School & District Management

Novice Principals Put Huge Strain on N.Y.C. Schools

By Jeff Archer — May 29, 2002 8 min read
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The New York City schools have been gripped by a series of high- level power struggles in recent months. The teachers’ union has threatened to strike if it doesn’t soon get a new contract. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appears poised to win a controlling share of the board of education. And local leaders have clashed with lawmakers in Albany over a state spending plan for schools.

And yet, the system’s biggest leadership challenge could be found right in the main offices of its 1,100 schools. About half the city’s public schools are led by someone with less than three years’ experience on the job, and more than 260 principals are eligible to retire at the end of this school year.

New York’s principals, many school leaders complain, work in a system whose bureaucracy and strict teacher work rules often tie their hands. The upshot is a serious quandary for the nation’s largest school system just as it faces tough new state-imposed standards for students.

“There are not a lot of people who want to do this job,” said Janet Patti, an education professor at Hunter College, a part of the City University of New York.

But in the unprecedented turnover in principalships, some see reason for hope. The changing of the guard, they say, offers a rare chance to make improvements in the training, on-the-job support, and working conditions of school-level leaders.

Already, the system has launched new coaching and mentoring programs meant to give its newest principals much-needed survival skills. Administrators may get greater flexibility in running their schools through changes in the teachers’ contract, some observers believe, and if Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican, wins control of the system and follows through on his promise to give principals greater autonomy.

“There’s a window of opportunity here on how to get it right to sustain great leaders and principals,’' said Jon Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit group based in the city. “It could also get lost in a kind of bickering and fighting over other issues.”

The New Rules

The demands on New York City principals are much like those in the rest of the country—only more so. Aging baby boomers are driving turnover here as elsewhere, and the city is hardly unique in the extensive skills it now demands of school leaders. But there’s no denying that the principalship in the 1.1 million-student system brings its own set of unusual challenges.

The 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers is regarded as the most powerful teachers’ union local in the country. Its contract lays down rules for everything from how teachers are hired to how principals can collect lesson plans. Principals particularly bemoan “Circular Six,” a provision that prohibits giving teachers noninstructional duties, such as monitoring homeroom or the cafeteria, without the approval of 75 percent of a building’s staff.

Meanwhile, principals’ ability to do long-term planning is inhibited by perennially late state budgets, which send the system about half of its funding.

And by all accounts, New York City principals are more accountable than ever. They have traded their once-ironclad tenure for a new evaluation system. When state lawmakers in 1996 gave the city schools chancellor new authority to intervene in the affairs of the system’s 32 community school districts, they essentially made school-level leaders answerable to the system’s top official.

The new environment comes as students are being required, starting next year, to pass the state’s battery of regents’ exams to graduate from high school.

“My generation of administrators just can’t deal— we can’t cope,” said Jinx Cozzi Perullo, who retired in 1999 after more than 30 years with the system, the last five of which she spent as the principal of the highly regarded Stuyvesant High School. “It just became a situation where you felt that you were responsible for everything, without having any ability to effect change.”

‘University of the Streets’

Recognizing the new demands, local education officials have tried to help rookie principals survive their first years on the job. Education schools and nonprofit groups here have designed accelerated training programs to prepare small cohorts of prospective principals. The school system itself also has launched efforts to improve their learning curves.

Chancellor Harold O. Levy has initiated what’s unofficially being called a “university of the streets” to teach new principals the ins and outs of the position. The system recruited 42 experienced school leaders for a Distinguished Faculty program, in which those principals coach up to 12 new administrators part time, while running their own schools.

The chancellor’s office also contracted with New Visions for Public Schools, a local nonprofit organization, to select and train 17 recently retired principals to mentor some 70 novice administrators who asked for more intensive support.

Together, the two initiatives offer rookies the chance to observe seasoned principals in action, meet with other new principals, and get immediate counseling on how to meet the job’s many challenges. The board of education also runs a five-day summer institute for new administrators that focuses on such skills as how to maintain school safety and how to analyze student-performance data.

“Does this solve all our problems? No,” said Mary Butz, who directs the Principals’ Institute, the board’s office in charge of the leadership programs. “But we do address real issues that principals face on the job. Traditionally, what would happen is a principal would be selected, given the keys, and be told, ‘Good luck.’ ”

Janet Heller, a new principal at a Manhattan middle school, says without the help she received this year from retired administrator Leslie Moore, “I would have been more stressed, and probably would have left the position.”

Ms. Moore helped her understudy choose textbooks, pick a curriculum for an after-school program, and understand how to handle union grievances. In weekly visits to Ms. Heller’s school, the retired principal also offered tips on how to interact with staff members and how to run parent conferences. The two also spoke by phone and exchanged e-mails, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning when Ms. Heller had awoken with a list of concerns about the coming day.

“Unfortunately, you don’t go into the job knowing what it entails,” said Ms. Moore, who found most of the other five administrators she mentored equally hungry for advice. “Only when you’re in there do you say, ‘Oh my God! I have to worry about the budget, about construction, about the school plan, about the kitchen and the custodian.’ ”

A Problem of Scale

Many of the city’s new preservice training programs for administrators similarly stress the practicalities of running a school’s day-to- day operations.

New Leaders for New Schools offers a principal-preparation program built around a one-year residency, in which trainees work side by side with experienced administrators. At Baruch College, part of the CUNY system, prospective principals run a summer school and are taught by both professors and current school administrators. Hunter College also is about to launch an administrator-preparation program co-taught by its faculty and principals in the city.

Those initiatives pale in comparison with the need, however. New Leaders for New Schools, which runs a similar program in Chicago, is about to graduate its first six candidates, though it plans to scale up to an annual cohort of up to 20 in New York City. Baruch’s Aspiring Leaders program accepts up to 25 students each year. Hunter officials said they’d hoped to enroll 30 candidates in their training track this year, but they ended up with 20.

Meanwhile, the city’s school system has had to fill more than 200 principals’ positions in the past eight months alone.

“Given the magnitude of the challenge we’re confronted with, we need to do more,” said Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools. “A lot of people are doing as much as they can, but it’s clear that there needs to be a greater investment in leadership in New York City.”

That won’t be easy, with New York still reeling from the economic aftermath of Sept. 11. The city—which holds the school system’s purse strings—predicts a deficit of more than $5 billion in the coming fiscal year, out of a $42 billion budget.

Paying for current leadership- development efforts has already been a stretch. The mentoring program that employs retired principals cost $900,000 this school year, about $600,000 of which came from the board of education; New Visions raised the rest from private donors.

Although the board of education intended for the Distinguished Faculty coaching initiative to serve new principals for two full years, some second-year principals will have to fly solo to accommodate next year’s demand from first-year principals. Said Ms. Butz, the program’s organizer: “We have to move others out to make room for what awaits us.”

Autonomy Sought

Amid the financial concerns, some school leaders and advocates are hoping the issue of principals’ autonomy isn’t overlooked.

“The reality is that good principals figure out, even within the constraints, ways to make improvements in schools,” Mr. Schnur of New Leaders for New Schools said. “The problem is they could make a lot more dramatic improvement with some of the constraints they face, and second, you wouldn’t burn them out and have them leave.”

Opinions range from bitter opposition to shrugging acceptance when it comes to the work rule that requires staff approval before teachers can be assigned special duties. The Circular Six provision was added to the teachers’ contract in 1995. One principal, who would speak only anonymously, said bluntly: “The Circular Six must be torn out, ripped up, and thrown out.”

But others point out that the contract’s “school- based option” provision allows schools to waive Circular Six and other personnel rules if 75 percent of the teaching staff agrees. Such schools also can form committees to hire teachers, rather than just take the most senior educators who choose to transfer there.

About a third of the city’s schools use the alternative hiring process.

Ms. Heller credits her mentor with helping her learn how to work within such rules. “And to do something that 75 percent of the staff doesn’t want is crazy,” she said.

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Novice Principals Put Huge Strain on N.Y.C. Schools

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