By Amy Saltzman
There were dark moments that first year. In 2014, Principal Elizabeth Namba inherited a school that faced multiple challenges, including a troubling achievement gap, drastically decreased enrollment, and a growing suspension rate. But when she found herself awake at 3 a.m. desperately trying to figure out what to do next, she knew she could shoot off an email to her supervisor, Janice Harris, and find encouraging words in her inbox the next morning. During those difficult times, Harris was her mentor, her coach, her sounding board, her evaluator — her rock. “I can’t imagine doing this without her,” said Namba, who heads Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
More than 1,000 miles across the country in Tulsa, Okla., Katy Jimenez faced similar obstacles. On a crisp and sunny November day, the young principal of McClure Elementary School agonized over a decision to suspend a pre-K student for hitting and scratching a teacher twice in one week. But she didn’t need to wrestle with that difficult choice alone. Kayla Robinson, her supervisor, was there to offer guidance and support as Jimenez considered how best to help the boy, engage his mother, and reassure a teacher who had been reduced to tears by the latest incident.
The job of principal has always been a lonely one. But do principals need to feel quite so alone? That’s the question school districts across the United States are grappling with during a time when expectations on these school leaders to improve student performance have never been higher. Many districts have responded by taking a fresh look at how best to support principals and reduce principal turnover, particularly in the most troubled schools. For a small but growing number of school districts, one answer is to remake the job of the principal supervisor.
A big shift for school districts
In the typical large school district today, principal supervisors oversee an average of 24 schools — and often more than 40 — and devote their time to handling regulatory compliance and fixing building problems (Casserly et al., 2013). However, in districts such as Washington, D.C., and Tulsa, whose efforts are supported by the Wallace Foundation, that old approach has been turned on its head. Supervisors in both districts now concentrate on bolstering their principals’ work to improve instruction. Supervisors oversee fewer schools, which gives them time to provide principals with the coaching and supervision they often lacked in the past.
Under the old system, supervisors rarely visited schools more than once every few months and had little opportunity to work directly with principals, beyond making their way through a compliance checklist. Since launching its redesigned Instructional Leadership Director program in 2013, Tulsa Public Schools has expanded the number of principal supervisors from just two overseeing 44 schools each to nine who support no more than 12 schools each. Likewise, the District of Columbia Public Schools, which began revamping its program during the 2010-11 school year, today enlists nine principal supervisors, each responsible for an average of 12 schools, down from as many as 28 schools each in 2010 when the district had six principal supervisors.
The result is that Tulsa and D.C. principal supervisors now spend at least 70% of their time inside schools, scheduling formal visits in each building every few weeks, dropping by as needed, and staying in regular contact through calls, emails, and text messages. The supervisors now play a crucial role in everything from instruction to testing to personnel issues as they work hand in hand with their principals to determine the best path for each school.
Trailblazing a new role
In Tulsa, principal supervisor Kayla Robinson starts her nearly 12-hour day by visiting Skelly Primary School, loaded down with data and curriculum materials to share with each of three principals she’ll meet with that day. As she enters the school, a 1st-grade teacher greets her with an exuberant “Hi!” Another teacher walking by with a parade of kindergartners stops to give her a hug. Robinson previously supported the teacher’s move from another school that wasn’t a good match. “She’s my guardian angel,” the teacher said.
Robinson, who worked as an elementary school principal for 23 years, including 19 years at Marshall Elementary School in Tulsa, never aspired to be a principal supervisor. The old compliance officer model “didn’t appeal to me at all,” she said. But when Tulsa implemented its new Instructional Leadership Director program, she was intrigued. She’s found that she loves the ever-changing challenges that come with the new job.
Under the district’s old system, the two principal supervisors (then called associate superintendents) provided virtually no instructional assistance. “You would see your superintendent at evaluation time or if there was any kind of fire to put out,” recalled Jennifer Gripado, a former Tulsa principal who was part of a team that helped create the Instructional Leadership Director program before becoming a principal supervisor herself. As a result, the position was most often occupied by those looking for managerial jobs after years in the trenches as principals or teachers.
Today, in both Tulsa and D.C., the position typically attracts educators who are drawn to the instructional and coaching roles — and who have little interest in sitting behind a desk. Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist said the position demands people who “know instruction really well, who understand teaching and learning, and who know it well enough to guide and support the professional development of their principals.” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson believes the revamped role is central to the school system’s strategy for improving education. ”It’s one of the most important positions in the district,” she said.
A focus on instruction
D.C.’s ambitious goals for the position helped attract people like Janice Harris, a former New York City English and social studies teacher who gave up an 11-year tenure as principal of a Connecticut elementary school to sign on as a principal supervisor for a diverse cluster of 12 elementary schools. Harris, who’s responsible for some of the lowest- and highest-performing schools in the city, noted, “There are excellent teachers and leaders here, and our job is to coach them and grow them to really allow our system to excel. The system is not going to fire its way to excellence.”
After just 18 months on the job, Harris already saw evidence that her presence was making a difference. Nowhere was that more apparent than at Hyde-Addison. Although the school is in Washington’s affluent Georgetown area, 59% of its students come from other neighborhoods, having gained entry through a lottery system, and 19% receive free or reduced-price lunch. The school is one of the most diverse in D.C., with a student body that is roughly 50% white and 50% black. It also faces a significant achievement gap between black students and their white peers, especially in reading. Both Harris and principal Namba are determined to close that gap.
When Harris enters the school, she and Namba immediately get down to business, discussing the three classrooms they’ll visit that day and what they’ll be looking for — specifically, consistency in reading instruction. They start with a visit to a 3rd-grade class where small groups of students are discussing different books they’re reading. Harris sits down with a table of four students who are eager to show off their work. She asks about the book they’re reading, Alma Flor Ada’s My Name is Maria Isabel (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1995). Several talk at once, excited to provide details about the book, which tells the story of a Hispanic girl growing up in the United States who begins having problems at school when her teacher starts calling her Mary. The kids eagerly explain to her how they write down important points on sticky notes — like character traits — or discuss them in their groups.
Outside the classroom, Harris can hardly contain her excitement. “I can’t even begin to tell you the change I’m seeing here. At the beginning of the year, these students were off-track and unengaged. Now they’re enjoying and understanding what they’re reading and learning. It makes me so happy I want to cry,” she said. There are also hopeful signs in their efforts to close achievement gaps. “What I saw today was a lot of engaged black students, particularly boys,” she said.
After the classroom visit, Harris, Namba, and an instructional coach assigned to the school review what they’ve seen, noting a minor red flag. Harris points out that the kids were unable to fully explain how they were going to share their thoughts on the book. Namba suggests that the teacher could ask more clarifying questions so students have a clearer idea why they’re discussing that particular book.
Such discussions are part of an ongoing dialogue between Namba and Harris that focuses on improving instruction. “When she and I talk, we don’t talk about my building infrastructure. We focus on the day-to-day academics in the building,” said Namba. “We look at our long-range plan. We look at our professional learning, how staffing is going, at everything that affects the day-to-day instruction. She keeps me focused on my main role as the instructional leader of the building.”
The challenges of implementation
Upending the old ways isn’t easy, especially in school districts comfortable with the status quo. For instance, in D.C., making room in the budget to hire more principal supervisors meant transferring pieces of work that didn’t directly focus on instruction, such as technology, to other city agencies. Although the principal supervisors initially maintained some operational responsibilities, those tasks also were eventually transferred. Indeed, a key component of the redesigned D.C. program was assigning an operations assistant to each cluster of schools so principal supervisors could focus their attention on improving reading and math scores rather than fixing broken boilers. “One of the things we realized is that for instructional superintendents (principal supervisors) to really maximize teaching and learning, they can’t be responsible for anything else but teaching and learning,” said the D.C. chancellor.
The personnel changes didn’t come without some pain. Previous supervisors had large staffs, which were eliminated in favor of providing funds for more principal supervisors. In the end, none of the previous principal supervisors stayed on. “The position was no longer a comfortable fit for their skill set,” said Kimberly Barrett, who manages Wallace Foundation-funded work in D.C.
Tulsa took a similar approach, eliminating positions of staff members who had worked for the two former associate superintendents and hiring additional principal supervisors. To handle parent complaints, child-family support services, and other responsibilities that previously had fallen to the associate superintendents, the district created two new positions, sending a clear message that principal supervisors would focus on instruction.
Still, many principals had a hard time believing the change wasn’t simply the education fad of the month. Clear messaging from then-Superintendent Keith Ballard about the district’s strong commitment to increasing support for principals helped alleviate some of those fears. Today, one of the chief complaints from principals is that they don’t see their supervisors enough. Robinson admits that central office demands sometimes get in the way of spending time in schools. “I’m trying to get better at saying, ‘No,’ or finding others who can handle it,” she said.
Building trust: Coach vs. boss
To do their jobs effectively, principal supervisors need to be a shoulder to cry on and a safe space for principals to share their struggles. At the same time, they’re the principals’ bosses, responsible for evaluating their work. These seemingly contradictory roles can make it difficult to build trusting relationships. A recent report (Anderson & Turnbull, 2016) examining the experiences of six urban school districts in a related Wallace Foundation initiative found novice principals have generally positive views about support from their supervisors, with 80% saying they helped them set effective goals and develop plans to meet those goals during the 2014-15 school year. However, some principals suggested that their supervisors need to spend more time in schools or that they have yet to develop the trust needed to discuss their weaknesses candidly with their supervisors.
Although Robinson has a strong, productive relationship with her principals today, that wasn’t always the case — particularly during her first year on the job, when three principals quit. Their chief complaints: They felt uncomfortable with the sudden lack of autonomy and the enhanced focus on instruction. There was a learning curve for Robinson as well. “I didn’t ever develop the kind of relationship with them that made them want to continue to do the work,” she said. “It takes time and hard work to build that trust.”
Jennifer Pense, the principal of Skelly Primary School in Tulsa, admits that she initially had a hard time being completely honest with Robinson about the difficulties she faced as a first-year principal. “When your supervisor comes to your building or sends an email that says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ there’s always this, ‘Oh, did I do something wrong?’ ” Pense now feels completely at ease with the relationship and understands the importance of being honest with Robinson. “It doesn’t feel evaluative. She’s truly a coach,” she said. “That has taken away a lot of the fear of asking for help and not having to feel like I need to be perfect.”
Balancing the coaching role with responsibility to evaluate principals can be especially challenging. LaKimbre Brown said she “agonizes” about writing evaluations and potentially compromising her relationship with the principals in the 14 elementary schools she handles in D.C. “I know they’ve made progress, but I still have to say at the end of the day that they get a ‘2’ (‘minimally effective’) rating,” she said. “It creates this tension. I think I spend too much time belaboring how to craft the managerial part to preserve the relationship.”
Especially for new principals like Katy Jimenez, who heads McClure Elementary School in Tulsa, the support provided by her principal supervisor has meant the difference between pushing ahead in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems — and giving up.
During her first year on the job, Jimenez describes herself as “a deer in the headlights.” She had worked as an elementary school teacher in Tulsa for 11 years and suddenly found herself struggling to rebuild the highest-poverty school in the district. “Our students come from a trauma-saturated environment. A lot of neglect. A lot of violence. Many times they’re forced to shoulder adult problems and see things that are way beyond what their young minds can comprehend.” The result, occasionally, is students who act out repeatedly, to the point where neither Jimenez nor her staff members can resolve the problem.
“What kind of help do you need? What are you thinking?” asked her principal supervisor, Kayla Robinson, as they discussed Jimenez’s painful decision to suspend the troubled 4-year-old who had hit and scratched his teacher. “I’m trying to reach the mom. I know she won’t be happy, but I want to let her know what we’re thinking so she’s not caught off guard,” answered Jimenez.
Robinson shares similar problems she’s seen at other schools, sending a signal to Jimenez that she’s not alone in facing such challenges. Together, they discuss next steps to ensure the boy gets the help he needs.
Despite the tough realities she’s navigating, Jimenez believes the school has come a long way in the three years since she took the helm. “McClure had become a dumping ground for bad teachers, and there just wasn’t a lot of support,” she recalled. In 2014, after her first year, Jimenez hired 27 new teachers, working closely with Robinson to select individuals they believed could succeed at the school. But the second year, when several proved to be a poor fit, she had to replace more than a third of those teachers. “She’s probably the best thing I could have asked for as a new principal,” said Jimenez of Robinson’s support during that tumultuous period.
Today, both Jimenez and Robinson agree the school has improved. “This is a school now. Three years ago, any time of the day, it was just chaos,” said Robinson.
Hard data can’t yet measure the effect principal supervisors such as Robinson have on schools. A major independent evaluation underway of six districts receiving Wallace Foundation funding for principal supervisor work is expected to provide insights into how changing the supervision of principals affects their performance.
But the before-and-after pictures painted of McClure and Hyde-Addison suggest some promise. At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, 74% of students at Hyde-Addison were reading at the proficiency level, up 10 percentage points from the previous year. D.C. schools overall have seen some of the most impressive increases in attendance and graduation rates in the nation since the redesigned principal supervisor program was launched. In describing the central role of principal supervisors in that progress, chancellor Henderson calls them “the keepers and executors of the vision.” They are, she said, where “the magic happens.”
In Tulsa, Superintendent Gist said the principal supervisors embody the notion that “teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do, that it’s a craft we continuously hone and develop.” For students, teachers, principals, and their supervisors, there’s no ending point. “I want a district that embraces ongoing growth and improvement as something all of us strive for,” Gist said. In Tulsa and D.C., principal supervisors keep everyone marching toward that goal every single day.
Anderson, L.M. & Turnbull, B.J. (2016). Building a stronger principalship: Vol. 4: Evaluating and supporting principals. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates.
Casserly, M., Lewis, S., Simon, C., Uzzell, R., & Palacios, M. (2013). Principal evaluations and the principal supervisor: Survey results from the Great City Schools. Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools.
AMY SALTZMAN (email@example.com) is senior vice president of The Hatcher Group, based in Bethesda, Md. This article was excerpted from The Power of Principal Supervisors: How Two Districts Are Remaking an Old Role, which was published by The Wallace Foundation.
Originally published in October 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (2), 52-57. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.