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From The Principal’s Perspective: Where Have All the Principals Gone?

By Guest Blogger

The beginning of a new superintendency is a time of great opportunity for a school district like the Denver Public Schools.  After a roaring start with a teacher strike, with an outcome deemed a success by the DPS administration and the DCTA (union) alike, Denver now needs to reflect on the value of a principal.

On the first day of the 2019-20 school year, the typical student at a Denver comprehensive high school will have spent more time in that school than their principal- so will have the teacher.  The principals in these schools will have 1.5 years of experience leading at their school and two-thirds of them will have started their jobs in the last two years.

In my experience, having spent fifteen years as a principal and twelve as a central leader, it takes at least a couple of years for a principal to really get to know a high school community.  If that’s the case, the average DPS principal and their school community are just beginning to connect.

The impacts of high principal turnover are well documented and begin with high teacher turnover.  In schools where the principals fail to stick around, teachers also begin to leave (NEPC July, 2012).  Student achievement can take a hit and the cost of replacing principals is significant (Connect.Lead.Succeed, 2019).

Why is the turnover in Denver so high and the level of experience so low?  In talking with colleagues who have moved along, and by reflecting on my own professional choices over the years, there are three basic needs to be met:

  • We need to hire leaders who are well prepared for the job. Even after years of investment in leadership development, the DPS preparation programs and selection processes are not as effective as needed.  Without strong preparation and a commitment to the time and effort it takes be successful, the politicized environments and the 60+ hour weeks of the high school principalship can quickly become all-consuming and lead to life imbalance and frustration. 
  • We need to design the central system to serve the schools, not the district.  In alignment with a research base from the University of Washington (2004), and the Wallace Foundation (2016), central offices that serve their schools support increases in student achievement.  The DPS district offices, while currently undergoing a redesign to significantly reduce costs, remain distant and distinct from the work at the school site. Departments are currently designed to partner with willing schools instead of being designed and purposed to serve the students, the teachers, the school leaders, and the communities. 
  • We need to show value for the role of the principal.  There is an old human resources maxim:  talent goes where it is valued and developed.  Principals too often feel undervalued. Unlike superintendents and most teachers, principals are treated as “at-will” employees who may be dismissed at any moment.  That weighs on the mind of a leader. While the contracted pay may seem higher, the hours and issues require a service orientation, not an economic interest.

For principals, professional growth is often lost to urgencies and top-down interests.  While all levels of accountability, from community, to district, to state, sit squarely on the shoulders of the principal, there is little support from a central office that seems to step away when the going gets tough.  Once principals are placed in the job, the work of continued development is crucial. A small investment in the right learning experiences will make all the difference for a principal who needs to continue to grow strength in order to persist as a leader.

The work of the principal is vital to the success of our students and the retention of our teachers.  The principal, as they hire and retain effective teachers, accounts for about 25% of a school’s impact on student achievement (TNTP.org).  91% of teachers agree that principal leadership is a key to increasing student learning (BushCenter, 2016). The key to teacher retention, even beyond pay, is sustaining the effort of our effective principals (UCEA, 2018).  The value of growing, hiring, and developing effective principals is proven.

The Denver Public Schools is in a unique position to make an immediate shift affecting the retention of our leaders and the success of our schools.  Finding and keeping quality school leaders is an urgent need. With the right intention and action by the district’s central offices, DPS will create a context and experience in which our principals will stay, thrive, and create schools where Every Child Succeeds.

By Guest Blogger: John R. Youngquist. John currently serves as the Principal of Denver East High School. Previously, he has worked as the Chief Academic Officer in the Aurora Public Schools; Director of Principal Talent Management, Area Superintendent, High School Principal, and Elementary Principal in the Denver Public Schools, Elementary Principal, and Teacher in the Denver public Schools, and Middle School Asst. Principal and Teacher in a variety of school districts in Colorado. John can be reached at: jyoungq@msn.com.

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