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A school rises or falls with the caliber of its leader

By Eileen DiFranco on Feb 26, 2014 01:17 PM

While there's been quite a bit of discussion lately about “failing schools" and “low-performing seats" -- indeed, the two phrases have become synonymous with public education -- there has been little discussion about how schools come to fall off the curve. Sometimes this happens gradually, and sometimes quickly. I saw it happen at my school. And it wasn't because of failed teachers, but because of failed leadership.

When I began working at Roxborough High School in September 1999, the school had an enrollment of more than 1,300 students. Classrooms were filled to capacity. For many students, Roxborough was their safety school, the school they went to when they didn't get accepted into magnet schools. No school can be perfect, but we were one of the better comprehensive high schools. Kids wanted to attend Roxborough. Parents felt comfortable sending them there.

That all changed when, five years later, a new principal began what I call a reign of error. Within weeks, the kids were telling teachers they were in charge of the school. And, indeed, they were.

Over the course of the next 18 months, we had stampedes in the hallways, fires, fights, and group and individual assaults. Disrespectful students played cat and mouse in the halls with the school police. Our enrollment began to drop as our reputation changed from being adequate to unsatisfactory, and then, finally, to dangerous and failing.

But the staff had remained about the same as it had been the year before. 

When things go awry, blame must be ascribed. And who was responsible for the disastrous conditions? The teachers, of course! They didn’t teach properly. Their classroom management skills were lacking. They created a negative school culture. Never mind that the school had been under control just a few months earlier.

So, what did the District superintendent, the leaders at the District's central office and the School Reform Commission do to stop the downward slide of what had been a decent school? They permitted an incompetent principal to retain her appointment. She was rewarded with another school year, during which conditions were even worse than they had been the year before.

In 2006, the teachers finally reached the ear of a new superintendent, who actually listened to what the staff had to say. The incompetent principal left, and a retired principal came on board as interim.

What happened then? In a few weeks time, the halls emptied and the number of serious incidents fell. Did the central office leaders learn a lesson?

Apparently not. Under our next appointed principal, the culture of student responsibility that the interim had established faded like the autumn leaves. The tide turned back toward disorder: more fires, more fights, more assaults. Our enrollment dropped below 600. In 2009, our school had 75 serious incidents, landing us on the state's list of persistently dangerous schools. With rising violence and declining enrollment, rumors flew that the school was to be closed. 

The following year, another new principal arrived. The school experienced another amazing turnaround -- with the same teaching staff -- in less than two weeks. A school that had been a disaster was again under control. The following year, we had fewer than 10 serious incidents and shed our “persistently dangerous” status.

Bill Green, the new SRC chair, said in an interview on WHYY's Radio Times last week that every adult in the School District is responsible for failed schools. This is a fallacy. Indeed, there are adults responsible for all those low-performing seats. These adults are sitting safely in air-conditioned offices far removed from the rank and file who teach in run-down buildings and overcrowded classrooms with ever-declining resources.

So, there is an answer to the question of why schools fail. 

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (34)

Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 26, 2014 2:40 pm
Powerful, poignant and persuasive:-)
Submitted by Ms. Chips (not verified) on February 26, 2014 2:45 pm
I wish you were on the SRC, & then, when you had led it's abolition, in a real leadership position.
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 26, 2014 2:53 pm
I experienced the same situation(s) in a neighborhood, K-8 school. Interesting isn't it?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 3:36 pm
You can't run a top flight organization with unionized middle management.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 3:32 pm
Do you have a study that says this or is this just a prejudice of yours?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 3:59 pm
Then how do the best schools in the world do it with "unionized middle management"? Maybe if you stopped using business language to describe human beings, you wouldn't sound so myopic and banal. We're not making cars on an assembly line, we're working with children.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 5:00 pm
Read the notebook. That's where most of the teacher complaints stem ineffective management. And to your point, no you're not making widgets. But at the end of the day a work product must be there to evaluate and it's management who is responsible for that product. My observation, conclusion, or (if you like) prejudice is that can't get done with clock - watching, a5$ covering managers. They're not all that way. But it is a clear majority. There is a shallow pool of leadership worthy talent. I don't think it's right to criticize the teachers union when those in charge of the schools are not good leaders.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 26, 2014 4:24 pm
Eileen, thank you for raising the issue. Leadership Matters! It matters so very very much. "How we choose our leaders" also Matters so very much. It matters because we want and need only the highest caliber of principal, and the only way to ensure that, is to choose our principals through an inclusive, open and honest process which allows true community input into the selection process. I have written a good deal about that issue in the past wherein I have presented and discussed the research on effective principals. A good principal energizes a school community and raises its vitality. A poor principal debilitates a school community. That will always be true.
Submitted by Mrs. T (not verified) on February 26, 2014 4:50 pm
We had a similar scenario with our school. I retired two years ago because of the chaos that resulted when our former principal left us for the suburbs of Philadelphia. Can't blame her - she was wonderful, and had been leader of our school for 12 years. We blossomed under her leadership. But when she left, oh my! Her replacement lasted 2 years and left us in chaos. A good leader make the school good. The reverse is true for bad ones.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 4:47 pm
would have liked to have more examples of how the leadership failed to lead....did the leadership overlook school rules and allow kids to go without punishement?...did the leadeship overrule teachers' classroom rules? what exactly was the case? Linda K.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 5:27 pm
The new principal throws out the established systems and leadership team that the students knew and followed. He or she does not consult with the leadership team to learn about the culture of the school and the neighborhood. The former rules and established order is immediately replaced with ones that have not been field tested. When the new rules fail to yield the expected results, students realize that no one will hold them accountable. At this point, they begin cutting class, roaming the halls, terrorizing students and teachers alike. Everyone is frustrated. The principal hides out in the office. Teachers, sensing that they have little support, retreat to their rooms. The students who are creating the chaos become uncontrollable.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 5:50 pm
Wow, it sounds like you are describing conditions at my school this year. I don't blame my former principal for leaving. But the replacement isn't doing the job and our school is declining at an alarming rate.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 4:46 pm
Principals who are well liked, well connected are given the choicest schools. The most challenging schools get the least experienced teachers and principals. Rein of error appropriately describes the situation which soon becomes a rein of terror as teachers just close the door and try to survive each day. The principal will often stay in the office and hide behind paperwork to avoid the chaos. When serious incidents occur, they assign a subordinate to handle it, then 204 the person if they don't do a great job disposing of the problem. This is leadership in many of our schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 5:42 pm
I remember sitting in the auditorium with the ninth graders. The new principal declared, "If any of these teachers make you unhappy, come and see me", something to that effect. I knew I had to transfer out of that school and did at my first opportunity. Any time a student was unhappy in my class, they would say, "I an going to report you to Mrs. " x", and they did This woman terrorized most of the staff, except for the few who knew how to play her game. She had an agenda. Thankfully, there were enough law suits pending to bring her to the attention of the upper managers and she was given another assignment. I can't tell how many times she deliberately humiliated and dressed down staff in front of students, from the lowliest volunteer to an assistant principal. I watched good people suffer, get sent to the rubber room, force transferred out, resign and retire, before I got my chance to leave. Thankfully, she was also as stupid as she was brutal, and her self serving ways did her in. The principal is the principal teacher. The principal set the tone, sets the standards, makes or breaks a school. So sorry what has happened to the SDP in the past twenty years. Here's hoping that the city gets its schools back and someone with educational experience and integrity is put in charge to heal the wounds. Reading that we are only exceeded in our numbers of poor by Detroit and Baltimore in the entire country does not bode well for us.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 6:03 pm
The sad face is that leadership does matter. The School District needs leaders who are able to build teams. Success lies in the classroom, that is a basic fact. No one person can make that happen for all of the students. The job of a school leader is to set the stage for learning and to support the teachers in the classroom. That means teachers have to be on board with the program and the leadership should be able to reward the teachers who are supportive and not have to put up with those who don't. One of the problems in Philadelphia is there is no striving for greatness. Teachers are happy being mediocre. I come to work, I do my job. I am a good teacher. What is needed is great teachers who are willing to work collaboratively with the leadership. There is no I in leadership. There is no I in team. It takes a village to make a school great - the leaders job is to bring the village together and to facilitate.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 12:00 pm
No "I" in L E A D E R S H I P ? You must be a principal and not a very good one.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 2:11 pm
And you must be a disgruntled teacher, typing a response during your planning period when you don't have to plan because you have taught the course the same material 50 times over the past years. Plus you have to type it now because when you walk out the door with the students, you don't think about education anymore until you visit the notebook tommorow on your prep.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 3:22 pm
And YOU must be an administrator spying. Why don't you get off the computer and out into the hall to see what the students are doing? Or better yet, get a job as a private eye or with the NSA. Any dunce who can't see an "i" in the word "l e a d e r s h i p" and gets offended by it being pointed out is most def an admin. who thinks and lives in a fog. I am on the notebook all hours of the day and night and wish I could, in fact, forget education. You, obviously, are not thinking about it. Have a good evening. And if teaching the same course material 50 times over offends you, check out the core curriculum. It is as interesting as a phone book. You will just love it.
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 28, 2014 8:38 am sounds like you may have shut that dunce down...follow me...I have no idea what I am doing or concept of what is to lead a classroom...follow do all the work for me and I take the credit...follow me...I am loyal to this current crew at 440 who prove "on the daily" that they do not have a clue...follow me...I was appointed by political leaders who know nothing about education...follow me...WE WILL NOT FOLLOW PEOPLE WE KNOW TO BE UNETHICAL AND HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE DOING:-(
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 7:42 pm
Our school received a new Principal this year who replaced a spiteful, vindictive and ineffective Principal. Our new leader, the lone administrator for over 650 students, has single handedly turned around our school culture. She is vibrant, visible, and values staff contributions. Within weeks she knew all of the staff names and many of the students. Our low morale has disappeared and we don't dread coming to work. Best of all, she was a teacher for almost 20 years and an administrator for over 10. She knows what good instruction looks like and coaches struggling teachers rather than vilifies them. I can only hope she stays and helps us become a high performing school once again.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 7:38 pm
Sounds like our AP last year. She ran the show and terrorized everyone. Morale was never so low. The nicest teacher at our school said she had never met anyone so mean. Many quit, retired or transferred out. She berated us in front of students AND parents. Of course she got promoted to principal at another school. Thank G-d she is gone. Heard she is doing the same at the new school. But at ours, things are much better again. You would think 440 might listen to teacher complaints and notice when they increase....due to specific leaders appearing. Oh, I forgot, I am in Philly. The article is so right on yet principals are never mentioned as part of the problem. I wish for the day that I have a good principal who really knows how to do their job..
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 7:30 pm
I've actually worked with a bully principal that had a good many followers on the staff. I chalked it up to Stockholm Syndrome. One of her biggest supporters would actually talk about how she was bullied when she first got there, starting at the very first conversation they had. Go figure. I left this school 2 years later and the bully principal is now retired.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 26, 2014 8:18 pm
You have to remember that Principals are being used too, not to give abusive ones the right to be so. I've been on both sides of this as well as in the middle and it's not easy at any position. That's why they call it work. I've known some administrators who couldn't spell their own names and others who could. I mentioned once before that I had to shovel snow off the roof of the school during inclement weather and was trying to figure out a way to get a pain in the ass teacher up there with me so I could throw him off the roof. I'm only half kidding.........He luckily for both of us, transferred the next year.
Submitted by Christa (not verified) on February 26, 2014 8:12 pm
Just another one of the many things we need to have out voices heard on. People need to stop being scared to address these issues and many more. There is a certain amount of politics in the workplace but we shouldn't have to "play the game" to survive teaching in Phildadelphia.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 9:12 pm
I was in the PSD for 5 years. During that time I was in four schools and had seven Principals. Only one of these Principals was somewhat fair and decent. There were three that were downright mean and basically bullies. All of them played favorites. The brass at 440 and the SRC seem to be clueless about this "pink elephant" in the room. The Principal sets the tone and direction of the school. The PSD and the SRC want to give Principals more authority and power. In most cases for most schools this would be very scary. Yet, for some reason this situation is not spoken about. We lost a lot of our best Principals last year as many left the district or retired.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on February 26, 2014 10:41 pm
I intend to carry at least one copy of this article on me at all times so that I can be ready the next time I hear someone say that principals need more autonomy. Thanks, Eileen.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 5:39 am
The implication of the article isn't necessarily that principals need less autonomy. It's that bad principals should be dismissed, and that picking the right leaders is really important.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 27, 2014 7:07 am
I am all for "school autonomy" but not for "principal autonomy." It is time to move into the 21st century in our notions of school governance and leadership. None of us are qualified to run a school autonomously -- none of us. Collaborative leadership, and collaborative school governance, is the sine qua non for effective school communities.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on February 27, 2014 9:51 am
"Bad" according to whose criteria? Does one district superintendent think the more 204's a principal writes the better, and another see that as an indication of a poor leader? As long as there are incompetent and vindictive principals, teachers should not be at their mercy. And as long as the district puts the kind of burden on principals they do, with less support every year, principals should not be given even more responsibilities. I have worked with good principals, but I still wouldn't want them hiring and firing people. We can't go back to the kind of cronyism, favoritism and nepotism we had before unions achieved protection through seniority and tenure.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 27, 2014 10:51 am
It is illegal for principals to hire and fire teachers under Pennsylvania law. Only the school board is vested with that legal power and authority. Everyone should understand that principals are part of a larger scheme of public school governance which requires multiple participants. Shared leadership is required for effective school governance. All public schools and all public employees are required to follow public processes. No one can be, nor should they be, granted unfettered power to do whatever they want. That would be a prescription for ridiculousness.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 28, 2014 8:24 pm
The most important point is that the Principals will be "Chosen" by the enemies of Public Ed. and Democracy. In reality, the Principals will be used as torpedoes against their teachers and it will all be by design.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on February 28, 2014 9:49 pm
Sounds creepy, but I can see it happening.
Submitted by Andrew Saltz (not verified) on February 27, 2014 5:35 am
Thank you for writing this.
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on February 27, 2014 8:48 am
Ellen, I couldn't agree more; leadership is an important component. The problem is seeing leadership as one person--democratic, distributed leadership, when done well, works to improve school in so many indicators (if we need research jargon here). A group of talented educators and myself are looking at this very idea in a Teacher Action Group, Leveraging Student and Faculty Voice to Improve School. We are developing democratically-driven leadership projects in schools across this district; anyone is invited to our next session. What is leadership? Is more democratically-driven necessary? What are some successful, researched-based models (national and international)? How do I begin to move this type of work forward? What hurdles are there? March 11th@National Constitution Center 5pm.

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