Award-winning middle and high school principals from across the country shared challenges they’ve faced in recent years—as well as innovations they’ve made—with a pair of the nation’s top education officials in person this week.
The school leaders, who are in Washington for the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ leadership week to honor state principals of the year and National Honor Society students, met Monday with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten, both of them former principals.
Questions covered: staffing to support students’ and staff’s mental well-being; ensuring that schools receive the COVID-19 relief funds that were sent to their states; continued funding for support programs when COVID-19 relief money dries up; broadband and internet access; college affordability; and academic recovery after the interruptions of the pandemic years.
“I can’t stress enough how important it was and how uplifting it was for both the secretary and deputy secretary to be so committed to hearing what our school leaders and principals had to say,” Ronn Nozoe, NASSP’s CEO, said.
Principals said they shared how their schools and districts were using American Rescue Plan aid as they seek to recover from the pandemic.
Cardona, Nozoe said, encouraged school leaders to use their “creativity to put those ARP funds to work.”
“ [He] urged everybody … to use those funds to meet the needs of their communities, and, of course, to share the stories of the successful programs with their parents and community members, so that people understand they are putting the funds to good use,” Nozoe said.
Evelyn A. Edney, the director/principal of The Early College High School at Delaware State University in Dover, Del., said her school was using the money to help students get back on track academically and emotionally. School officials have hired interventionists to help students to support students and are working with community organizations, such as Junior Achievement, on enrichment activities.
Principal Crystal Thorpe, who leads Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, Ind., and is Indiana’s principal of the year, said in an interview that her district has hired additional staff to help students with learning loss.
Harrison Bailey III, the principal of Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., said a large chunk of the district’s ARP funds went toward capital projects, including to upgrade the air quality in buildings. Some of the money also went to academic recovery and hiring academic and SEL coaches, he said.
Bailey is particularly worried about how difficult it is to find social workers and other specialists to help students and staff with mental health needs. He called it “an absolute crisis”—a concern he shared with the education secretary.
“A big part of that is not only funding for mental health, but the fact that the actual services—whether it is social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists—are just not available,” Bailey said. “There’s just nowhere near the amount that’s needed to support our schools, whether it’s nationally or locally.”
Nozoe said that the secretary conveyed his hope of increased funding for K-12 going forward.
Teacher shortage worries principals
A big source of angst for principals, though, was a shortage of qualified teaching staff—an issue that isn’t discussed nearly enough, Thorpe said.
“What keeps me up at night as a principal is the concern for attracting quality teachers,” Thorpe said. “I think that pretty soon we will face a national teacher-shortage crisis.”
Thorpe said she used to get between 15 to 20 applications for an open position.
Now, “I am lucky if I get one or two people,” she said. “And I am extremely lucky if I get someone who is qualified, a certified teacher.”
There’s already a huge issue finding qualified teachers in specialty subjects, such as math and science, Edney and Bailey said.
Edney, who is expanding the school to include 7th and 8th grades next year, said that in sifting through recent rounds of teacher applications, she found that many had never worked in education.
“They are not qualified in any way or form,” she said.
School leaders feel hopeful, nonetheless
The principals also spent time with Education Department staffers on challenges in the field, including school staffing, school culture, equity, the school leadership pipeline, supporting students with disabilities, and curriculum.
Edney said Cardona was “very clear that principals should not return to pre-pandemic-era schooling.”
Edney quoted Cardona as saying, “We cannot go back there.” Edney said that leaders “had a chance to reimagine what schools should be like because we were kind of forced to. But [Cardona is] telling us ... we need to continue being innovative in the future.”
Some of the principals said they felt that their concerns were heard.
“I just felt really hopeful,” Thorpe said. “I feel like we have someone in that position who understands what it means to be a school leader, and can identify with our students, our teachers, our profession, and just what we need in general to help all of our kids.”
“They really were kid-focused, and I just continuously heard people talking about that,” Bailey said. “[Principals] were just thankful that the person who is minding the store, so to speak, really understands where we are coming from.”