One Principal, Two Schools

Some education leaders in New York City have been tasked with simultaneously leading both high- and low-performing campuses—with mixed results.

Crystal Bonds is a "master principal."  (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

In 2014, New York City commenced a high-stakes experiment: It would put one principal in charge of two schools.

Its test case was Michael Wiltshire, who would run a high-flying Brooklyn school along with one of the most troubled high schools in the state. When he announced this June he was leaving the troubled school, Boys and Girls High School, just 19 months after taking on the dual role, some considered the experiment a failure.

But not the New York Education Department. Instead, officials announced last week that the head of a tiny Brooklyn school would also lead the school it shares a building with: Automotive High School, a floundering school whose struggles rival those of Boys and Girls.

In fact, the department has appointed at least a half-dozen other “master principals” to either run second schools or assist their principals, paying them extra for their efforts.

By allowing veteran principals to take on new challenges without abandoning their longtime schools, the split role has drawn effective leaders into buildings that need them. Where those principals have simply become mentors to other educators, weaker schools seem to be revitalized and stronger schools have not been impaired.

But experts remain wary of cases like Wiltshire’s, where one principal oversees two schools. The principals who are trying to make that arrangement work have generally handed off their original school to a deputy—but even then, playing double duty can be punishing. “This is like running a city and running a village,” said Connie Hamilton, the founder of a successful small school who was brought in to stabilize a large Brooklyn school. “I’m exhausted.”

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Seasoned, successful principals are a precious commodity. So, how do you distribute them?

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to lure top principals to challenging schools with a $25,000 bonus and the title “executive principal.” In return, they agreed to leave their current schools and commit to three years at the new placement. However, several principals stumbled in their new assignments, and the program was mostly abandoned after two years.

When current New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña negotiated a new contract with the principals’ union in late 2014, she put her own spin on the program. Now dubbed “master principals,” they would still earn $25,000 bonuses. But instead of switching schools, they would take on an additional assignment—either running a second school or mentoring a new principal. And, in contrast to Bloomberg’s program, the principals got an escape clause: After each year, they had the option of returning to their original school if juggling two became unmanageable.

“We said to our members: You don’t get locked into this,” said principals’ union President Ernest Logan. “It’s a year-to-year assignment.”

Other districts have made similar efforts. Newberg, Oregon, put one principal in charge of two schools to save money, while Gainesville, Florida, did it to fill a staffing shortfall. And, in a slight variation, Denver assigned a high-performing principal to oversee two other principals.

Logan, the union president, said New York City should use its program to let experienced principals coach rookies—not to coax veterans to take on low-performing schools in addition to their current ones. “I think it’s a mistake to use it as a way to turn around a struggling school,” he said. “When you try to do both of them, you’re splitting your effort.”

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The master-principal role offers established leaders an enticing opportunity: Take a stab at revamping a troubled school without fully leaving their successful one.

That was the offer that convinced Wiltshire to take on Brooklyn’s long-struggling Boys and Girls High School while continuing to oversee Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a selective school he had spent more than a decade building into a powerhouse. As he told Chalkbeat in 2014, he expected to stay heavily involved in Medgar Evers, even as he tried to overhaul one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools.

Both he and Fariña said he was able to run both simultaneously, but some Boys and Girls’ students and faculty questioned his loyalty to the struggling school and called for a full-time principal. Last month, he decided to return full-time to Medgar Evers.

Up in the Bronx, a veteran principal took on an even more grueling task: Trying to rebuild two floundering schools at once. In early 2015, principal John Starkey was recruited to run Peace and Diversity Academy, which had an abysmal 33 percent graduation rate the previous year—by contrast, the city average in 2014 was 68 percent. That summer, Education Department officials asked him to take over another school—the Bronx High School of Business—whose graduation rate was 45 percent. Both were part of the city’s “renewal” program for its lowest-ranked schools.

“I was flattered,” said Starkey, who has since moved to Buffalo to open a new school. “But the idea of it was overwhelming—just one renewal school was a lot.”

Gary L. Anderson, a New York University professor who has studied school leadership, said that employing veteran principals as coaches is a smart way to spread best practices without relying on outside consultants. But he said low-performing schools demand a dedicated leader.

Steve Tozer, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who is an expert on urban school-leader preparation, agreed. He called New York City’s two-school principal arrangement an “unfortunate compromise,” arguing that the city should instead focus on preparing more strong leaders. “Why aren’t we hiring an equally good principal for that second school?” he said. “At best, it’s a stopgap measure.”

This post appears courtesy of Chalkbeat New York.