State worries about ways to attract school principals

How to fill 600 positions is a concern for 2003-2004

August 07, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

There was a time when principals were revered as pillars in the community, up there with the local minister or town doctor. Their main duty was making sure kids behaved long enough to retain the three R's, and it was a position in society that many teachers aspired to fill.

Today, the job is so pressure-packed, and sometimes so little-respected, that school officials are worried about how they will fill the 600 vacancies - nearly 45 percent of the state's principals - expected during the 2003-2004 hiring season.

"It's pretty scary," said state Assistant Superintendent Mary Cary, looking even further ahead to 2005, when 75 percent of the state's middle and high school principals will be eligible for retirement.

To help fill the expected void, the state has created a Principals' Academy for those with less than five years of experience, to give the novices encouragement, tools and a group of peers to commiserate with in the coming years.

"The pressure on the school principal is extraordinary," Cary said. "The principal spends every mental, physical and emotional moment focused on children, families and the community. And it is very difficult."

That's why a three-day support seminar, which wrapped up at Turf Valley last week, is so important, officials said.

In its second year, the academy is a key component of the Maryland Educational Leadership Initiative, designed to attract, train and retain principals.

This year's keynote speaker, Howard County Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett, helped put the principal's job into perspective Friday, when he spoke to the 150 fledgling leaders before their last day of workshops and brainstorming.

"The tone that you set impacts lives not just from the time the first bell rings to the last bell rings, but 24 hours a day," Plunkett said, before telling a poignant story about a student who found his name in a telephone book when she was abandoned by her drug-addicted father. "You are impacting lives in an important way. You are affecting generations. The success of your students rests in what you can provide."

For some, that's a heavy, heavy load to bear.

"Leaving no child behind is quite a difficult task," said Stephanie Wesolowski, who became principal last year at John Hanson Middle School in Charles County. "It becomes very stressful when you're held to really high standards, and you're not given all the resources. The burnout rate is just because of the day-to-day trying to please people who have a thousand different agendas."

Wesolowski said her first year on the job was much harder than she expected. "You find that you can't just focus on kids, which is why you went into it in the first place," she said.

Principals have to wear many more hats than they ever had to before, and they are expected to wear them all well, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said.

"It's an impossibility and a disincentive," she said.

Also, accountants and car salesmen can earn more money.

"Young people today look and say, `I can go into business, and I can make this kind of money, or I can go into education,'" said Cary. "And so many are saying no to education."

The state's educational leadership initiative hopes to change things by encouraging school systems to pay principals more competitively and also clear their plates of the countless mounds of minutiae that have been steadily added to their job descriptions.

The thought is that if the state can get a principal's job to look more attractive, then maybe officials can avoid mass vacancies.

In the meantime, officials want to make the job look more attractive to those already in it.

That's where the academy comes in.

"We're hoping it's a retention strategy," Cary said. "That these babies, these new leaders, will say, `Yes, I am being supported and, yes, I will continue this worthy work.'"

For many, the academy is the resource new leaders need to keep them motivated.

"We all have the hard job of: How do kids learn, and how do we make it so that kids can learn?" said Carolyn Johnston, principal of Fruitland Primary School in Wicomico County. "The networking here is the important part. I'm ready now to roll up my sleeves and go back to school and start working."

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