Recruitment & Retention

Divide and Conquer

By Roger Friedman — December 27, 2004 10 min read
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Glenda Soccorso strides purposefully down the wide, color-coded hallway of Easton Elementary School. She’s a consciously stylish woman with a striking red blazer, a thick black mane, and a mental list of things she needs to accomplish on this first of a dozen or more trips throughout the two-story school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

She stops to check on a substitute teacher, a young woman who’d probably have a hard time convincing a bartender she’s old enough to order anything containing alcohol. As the sub fidgets with her temporary teacher ID, Soccorso offers a few encouraging words, runs down the schedule for what’s probably the third time today, and quietly, with a wink, asks a couple of the more cooperative students to help keep order in the class.

Glenda Soccorso.

Then she swivels and heads back up the hallway, looking scornfully at a hand-washing station outside the girls bathroom that refuses to stop flowing, adding it to her mental list as she continues on her way to visit another sub in the music room. She gets to the door, peeks inside, and decides not to interrupt what sounds like a smoothly running class. As the few children in the hallways dutifully chime “Good morning, Miss Glenda,” Soccorso marches over to the gymnasium with an envelope, the payment for a Danny Bonaduce look-alike who just entertained students with a Math Magic performance.

The first few responsibilities of the day now checked off her list, Soccorso heads back to her office. But though she has spent the past half-hour of this November morning performing tasks that generally occupy the brunt of a principal’s day, Glenda Soccorso is not the head administrator. She’s the school manager, a position created in 2002 to allow the Talbot County district’s principals to work more closely with teachers and devote more attention to other educational priorities.

“We used to have instructional facilitators in each building to mentor new teachers, to model in classes, to do lessons,” says principal Kelly Griffith, whose office is two doors from Soccorso’s. “But that’s why I became a principal. I wanted to be the instructional leader. I wanted to be in the classrooms. I wanted to model and mentor our teachers. But all my time was taken up with administrative work instead.”

It’s a common complaint—about 70 percent of principals responding to a 2001 National Association of Secondary School Principals survey cited time constraints and paperwork as impediments to doing their jobs. While many districts try to help administrators focus on instruction and a few have added business managers at select schools, Talbot County may be the first to give them such far-ranging duties districtwide, according to Joseph Murphy, an expert on educational leadership at Vanderbilt University. He isn’t surprised by the approach. “Principals are expected to shift the locus of who they are and what they do from management and administrative responsibilities to education and leadership,” he says. “And if they are expected to make that shift successfully, how can they be expected to do everything they used to do?”

But creating new administrative positions would seem to be a luxury few cash-strapped districts can afford. While Talbot County officials found a way to add the jobs without breaking the budget, the program got off to a less than perfect start at Easton in 2002, as school officials tried to find the right personnel combination to make it work. Three years later, however, all it takes is a walk around the school to see how well the two administrators play off each other’s strengths.

In her fifth year as principal of the Moton building on the two-school campus, Griffith has a warmth about her that she enjoys sharing in a hands-on manner. Dressed in a long skirt and a tan-and-black sweater set, the tall, energetic principal can’t be missed as she makes her way through the hallways, sharing hugs, handshakes, and high-fives with students, all 610 of whom she knows by name, homeroom, and level of academic performance.

“You just don’t know what’s going on in your school if you’re not in the classroom,” says Griffith, moving at her usual frenetic pace. Soon she’s dropping by a 5th grade social studies class, where the teacher, Lori Eutsler, sits cross-legged on a desk, scribbling onto an overhead-projector transparency in a seemingly futile attempt to make sense of the concept of separation of powers. Griffith jumps in, asking which member of the school’s student government is responsible for which task. The kids call out rapid-fire answers, at first trying to impress their principal, then slowly becoming aware that they’re making a connection between a lesson and something in their lives.

Moments later, she steps into Jon Harper’s math class and cheers on a rail-thin girl named Emily, who’s evaluating the properties of a rhombus as light jazz wafts from a CD player at the back of the room. Then it’s time for a question of her own: “How many triangles fit in a hexagon?” Griffith asks, putting Harper and his students on the spot. As the teacher draws, erases, draws, erases, and finally comes up with a proper hexagon, student hands shoot up. All the while, Griffith circles the room, often bending down to offer a gentle squeeze of the shoulder, a bit of encouragement, or a little secret.

After five minutes or so, it’s on to another class, where students are working independently to solve a series of problems in a workbook. A 2nd grader in a pink shirt and a headband complains that she doesn’t know what to do, so Griffith gently walks her through the activity. In the 3rd grade classroom next door, the principal spies a behavior checklist filled with smiley faces on the desk of a girl named Courtney. Griffith rushes over to Courtney and gives the obviously pleased kid a big squeeze.

Eastern Elementary principal Kelly Griffith.

Three years ago, Griffith was among the principals who met with John Masone, the district’s assistant superintendent for support services, and other administrators to figure out a better way to put principals’ energy to use. At the time, each of Talbot County’s schools had two instructional facilitators chosen from the teaching ranks, but because they were seen as peers, their suggestions weren’t always taken to heart. The facilitators also didn’t have significantly more training than the teachers they were trying to help. “It wasn’t really working,” Griffith says of the arrangement.

Meanwhile, there was a statewide push in Maryland to clear the plates of principals, at least in part to support the mission of No Child Left Behind, in which school leaders are judged on their ability to raise test scores. So the principals made lists of all their non-instructional activities—everything short of “picking up the dry cleaning,” Griffith says—and created a job description. The school system, according to Masone, absorbed the facilitators back into the ranks of its teachers and used those salaries to pay for the newly created school manager positions.

“It didn’t cost any more,” says Griffith, who also has eight years as principal of the nearby middle school and another seven as a teacher on her résumé. “And in the end, this is a much more efficient way to run the building.”

Still, there are times when Griffith’s unscheduled visits are less than warmly received. “What are you working on?” she asks boisterously as she bounds into another classroom a bit later in the day.

The response is decidedly less boisterous: “We were working on getting silent.” But even in confidence, Easton’s teachers say they appreciate Griffith’s low-pressure, high-energy visits—though that may speak more to the principal’s personality than to the idea of having administrators roam the building. Vanderbilt’s Murphy acknowledges that giving principals more time in the classroom only works if they’re skilled at that part of their job. “If a principal’s primary strength is as an administrator, not as an educator, this won’t solve any problems,” he says.

But at Easton, that hasn’t been the case. “I’ve been here 16 years, and this is the first time an administrator has been able to be part of a classroom and not necessarily worry about whether the roof was going to fall in,” says Jeff Bell, a 5th grade instructor with graying hair and an impeccably matched outfit. Matt Ghrist, a youthful art teacher on cafeteria duty, echoes that sentiment. “You always know where to go with each particular problem,” he says. “It allows us to spend time doing what we need to do, rather than chasing around the appropriate person when we need supplies.”

Assistant principal Robert Stark is in his first year at Easton but his ninth with the county. “Now I can have a 15-minute conversation with a single kid,” says Stark, whose no-nonsense manner is reflected in his short-sleeve, button-down shirt and tie. “And since teachers know that we’re going to be walking through their classes without warning, it keeps them on their A game. The kids, too—you can see the atmosphere in a room change. If kids are slouching and Kelly or I walk in, they immediately sit up straight. Teachers tell us they keep that up long after we’re gone.”

It’s not just posture that’s improved. For the first time in at least 15 years, the district has lost no principals for two years running. The teacher turnover rate has dropped by a third, as has faculty absenteeism, according to Masone, who attributes these changes “in large part to the positive school climate created when principals have the time to be instructional leaders.”

Nor are administrative tasks getting short shrift. “If there’s a leak in a room, if a bulb blows out, if there’s a field trip problem, if a kid throws up in the lunchroom, everyone knows to go to Glenda,” Griffith says. “Parents used to call and yell at me. Now they yell at Glenda. Of course, I still get phone calls asking what’s for lunch today, but that’s because people are used to coming to me.”

It’s the end of the day, and Bus 210 isn’t in the usual place. Although bus duty is now Soccorso’s responsibility, Griffith still enjoys helping out. Towering above the students, the two administrators locate the out-of-place vehicle, then hop from one idling bus to the next for brief chats with the drivers as they choreograph the close of another day.

Principal Kelly Griffith.

That’s not to say the system of split responsibilities has always worked well. When the position was created, Griffith interviewed several candidates—Soccorso was not among them, as county administrators didn’t think she’d be able to move to a senior position from her role as a school secretary—and found what they thought was a good fit. But Easton’s first school manager didn’t make it to holiday break. In fact, of the district’s eight initial school manager hires, two bombed quickly. At Easton, people try to be diplomatic about what happened—“He wasn’t particularly good at multitasking, and that’s the key to the job” is a typical comment. Talbot’s other six school managers are still in place in the third year of the program.

Soccorso got her job after Griffith landed her an interview with county administrators, who were impressed by her multitasking efficiency, familiarity with the school, and willingness to take on all sorts of tasks, including logging cockroach appearances. She also handles more significant administrative duties, such as overseeing construction of a new handicap-accessible playground. Still, Soccorso is somewhere between chagrined and amused to learn that a 3rd grader, when asked to provide a job description for the school manager, described her as the “cafeteria boss.” (She spends two hours a day monitoring the lunchroom.)

“Much of what I do is not necessarily glamorous. That’s why my desk looks the way it does,” Soccorso says, letting out one of her frequent laughs. “I might start out working on our art council grant, but then I have to deal with a bus discipline issue, and then I have to deal with our assembly because the Math Magic guy doesn’t like the way we built the stage for his performance.”

Soccorso, who was a manager of a California savings and loan association for 11 years, used to joke that “in the real world, principals wouldn’t have to worry about whether the toilets flush.” Still, she’s as surprised as anyone that “they’d actually implement a plan that frees up the principal from those kinds of things.”

Relaxing for a brief moment after getting passengers loaded onto the proper buses, Griffith agrees. “My job is to make sure every kid makes a little bit of progress every day, and I can’t do that if I’m not getting a chance to talk to the students and their teachers on a regular basis,” she says. “Having Glenda here allows me to do that.”


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