School & District Management

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

By Jeff Archer — May 29, 2002 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Q&A How K-12 Leaders Can Better Manage Divisive Curriculum and Culture War Debates
The leader of an effort to equip K-12 leaders with conflict resolution skills urges relationship-building—and knowing when to disengage.
7 min read
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024.
Katy Anthes, who served as commissioner of education in Colorado from 2016-2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024. Anthes specializes in helping school district leaders successfully manage politically charged conflicts.
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week
School & District Management Virginia School Board Restores Confederate Names to 2 Schools
The vote reverses a decision made in 2020 as dozens of schools nationwide dropped Confederate figures from their names.
2 min read
A statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson is removed on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Shenandoah County, Virginia's school board voted 5-1 early Friday, May 10, 2024, to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary four years after the names had been removed.
A statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson is removed on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Shenandoah County, Virginia's school board voted 5-1 early Friday, May 10, 2024, to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary four years after the names had been removed.
Steve Helber/AP
School & District Management Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About the School District Technology Leader?
The tech director at school districts is a key player when it comes to purchasing. Test your knowledge of this key buyer persona and see how your results stack up with your peers.
School & District Management Deepfakes Expose Public School Employees to New Threats
The only protection for school leaders is a healthy dose of skepticism.
7 min read
Signage is shown outside on the grounds of Pikesville High School, May 2, 2012, in Baltimore County, Md. The most recent criminal case involving artificial intelligence emerged in late April 2024, from the Maryland high school, where police say a principal was framed as racist by a fake recording of his voice.
Police say a principal was framed making racist remarks through a fake recording of his voice at Pikesville High School, a troubling new use of AI that could affect more educators. A sign announces the entrance to the Baltimore County, Md., school on May 2, 2012.
Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun via AP