City school system grapples with principal turnover

Since Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso took the helm four years ago, only about one-quarter of the system's principals have remained in their posts, a high turnover rate that has rankled education advocates who say they are concerned that leadership vacuums hamper progress.

With just 21/2 weeks until students return to the classroom, nine schools remain without permanent leadership assignments. Late Tuesday, Alonso appointed the 15th new principal in two weeks as the system races to fill a total of 42 vacancies that had opened this past school year alone — about half of those retirements or resignations.

"It's scary," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who now heads the advocacy group National Action Network — Greater Baltimore Chapter. "Many of the principals are so experienced and so connected with the community that you never want to lose that."

Some principals who left the school system in recent months cited a range of reasons including constant pressure, lack of support and the exodus of colleagues in the past four years.

Alonso acknowledges the unprecedented turnover rate under his tenure compared with his predecessors but said the changes are necessary to improve schools and that it's imperative to have the right people in those positions. Alonso has increased the power of principals by giving them increased flexibility in their budgeting and staffing, arguing that the school leaders, as opposed to central office administrators, know how to best serve students.

Turnover "is still needed, especially given our outcomes this year and given how much work needs to be done," he said in an interview. "My job is to make tough decisions about leadership."

The principal changes come as the city looks to rebound from a backslide in academic progress and braces for reforms including a new national curriculum, radically different union contracts for teachers and administrators, and the pilot state evaluation system for teachers that will have student achievement account for 50 percent of their job rating. The city also is reeling from a series of cheating scandals in which test gains were inflated; that could lead to a few principals' losing their professional licenses.

The city experienced its first dip in years on the 2011 Maryland School Assessments, and a number of city schools individually saw sharp declines. Alonso has made holding principals accountable for achievement a trademark of his administration, but acknowledged that turnover in leadership and school staff contributed to some of the sharpest declines in school test scores this year.

Of the 188 school principals when Alonso arrived in 2007, 50 remain at the same schools they led four years ago. Another nine principals still lead schools in the system but have been transferred to new posts.

The vacancies included those created by reassignments, promotions and new schools being opened. The number of principals dismissed for poor performance has not yet been finalized, school officials said.

The turnover is unusual in the Baltimore metropolitan area. For example, eight of the 172 principals in Baltimore County are new for this coming school year, while in Anne Arundel County, 10 of 120 principals will be new to the job.

Education experts have said that high turnover rates in urban school systems are common when radical reforms are under way as they are in Baltimore.

"Turnover is always an unpleasant event to deal with," said Neil Duke, president of the city school board. "In any case, the bottom line is that the onus is on the district to make certain that we have effective leadership in each of our school buildings, and we will continue to support effective leadership across the district."

But Cheatham echoed a concern expressed by school employees and parents: The constant churning of principals is problematic given the unique challenges the city's student population faces.

"The people who head up our schools really have to have a love and compassion for the children and the neighborhood they're working in," said Cheatham, who recently called for the reinstatement of Montebello Junior Academy Principal Camille Bell, who was removed. Bell, who grappled this year with the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old student, has declined to comment, and school officials declined to discuss personnel issues, citing policy.

"If they're coming from the counties or even further, that means they have no understanding of the culture they're coming into," Cheatham said. "You can bring in some great PhDs and scholars, but if they're not connected to the community, it makes a difference."

The city's administrators union has attributed the turnover rate, in part, to Alonso's "impatience about results," which the CEO does not deny but says is necessary. Union officials have said that the aggressive style pushed a number of frustrated principals out of the system.

"For the past three years, I have consistently expressed my concerns over the astonishingly large number of seasoned administrators leaving the school system," said Jimmy Gittings, the union president.

"My No. 1 concern about the exiting of the seasoned administrators is that they are also taking their expertise and experience with them. Who now will mentor and guide our new and much younger administrators?" he said. He added that the union will give its full support to the new administrators as they transition into their jobs.

Under a new reorganization of the central office, the district has sought to provide more support as newer and less experienced principals are hired.

This year, the school system will hire 16 new administrators, at $125,000 salaries, to coach and evaluate principals. Alonso also plans to expand school support groups called "networks" — teams of administrative staff that Alonso created in his first year to act as liaisons to schools.

"We have a system where the principal needs an array of skills to move the schools," Alonso said. "The principals, for sure, are the most scrutinized within the system and because of that they need to be the most supported."

But some principals who have left the system this year said it was the lack of support from the school system that drove them to depart their posts.

Jason Hartling, who had led Northwestern High School since 2008, resigned this year amid rumors that district administrators planned to overhaul his school. Hartling said he knew that could be a possibility when he took it over but that the district never stepped up to help raise the achievement data it would later use as justification to intervene. He also said the constant threat of district intervention, which could include requiring the entire staff to reapply for their jobs, undermined morale and stability.

Hartling said he sent his resignation April 1 and was not contacted by any central office officials about how to handle the transition at Northwestern. On his last day in June, he said, he took a picture of his computer, badge and keys sitting on his desk to prove he'd left them behind.

"I tried to give 110 percent every day and always operated as if the students were my own children," Hartling said. "Leaving is painful for me, but I leave knowing the school is in a better place and that our team has made huge accomplishments."

District officials declined to comment on Hartling's departure.

Some members of the Park Heights and Fallstaff communities expressed concern about Hartling's departure, crediting him with transforming the school's culture, standards and relationship with neighbors. Hartling joined the district's efforts to get dropouts back into school, and suspensions at the school plummeted under his tenure.

"Principals are important because they set the tone and the direction for the school, and they also have to interact with the community," said Sandra A. Johnson, president of Fallstaff Improvement Association Inc.

Johnson said she was "very disappointed" when she heard Hartling had resigned and sent a message to Alonso pleading that a principal be appointed as soon as possible to maintain stability.

With so much turnover in the district, the school community was concerned it would be left in limbo. "We knew with the competition from other schools that we might run into some delays, or that we might not be able to get a good principal," she said.

Johnson was part of the group of Northwestern staff and Park Heights community members that interviewed the school's new principal, Kevin Simmons, an administrator from Michigan, as part of the hiring process. "We're looking for him to continue what Jason started," Johnson said.

Alonso said he recognizes the importance of maintaining stability by retaining strong leaders.

"We want good people to stay," he said, "but we want the kind of resilience and commitment that's going to move us forward in the long run."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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