans were the topic of a presentation on accountability by state-level administrator Marlene L. Ritter and David E. Gullatt, an education professor at Louisiana Technical College-Ruston.

    Ms. Ritter, the program leader for the Louisiana Department of Education's office of quality educators, described the state's new system of five leadership academies, formed by school districts and their local universities. Administrators choose topics relevant to their schools, based on new statewide standards and goals for principals. The system is helping professors re-establish close relationships with K-12 educators, Ms. Ritter said.

    School leadership, meanwhile, was also on the minds of district recruiters who hoped to use the conference to snag needed administrators. In the main exhibit hall, which is larger than two football fields, candidates for principal and superintendent jobs met with recruiters at little tables.

    Recruiters said they hadn't found large numbers of qualified candidates interested in their openings; many of those at the convention were nearing retirement age, one recruiter said.


John Lewis

(Photo by David Hathcox)

The convention also marked the annual transition in the NASSP 's top elected leadership.

Principal Curt Voight of South Middle School in Rapid City, S.D., the outgoing president, handed the gavel to John Lewis of Woodland (Wash.) Middle School. The new president-elect, who will become president in 2001, is William J. Grobe of AIM High School in Williamsville, N.Y.

Mr. Voight called on principals to try new approaches to improve education.

The organization presented its annual Distinguished Service Award to James and Sarah Brady for their work to restrict firearms. Mr. Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, was critically wounded and disabled during the 1981 assassination attempt on the president in Washington. Ms. Brady is chairwoman of Handgun Control and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

Folk music echoed from the convention center's walls when Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "If I Had a Hammer," before introducing a character education video based on the trio's song "Don't Laugh at Me." The video and materials will be available soon through the NASSP, Mr. Yarrow told the audience.

No such gathering is complete without a motivational speaker. Here, Keith Harrell, a former IBM executive and college basketball player, set the tone for what's to come in the lives of many school principals. "Repeat after me: I love change!" he commanded the audience. "Change is the power to grow."

In the next two months, the National Association of Elementary School Principals will meet in New Orleans, the American Association of School Administrators will meet in San Francisco, and the National School Boards Association will meet in Orlando, Fla.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 19, Issue 23, Page 9

Published in Print: February 16, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
Web Resources
  • For more information about the NASSP's convention, visit NASSP 2000 online.
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