Using tag-team principals


Sharing: A novel management system has turned Long Beach schools into a laboratory for educators nationwide.

December 29, 2003|By Duke Helfand | Duke Helfand,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONG BEACH, Calif. - At Polytechnic High School, everyone wants a piece of Principal Shawn Ashley.

They all also want a piece of Principal Gwen Mack.

One minute, a teacher is complaining about kids loitering in the halls. The next, an aide is hauling in a boy caught in the girls' bathroom. Then a custodian is griping about co-workers.

Ashley and Mack take it all in stride. Inside their office, with two gray cubicles and two names on the door, they divvy up a monster job usually heaped on the shoulders of a single principal.

Ashley tackles athletics, activities, student discipline and school repairs. Mack covers curriculum, counseling, testing and textbooks.

Together, they run a campus of 4,300 teen-agers.

"I couldn't do this by myself," says Ashley, 49, who high-fives football players on campus as if they're his pals. Mack, 59, who often speaks just above a whisper, adds: "If we want to do a decent job, we need to divide our responsibilities."

This buddy system has transformed management in Long Beach's high schools and turned California's third-largest school system into a laboratory for educators nationwide who are desperate to stem the flight of overworked and overwhelmed principals.

"I think what you're seeing in those high schools are prototypes for the future," says Michael Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "It's an important story beyond Long Beach."

Long Beach has been using co-principals for a decade. Now school systems in California, Massachusetts, Vermont and other states are experimenting with the same approach.

Not everyone is sold.

High schools in Pasadena and Santa Monica switched to co-principals a few years ago, only to abandon the idea because of concerns that lines of authority were confused. Some educators elsewhere say having two principals creates unnecessary turf wars.

Even supporters concede that the management model depends largely on the personalities of the two school leaders and the way they get along. But in districts large and small, urban and rural, educators widely agree that something must be done to lighten the load on harried administrators.

While they handle such traditional chores as keeping their schools clean and making sure classes have enough textbooks, principals now face significant new pressures to raise test scores and keep their campuses free from drugs and violence. They are expected to leave no child behind, as the new federal education law commands. Failure can cost them their jobs.

Those duties are magnified by the expectation that nearly half of the nation's 35,000 secondary school principals will retire in the next five years, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The anticipated exodus has set off alarms among school district leaders across the United States and spawned an array of recruitment, retention and training initiatives.

District officials in Long Beach say their home-grown reform offers a practical and relatively inexpensive solution.

Having two principals means someone is always available to answer questions, sign forms and make decisions, they say. It means two people are available to handle the thousand decisions that land on a principal's desk at a school with 250 instructors and other employees.

Most high schools have vice principals and assistant principals to handle mundane duties and respond to visitors. But parents, teachers and others often aren't satisfied with the second in command.

"Everyone wants the principal," Ashley says.

On a recent day, Mack and two of Poly High's four assistant principals were away at a meeting designed to bolster school efforts to increase student achievement. That left Ashley in charge. And it was a busy day.

Even before Ashley put down his briefcase, a father appeared with his daughter to lodge a complaint about a boy who allegedly had exposed himself to the girl. Ashley interviewed the girl and the boy separately. Then he met with police, who were conducting their own investigation. (The boy was suspended and transferred to another campus. He also was arrested on suspicion of indecent exposure.)

The incident consumed Ashley's morning. In the midst of it, another parent called to ask how to get a bus pass for her daughter; a student stopped by to pick up a letter of recommendation for college; and a teacher approached Ashley to complain that a colleague was letting students go before the class period bell rang. Ashley promised to take care of the concern and spoke to the offending teacher a few minutes later.

The next day, Ashley was more than happy for Mack to return. After a morning spent on paperwork and meetings with administrators and counselors, the two finally had time for what they want most: to visit classrooms and talk with students and teachers.

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