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Dizzying rate of Pinellas principals' transfer stirs up concerns

Rising senior Mary Silk has been at Northeast High longer than her new principal. And the principal before that. And the principal before that.

The latest appointment is part of a recent decision by Pinellas County leaders to swap a number of principals countywide.

Silk's mother is furious.

"It's like pawns on a chessboard," said Midge Silk, 51, whose daughter is entering her fourth year at the school. "The revolving door seems to be districtwide."

Over a five-year span that includes the upcoming school year, 91 of Pinellas' 118 schools will have welcomed at least one new principal, district figures show.

Of those, 63 have had two principals. Ten have had three. And two schools have had to adapt to four different leaders. So far only 16 schools have had the same principal since 2006.

Superintendent Julie Janssen said change is often necessary for a variety of reasons — retirement, promotion, school performance, lackluster faculty or parent relations among them.

She and her deputy superintendent, both former principals, say two years is enough time for a principal to make lasting reform before moving on.

That's far less than the five years experts say it takes to embed real change in a school.

"It's kind of like planting a tree and then pulling it up and planting it again," said researcher Kyla Wahlstrom. "When you let the roots grow deep, you get good results."

• • •

The changes Janssen announced in June were sweeping, affecting 27 campuses and 30 principals or assistant principals.

Among the most vocal fallout came from parents, faculty members and students at Northeast, who were caught off guard.

Even principal Kevin Hendrick was surprised. "This is not a move that I either requested or expected," he told his staff then.

Hendrick took over Northeast in 2008 after Patricia Wright was promoted to a district position after leading the school for less than three years. The timing was critical. Northeast, a D-rated school, was about to begin the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

Michelle Dudley, a veteran social studies teacher, was skeptical of Hendrick, 34, a first-time principal.

But he aced his interview. "He was confident. He had specific plans. He was positive. He nailed every single question," said Dudley, who was on the committee that recommended Hendrick be hired.

At the time, Dudley said, a district administrator reassured faculty that he would not be a flash-in-the-pan fix.

Hendrick connected with his new staff.

In a school climate survey at the end of his first year, 79 percent of the staff gave his administration an A or B, and 77 percent reported that morale had improved.

Then, in the summer of 2009, Hendrick pored over the school's FCAT scores and found a scoring error. Northeast, he maintained, had risen to a C.

Hendrick appealed to the state and won.

Northeast knew it had its champion.

• • •

Nationally, the average tenure of a principal is about 3.6 years, according to a study of school leadership released Wednesday by the Wallace Foundation.

Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, led the study, the largest of its kind in the United States. Her team collected data from nine states, surveyed more than 8,800 teachers and administrators, interviewed more than 1,000, then analyzed the results in comparison to student achievement data.

In the end, Wahlstrom and fellow researchers faulted lack of consistency for undermining efforts to improve learning.

"One of the most serious threats to stability in a school district," the study found, "is frequent turnover in the ranks of superintendents, principals, and vice principals. Instability at the school level often reflects a failure of management at the district level."

And when principals leave often, so do teachers, said Ed Fuller, who has spent years studying school leadership for the University Council for Educational Administration at University of Texas.

Sure, two years is time enough to make superficial changes in a school, Fuller said — get some scores up, change a few faces.

"But it's not lasting," he said.

Effective principals are around long enough to build trust.

"It's like getting married for three years," Fuller said. "This is the point when you're really trying to trust them — and then they leave. Which makes it harder to trust the next person."

• • •

Janssen said the leadership changes were necessary. Particularly at Northeast.

The state was pressuring the district to do something about another high school: Boca Ciega in Gulfport, bruised by seven state-issued D ratings in a row.

And Janssen learned that the latest FCAT results would not show good news for the school. Boca Ciega needed a principal with a history of improving student performance, Janssen said. Because more than half of the district's high schools are labeled a D or an F, she had only eight schools to pull from.

And Nelson would be a good fit for Northeast, Janssen said.

So the superintendent made a last-minute call and swapped Paula Nelson, Boca's principal of four years, and Hendrick. School Board members approved the change the next morning.

The protest from Northeast community was swift with e-mails, messages and a "Keep Mr. Hendrick at Northeast" Facebook page with almost 700 fans.

"He's turning the school around, but when you turn the corner, you change your leader?" complained Linda Garrison, parent of a senior. "Why did she make the decision she did?"

Janssen said she's sympathetic to those who feel they've lost their principal. But her eye is on the good of the district.

For now, she wants to build a stronger bench of rising principals and assistant principals.

Janssen said that Hendrick, whom she considers a rising star, agreed to move because it could give him greater exposure and help his career.

And after working with state leaders to help turn around Boca Ciega, Hendrick would no doubt be better positioned to move into a higher-paying administrative role, Janssen said.

She even has one in mind.

One of her directors at central office is expected to retire — two years from now.

• • •

Hendrick, a former social studies teacher, said the folks at Northeast are right to question the number of principal changes at their school in recent years.

Sure, he did one day see himself rising above principal, he said, but he had plans for Northeast: "Our long-range plans were just in the beginning stages."

Social studies teacher Dudley bought into Hendrick's vision. She put in the extra hours to help the school get there. She's tried for 25 years and through five principals not to get to this point of frustration.

But this one hurt.

"You learn a principal and you learn how they do things and as soon as you get it, they're gone," she said. "They make these demands and they keep wanting you to give more and more and more. … You just feel like you're not getting any backing from the district."

Dudley has resigned herself to the idea that Hendrick isn't returning. She's met Nelson, the new principal, and thinks she seems nice.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or


By the numbers

25 schools will have new principals this year.

17 schools have already been assigned a new principal.

8 positions are vacant.

Of the 25 schools undergoing a principal change, 15 are high-poverty and 10 have more than 50 percent minorities.

In the 17 schools where a new principal has been assigned:

Seven are getting principals from schools with a lower grade.

Three — Boca Ciega, Lakewood and Dixie Hollins high schools — are getting principals from schools with a higher grade.

Six are getting principals from schools with the same grade.

(Note: The final school is an ungraded alternative school.)

In Pinellas this year, almost 60 percent of the teachers requesting to be transferred from their schools currently work on campuses where there has been at least one principal change in the last five years.

Dizzying rate of Pinellas principals' transfer stirs up concerns 07/24/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 24, 2010 11:34pm]
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