A matter of principal

July 19, 2002

IT'S A FINE idea to take three cracker-jack suburban principals and install them as highly paid heads of city schools. Leadership matters, and if theirs can help resurrect educational dead spots in the city, all the better.

But don't confuse this plan -- unveiled this week by state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick -- with a much-needed systemic approach to easing the district's difficulties attracting, grooming and keeping high-quality leaders. Nor should it be mistaken for a solution that will touch on any of the myriad other broad-based problems that still exist: lack of adherence to academic standards, low levels of parental involvement and the neglected middle school crisis.

This is just a pilot program -- one that won't affect 167 of the district's 170 schools. It's a drop in the bucket at a time when a deluge seems more appropriate.

For years, dozens of city schools have languished under poor leadership and suffered from policies that simply shuffled bad principals among bad schools rather than replacing them with better ones. Even when the system has tried to pluck superior administrators from successful schools to help troubled ones, the result has usually been mixed: The principals' new schools got better, but their old ones got worse.

On that front, the state's program is a clear improvement. The suburban principals will increase the overall number of good leaders in the system; further, they will take on apprentices from city schools who will be groomed to take over for them when they return to their suburban districts.

Still, the program doesn't address the larger problem with regard to principals. The district, for example, has only recently begun to put together a system-wide plan for principal recruitment and retention. State help with that process would have had a broader and longer-term effect. So would state attention to better recruitment and development of city teachers, from whose ranks most principals emerge.

There is also the possibility that the $125,000 salaries being paid to the suburban principals could be interpreted as a lack of appreciation for city principals who do work hard and whose schools are succeeding. What does this say to a Mariale M. Hardiman, whose leadership of Roland Park Elementary/Middle has consistently been outstanding? What does it say to a Bernice Welchel, who over the past four years has dragged City Springs Elementary's test scores from the cellar to respectable heights?

State officials are right to be concerned about city school leadership. And if for nothing other than symbolic reasons, they're right to set an example with three dynamite suburban principals. But if the state's goal is substantial improvement among the ranks of city school principals, its leaders will need to think -- and act -- on a much bigger scale.

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