At high-poverty schools, lack of stability starts at the top

File photo: The district's Penny Nixon listening to parents' questions at Audenried High School in 2011.
File photo: The district's Penny Nixon listening to parents' questions at Audenried High School in 2011. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 23, 2012

L.P. Hill Elementary in Strawberry Mansion has gone through five principals in nine years.

Parent Dawn Hawkins says that has led to real turmoil at Hill, where virtually all students live below the poverty line and stable leadership is crucial.

"Changing principal to principal to principal - you can't get anything established like that," said Hawkins, whose son, Khyrie Brown, is a sixth grader at Hill. "We deserve a stable school so we can get to real learning, not starting over every few months."

Two recently released reports underscore the leadership issues faced by Hill and other high-poverty schools in Philadelphia and across the country. Namely, researchers found, schools that educate the neediest students typically have less-experienced principals, more leadership upheaval, and more instability than other schools.

In the 2011-12 school year, 35 percent of the Philadelphia School District's highest-poverty schools had new principals. In city schools with students from the highest-income backgrounds, 15 percent of schools had new principals that year.

The reports, from Action United and Education Voters of Pennsylvania, come at a crucial time for the district, as leaders plan to move to a decentralized model with more autonomy for principals.

Principals told Education Voters they need more time in the classroom and less time attending to paperwork, district meetings, and compliance issues.

Asked how they would choose to prioritize their time, principals were clear. "Kids, working directly with them, knowing every child by name," one wrote. "Co-teaching and observing and giving feedback - if I had my way, that is how I would spend 80 percent of my time."

Education Voters recommends the district treat principals as senior managers whose opinions help shape policy. They said principals ought to have more control over teacher hiring, curriculum, and instruction.

Penny Nixon, the district's chief academic officer, has already announced that the scripted curriculum the district has mandated for the last few years would no longer be required, saying principals would be able to choose their own curriculums.

"District administrators and principals must redefine their roles and relationships with an understanding that the district possesses the resources to set up effective systemic frameworks, while principals have the specific knowledge of their school, employees, and students to make most of the on-the-ground decisions," the report said.

The Action United report also stressed the importance of developing strong principals at high-poverty schools. Multiple high-poverty schools, the district found, have had a revolving door of principals, with three or four in the last five years.

Frank Murphy, who recently retired after 13 years as principal of Meade Elementary, where 95 percent of students live below the poverty level, noted that "principals need at least five years to be successful and build a leadership team, build community relations, create a curriculum designed for the specific population - to build a successful school."

And Debora Carrera, principal of Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, where 91 percent of students are poor, told Action United she had to win the trust of her teachers, who thought she would leave after two years. "For many teachers," the report says, "these concerns grew out of experiences with principals that have seemed to treat their work in high-poverty schools as stepping-stones, not long-term commitments."

Action United recommended assigning the most-experienced principals to the toughest schools, giving parents and teachers a say in principal hiring, and evaluating principals on their ability to hire and retain strong staff.

Hawkins, who spoke before the School Reform Commission on Thursday night, urged the district to better support principals.

"A principal needs to be able to walk down the hall and know the names of students, or know who their parents are, but with all the changes, that is not possible, and it hurts the environment of the school," Hawkins said.

She said Nixon had been responsive to issues and had agreed to meet with Action United.

"But there are more voices that need to be a part of the conversation," Hawkins said, "like teachers, principals, and more parents, especially in this time of autonomy, when principals are getting more responsibility."


Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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