Learning Curve

New principals at city schools find varying levels of support

July 17, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

April Peters recalls her first few months as a Baltimore high school principal as "hell."

Last fall, as many schools wrestled with the consequences of short staffing and budget cuts, fights broke out between students and fires were deliberately set in the Southwestern High complex shared by her school, No. 430, and two others.

The low point for the 34-year-old New Jersey native came in November, when one of her students was stabbed in school by another teenager.

For John Davis, another newly minted principal charged with launching a high school in South Baltimore two years ago, the rookie year could not have been more different.

More students at his school, New Era Academy, passed the high school exit exam for algebra than at any other city school that does not have academic entrance requirements. An Urban Institute survey of city high schools found that students at New Era reported feeling safer than students elsewhere.

The drastically dissimilar experiences of these two principals - both of whom got their start in education through the respected Teach for America program - demonstrate that it takes more than intelligence and energy to succeed as a school leader in Baltimore.

As administrators struggle to replace the city's cumbersome high schools with ones that are smaller and easier to manage, they acknowledge they need to improve the ways they train and support the principals they recruit.

School officials say budget constraints in the past academic year prevented them from providing principals with all of the staffing and resources they needed. That took an especially big toll on some new principals such as Peters.

Because administrators appointed her to School No. 430 late in the summer - when most experienced teachers had already been hired by other schools - Peters scrambled to hire a staff and open the school, which served 275 students last school year.

On the first day of school, Peters had a staff of mostly rookie teachers and was without an assistant principal, hall monitors or a phone line.

Being too stressed to eat and frequently running up and down the three floors of the school took 25 pounds off her 5-foot-7-inch frame. She struggled to turn her group of teachers, a couple of whom quit at mid-year, into a cohesive team.

When Peters needed help, she often couldn't get the attention of the high school administration office, which oversees 40 schools, she said.

In those turbulent first months, she told parents something she never dreamed she would: "My biggest concern for my students is their safety. Education is No. 2."

Frank Destefano, a former director of the city's high schools who is now deputy chief academic officer for Baltimore schools, said Peters is a capable principal who walked into a tough situation.

"She's having a difficult year, and it's much less reflective of her and much more reflective of our not supporting the school correctly," he said.

"One of my biggest frustrations was not being able to be supportive enough because of having so much to do and having so many new principals," said Destefano.

Davis, by contrast, came in with the advantage of having ample time to prepare for the start of school. He was hired half a year before the launch of New Era in September 2003 and spent more than six weeks in Harlem, N.Y., studying Frederick Douglass Academy, a high school with a strict discipline code that New Era is modeled after. The nonprofit group that operates New Era also helps Davis with the curriculum and teacher training.

Having completed his second year, Davis credits the school's smooth launch to the administration's clear vision in his school's case: It partnered with Replications Inc., a nonprofit that helps systems re-create successful school models.

New Era's 120 students wear uniforms that include dress shoes and ties. They move through hallways in an orderly manner as jazz music streams from loudspeakers between class periods.

A man who rarely raises his voice, Davis sums up his school in a few phrases:

"This is not City, Western or Poly," he said, referring to some of Baltimore's elite high schools. "Our kids come to us at a variety of levels. They have a decent amount of issues, but they're working hard."

School officials said it would be ideal to launch all new schools in the carefully planned way that New Era was established, but there are not enough outside groups interested in starting innovation schools.

This fall, five new high schools will open their doors - bringing to 18 the number of small schools created over a three-year period. Six of the schools are supported by outside operators and 12 are similar to School No. 430, a splinter of a large neighborhood school.

School officials said they've learned from missteps. They assigned principals to schools several months ahead of last year's schedule. They are also hiring veteran administrators to coach inexperienced principals.

Said Destefano: "We're getting smarter. I hope we are."

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