After Cooper Dawson turned around one struggling St. Petersburg school, she was asked to do it again. The sixth-year principal embraced the challenge.
She spent five years boosting scores at Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary School and faces a similar task at F-rated Fairmount Park Elementary School.
It takes time, Dawson said, to put a school on a path to success — more time, perhaps, than newly approved Florida legislation will allow. While the attention and headlines have been on teachers, the bill signed this week by Gov. Rick Scott also changes principal evaluations and contracts.
Some fear that the tough new approach — ratings based on student and teacher performance and the ability to recruit and retain effective teachers — might deter some principals from taking on a struggling school.
"We are a little leery, especially somebody like me who was moved from a school that was successful to a school that hasn't been," Dawson said.
Still, Dawson said, the move toward increased accountability for principals makes sense, as long as additional factors they deal with daily are taken into consideration. After all, she said, tough schools can make great gains with children but still not get them to grade level.
"Student growth, student accountability needs to be part of all our evaluations," Dawson said. "If we are not effective, it's not working for kids."
Many principals share Dawson's mixed view of the pending law. They didn't protest as lawmakers debated the measure.
That did not mean they had no concerns about the provisions.
Principal Teresa Anderson, who has led Azalea Middle in St. Petersburg for eight years, noted that her C-rated school sometimes seems like a training ground for young teachers. They take a job at Azalea, where students' attention to school often is second to problems at home. They get training, perform well, and leave for schools with fewer issues, Anderson said.
If she can't keep the effective teachers, she might lose her job, too, despite her efforts.
Possible results like that have some principals wary. But they also recognize it comes with the job description.
Chris Fonteyn, first-year principal of F-rated Miles Elementary in Tampa, was told before taking the post that if he can't turn around Miles, he could lose his job.
"As it should be," he said. "If I can't move this school forward, you should find someone who can."
He said it's only logical that principals be judged on results, as students and teachers are. As long as the state looks at growth, not simple score targets, that's fair, he said.
"We have more room to grow," Fonteyn acknowledged, though he added it's often much harder to make gains at a high-poverty, high-needs school like his.
Kathy Hebda, Florida's deputy chancellor for educator quality, said the state Department of Education considers principals vital to a school's success. The creation of an evaluation system that takes into account everything they do is key to helping them identify strengths and weaknesses in their leadership and their schools, she said.
"We want to give people an honest opportunity for improvement," Hebda said.
Angie Stone, principal of Fivay High School in Hudson, said she's well aware of the changes coming. Pasco County, like many others, began crafting a new principal evaluation format months ago in advance of the bill.
Because principals already have annual contracts and many already see the state's school grade as a partial rating of their work, many principals aren't as upset as teachers are, Stone said. But even as evaluations should change, some attitudes toward education should change, too, said Stone, who is in her seventh year as a principal.
"I think that somewhere along the way, people have come up with the misguided idea that teachers and school administrators don't work," she said. "Not that there aren't bad teachers and bad administrators. But there are bad corporate people, too."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.