Photo: Eileen Escarda
The Principal's role
Principals are the key element in improving a school, but their powers are limited.
WALKER ELEMENTARY, a few miles and a world away from Fort Lauderdale’s upscale Las Olas Boulevard, was known as a difficult place. Some 98% of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. A sizable number come from group homes or are homeless. The school made the list of the bottom 300 schools in Florida and got an F grade in the state evaluation system.
In 2015, Superintendent Robert Runcie turned his attention to Walker. The school’s principal was moved out, and all 48 teachers had to reapply for their jobs. Only one was rehired. Runcie brought in a veteran principal, Philip Bullock, to take charge in the summer of 2015. Bullock got a clean staffing slate and a degree of latitude unusual for a Florida principal in spending his budget and shaping the curriculum.
In making the move, Runcie and the Broward school board anticipated a new state law that will test whether giving principals more say in running their schools leads to better performance. The Legislature this year approved a pilot program in seven districts — Broward, Duval, Jefferson, Madison, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Seminole. The law allows those districts to target three schools each that received D’s or F’s in two of the last three years and give their principals greater power over hiring, allocating resources and budgeting.
The law also exempts the schools from many state rules and, critically, allows them to comply with the state’s class-size amendment rules by school-level average rather than individual classroom mandates. The law sets aside bonus money for principals to use to supplement their salaries or spend on the school, provides funding for school personnel to enroll in a nationally recognized school turnaround program and also requires districts to guarantee the schools a 90% share of particular state funds, rather than the 80% guaranteed by law.
“This has been an ongoing issue for years. The idea of giving more autonomy is critical,” says Lisa Maxwell, director of the Broward Principals’ and Assistants’ Association. “Imagine holding someone accountable for performance and then taking away the ability of the individual to make any decisions.”
As yet, the state Department of Education reports, the state pilot program hasn’t begun.
Runcie and Broward, in their experiment at Walker and another troubled elementary in Deerfield Beach, put money on the table. The principals get a $25,000 bonus per year for five years and teachers who sign on get $8,000 annual bonuses.
Bullock, 52, is in his 30th year in education, all in Broward. He was a teacher for seven years before becoming an assistant principal and then a principal at two schools prior to Walker.
Starting with a clean slate, Walker hired a well-regarded assistant principal whom he had known as a teacher. He hired both veteran teachers and those fresh out of college — a third of the teaching staff — and reading coaches. He was given the unusual right of refusal on any district employee who wanted to transfer in.
“It’s all about people,” Bullock says. “Good classroom managers can use any program and make it work. It’s people that turn schools around. My big push was to make sure I had a staff of go-getters.” One sign: His staff applied for and won $42,000 in grants last year to fund school improvements and classroom enhancements.
For the students, his first order of business was creating a new culture. Walker had behavior problems and the worst attendance record in the district, the nation’s sixth-largest. “We can’t teach them if they’re not here,” he says.
He had the power to institute a program to build character, focusing on children doing the right thing. He had the latitude to add an hour to the school day — and pay teachers for working it — that allowed an intense focus on small-group instruction in part of the day and a final part of the day devoted to clubs and activities that gave kids a reason to show up for school: Drama, cheerleading, dance, a 100-piece band, a traveling basketball team, marine science. Walker long had been an arts magnet school, but as Bullock was taking over, Turnaround Arts, a national public-private partnership out of the White House and private foundations that uses the arts to turn around schools, offered to make Walker one of its three schools in Florida. Bullock signed the school on.
The district also gave him the freedom — unavailable to other principals — to shift money from one account to another to spend on the school’s biggest needs. Bullock bought a curriculum, and this year moved money earmarked for one type of spending to purchase classroom laptops for third- through fifth-grade students. Beginning his second year at Walker, Bullock says he’s making progress. Kids are more respectful to staff and each other. He says he can judge improvement by teacher comments — such as second-grade teachers telling first-grade teachers they prepared their students well.
The school put on a production of “The Lion King” at the Broward Performing Arts Center last year. Enrollment this year increased for the first time in a decade. Some 78% of kindergarten students last June met the criteria not only for promotion to first grade but also for reading and comprehending, up from 11% the year before. Student attendance last year improved significantly, and student discipline referrals fell 70%.
All that said, the school also ended his first year with another F. Bullock says patience is required. “It’s not all test prep and taking the test. We’re teaching kids to think, and that takes time.
We knew it was going to be a three- to five-year process,” he says. “It would be a few years before we saw the fruits of our labors. Students are having opportunities they never had in the past. Failure is not an option for us.”
What powers do — and don’t — principals have in Florida?
» BUDGETING. 80% of a school budget is taken up by personnel. Student counts determine the number of teachers. Square footage determines custodian allocations. A principal can change budgets only at the margins: A high school principal can choose to do without an assistant principal and instead hire a cheaper dean and a clerk for attendance. A principal might know another reading coach would serve the school best but can’t hire one if the money is needed to fulfill the class-size mandates.
» HIRING. A principal’s power to choose teachers varies depending on district rules, union contracts and seniority. Complains Lisa Maxwell, director of the Broward Principals’ and Assistants’ Association, “It just doesn’t happen. Getting talent is a very challenging process.”
The Legislature in 2011 eliminated tenure for teachers, which will give principals leeway in forming their own team. But it will take time. In Orange County, for example, half the teachers achieved tenure before the law changed and generally must be reappointed. One exception: Consistently poor performing schools can be “reconstituted.” All the teaching staff is essentially let go and the new school leaders can start from scratch.
» CURRICULUM. The state sets the standards of what’s taught and when. Districts adopt curricula and materials to meet those standards. Principals have some latitude on supplemental programs, like getting students ready for AP exams.