Weakest schools' principals losing jobs As many as 15 likely to lose posts

union, some parents protest

June 09, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

At least five city school principals have been removed from their jobs in the past week in a house-cleaning aimed at changing the leadership in some of the poorest performing schools.

More will almost certainly follow in the coming weeks, knowledgeable school sources said, and the total number of affected principals should reach about 15. More than 40 of the system's 183 principals were placed on professional "improvement plans" last year, which is the first step toward possible removal.

And unlike in past years, sources say principals receiving "reassignment" notices will not simply be placed in the same position in another school. They will be given other duties -- in many cases with lesser prestige and lower salaries.

The principal's union is opposing the moves and at least one school community has demanded that its principal be reinstated. Parents at West Baltimore's Gilmor Elementary rallied last night behind their leader of three years, principal Phoebe Shorter, who received word in a letter Thursday that she would be "reassigned" next year.

"I did not ask to be reassigned. Most definitely," Shorter said yesterday in a phone interview. "We have started some good things here, and I would like to see them through."

Gilmor, though, has posted some of the city's lowest scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. Last year, none of its third-graders did satisfactory work on the reading or math portions of the test. Only about 5 percent of the fifth-graders did acceptable work on the reading test; barely 3 percent passed in math.

Sharon Wilson, president of Gilmor's Parent Teacher & 2/3 Organization, was nonetheless blunt yesterday about her desire for Shorter to stay.

"Phoebe Shorter has done an excellent job since she got here and now that she is leaving, we worry that Gilmor will really go down," Wilson said. "The parents would like to have her here."

School officials so far have remained tight-lipped about the reassignments, saying only that the system is currently involved in the final stages of the yearly evaluation process.

Interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller declined yesterday to confirm how many principals will be involved in the moves, saying the entire matter was related to personnel and therefore confidential. But every indication the new school board has given since it took over the system last June suggests new standards of accountability are in place, and that low performance will no longer be tolerated.

The board's transition and master plans, both designed since last summer, call for the development, recruitment and retention of strong leadership. Already, 25 new principals have been hired into the system since July to replace principals who retired or were transferred under the old evaluation system. This school year, the board and principals union signed off on a new, tougher yearly evaluation system that takes effect next school year.

And board member Carl Stokes said sternly and publicly last fall that strong principals rank among the system's greatest needs.

"Everything starts with schoolhouse leadership," Stokes said. He guessed then that at least "50 percent" of the city's principals might need to be replaced in the coming years.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who helped frame the legislation last year that created the new city school board, said yesterday the principal removals were a good sign.

"I would assume that when they make these decisions, they're based on poor performance and that the old way of doing business in city schools is no longer acceptable," Rawlings said.

Rawlings also said the school board ought not allow community groups to sway it.

"Nobody runs this school system but the board," Rawlings said. "They shouldn't use a litmus test of some sort to decide who they hire and who they fire. The welfare of our children ought to be their No. 1 priority."

The school system has been advertising nationwide for new principals and assistant principals for the past few months, in apparent anticipation of the need to fill vacancies. The school board will pay to relocate new principals, and believes its salaries, now running as high as $80,000 a year for principals in the largest schools, are competitive.

The city's principals have been aware of the planned reassignments for some time, and showed up in force at a school board meeting in May to protest the moves.

Yesterday, principals union President Sheila Kolman said the re-assignments appear to be "arbitrary and capricious," and that the union will deal individually with affected administrators' plans to respond.

"We have a grievance process, and our members have a right to choose that route," Kolman said. "We will follow through."

Kolman said none of the five principals who had received reassignment notices so far had received unsatisfactory evaluations last year, although Shorter at Gilmor Elementary was on an improvement plan.

Kolman believes the reassignments are the result of pressure on the new school board to create the appearance of change.

"The belief of the school system is that a new principal can immediately turn around a difficult school," Kolman said. "But in other districts, this has been done and the result hasn't been instant."

Kolman, who is principal at Belmont Elementary, also said the moves make unfair assumptions about the roles principals play in their buildings.

"Of course we are responsible for what happens in our schools, but we're not the only party to be held accountable," Kolman said. "What about society? What about the community? What about the teachers? What about our supervisors, and the kind of support they give us? There are givens we work with that are not necessarily under our control."

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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