Educators target areas where they're 'needed the most'
Turnover among principals of the District's chronically troubled but reforming public schools is beginning to stabilize, a Washington Examiner analysis shows.
On Monday, 24 of about 125 school principals will start in D.C. Public Schools, replacing leaders who fled the system or whom school officials said weren't making the grade. That's fewer than the 30 replacements needed last school year and the 26 the year before that.
As former Chancellor Michelle Rhee shook up the school system -- even firing the principal of her children's school -- turnover among principals fluctuated from 28 to 19 to 43 to 26, year to year.
"We are actually retaining more of the principals that we want," Rhee's successor, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, said at her confirmation hearing.
Like Marjorie Cuthbert.
She was the principal at Murch Elementary from 1995 to 2001, when her family relocated to Minnesota. Now back in the District, she is entering her third year as the principal at Stoddert Elementary in Glover Park.
"I have a lot of energy -- I want to help students and build up new teachers. Every year feels new and different and invigorating to me," Cuthbert said.
She is familiar with stories of fed-up principals quitting the school system, complaining of a lack of support. But, "There were so many changes before [Michelle Rhee], and always turnover. I don't find this unsettling."
Nationwide, annual turnover rates among principals range from 15 to 30 percent each year, with the highest rates in school districts serving more low-income, minority students. D.C.'s turnover this year is 19 percent.
When interviewing prospective hires, Henderson said she heard, "I want to go into communities where I'm needed the most. I want to go to Ward 7, I want to go to Ward 8."
That was the calling card of Atasha James, who starts Monday as the principal of M.C. Terrell/McGogney Elementary School in Congress Heights. Just one-quarter of students show proficiency in math or reading.
|Note: Does not count school closures, but how many new principals began each school year after replacing someone who quit or was fired.|
|Source: D.C. Public Schools|
James was a school administrator in Anne Arundel County when she saw Rhee on television. "DCPS was a place I knew I could come and be appreciated for bringing new, innovative, progressive ideas while serving students who need me the most," James said.
It's also a high-profile school system whose reforms have garnered national attention. A USA Today investigation raised suspicions of cheating on the District's standardized tests and questioned Impact, a new teacher evaluation tool that links students' test scores to teachers' ratings and salaries.
But as James gears up to turn around Terrell -- she's creating a reward system for students "caught being good" -- she said she's not concerned about the reports.
"All I have to do is move five kids into proficiency [to meet federal benchmarks]," she said. "When you put it in terms of numbers and cents and kids, we can't move five kids? We don't need to cheat to move five kids."
James said she would like to send her children to DCPS and work there until she retires.
Not so for Mary Stefanus, the incoming principal at Georgetown's Hardy Middle School.
Stefanus had retired after 32 years in education when she received a passionate email about DCPS from a former colleague.
"I had a pretty full life, but I felt like the universe was speaking to me. It might sound corny; it's kind of an Oprah thing," she said.
Stefanus is looking to put in "three to five years," focusing on literacy and making Hardy a comprehensive middle school, before "the next adventure."
"I don't know, maybe I'll join the Peace Corps," she said. "I'm still very young, and I plan on being a centenarian."