Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Seattle Schools' Principals - Who Gets to Go Where?

Long ago, I used to say that having a great school is like a three-legged stool partnership with teachers/staff and parents and principal.  After my personal experience and years of listening to parents' experiences at other schools, I revised that because the biggest leg really is the principal.

I feel that way because the principal sets the tone, the focus and usually has a lot of ability in creating a staff for the school.  Many successful principals, like many successful schools, appear to get more leeway because of their abilities.  (This harkens back to former Superintendent Olfchefske's "tight/loose" theory that if a school is doing well, loosen up that grip, if not, tighten up.) 

This ability for some principals to have greater control certainty looks true in a column at the Times about one reporter who about to become a Seattle schools' parent. 

But listening to Fairmount’s new principal, Julie Breidenbach, I was heartened.

Literacy will be her mantra. Music, her holy grail. And science-tech-math? Not so much.

“I look at this as my little public charter school,” Breidenbach said, demonstrating her acknowledged penchant for operating without much of a political filter. “We’ll be inclusive of all children, but we get to do some things differently.”

Difference Number One: A strong push-back against the technology flavor-du-jour.


“Nothing sends shivers down my spine” like plunking little kids in front of computers, Breidenbach remarked. “Everything we do is about literacy. The math and science will come. But you will not be successful as an adult in this society if you are not highly literate. Kids need to learn to communicate.”

To that end, Fairmount has $140,000 for a new library, and 9,000 books. Reading at home — while required — will not count toward homework.

Those are some interesting quotes. 

First, as we all should know by now, a regular public school can do anything a charter can except a charter doesn't have to hire unionized teachers.  I think Ms. Breidenbach knows that, too.

Second, not so much for the science/tech/math?  Clearly, Ms. Breidenbach knows that there has to be some focus to that because it gets tested.  To say "the math and science will come" is fairly vague.

From my comments(partial):

You are lucky to get this principal. She's smart and knows how to get things done. Clearly the district wants this school to get a good start. I suspect her confidence in being able to have her own "charter school" was part of the package to move her. 

From Charlie's comments (and to the point of wondering how principals get assigned, noting that Ms. Breidenbach was not in the recent list of principal assignments by Superintendent Banda):

Wow. You got Julie Breidenbach? You have it very, very good. She is an exceptionally strong principal. She did very well at Lowell and brilliantly at Thurgood Marshall. She knows how to act independently of District rules, how to support her teachers, how to support her students, and how to support her community. She knows to tailor the school to the needs of the students.

The culture of any institution flows down from the top. The culture of a school reflects the principal. Having a good principal is the most important element to having a good school. Not only does a good principal set a strong positive culture, but good teachers want to work with good principals, so you'll have better teachers on the staff and they won't turnover as fast.

Now think of this: how many school communities get any say about which principal is assigned to their school. Some school communities get to put together hiring committees, interview candidates, and make recommendations. Some school communities wake up one morning and are surprised to read their new principal's name in the newspaper. There's no equity. None. So how does Fairmount Park get Julie Breidenbach, and who gets assigned to Thurgood Marshall next year? What happens to Thurgood Marshall? Do you even care?


16 comments:

Anonymous said...

The irony in your including Charlie's point about how some communities seem to get to choose their own principal is that Ms. Breidenbach was appointed to Fairmount Park without any community input. Good move, SPS...way to send a clear signal of confidence in establishing a new school with a proven leader. Same thing goes for the way Mr. Warren got things going at Sandpoint (see Melissa's earlier comments) Clear leadership moves make sense, and principals can build their communities from there.

Emile

Charlie Mas said...

There's no irony, Emile. While there isn't really any opportunity for a new school community to participate in the selection of their principal, the point still stands. In the newspaper comment I ask about who will become the principal at Thurgood Marshall. The last time Julie Breidenbach changed schools she was replaced with a disaster of a principal.

Lynn said...

The appointments of Julie Breidenbach as principal at Fairmount Park and of Christine Helm as interim principal at Thurgood Marshall were both announced January 17th. Ms. Helm has announced she plans to apply for the permanent position and the school community has scheduled a meeting to discuss the hiring process.

David Grosskopf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I was talking with someone just this morning who led me to understand that the district right now, thanks to pressure from the principal's union, is opening a process for each principal hire. In other words, principals are no longer simply appointed from on high but must apply and be selected by a school community.

This is very good news for all the reasons here suggested; but here's another.

Every time a principal gets moved around, every weak or problematic teacher gets a fresh start. From what I've seen as a high school teacher for nearly 20 years, the biggest reason lousy teachers remain in their positions isn't because of a mighty union, but because of principal churn.

The district is a great believer in power at the top, which is why they'd so liberally sent principals with strong reputations to programs in need of a boost; but they'd do better to leave good principals where they are. Hopefully this experiment in community control will last, and will bleed into other aspects of schooling as well.

High School Teacher

Anonymous said...

Our school has had a new principal every 2-3 years since 2005. What a mess ... the school can't ever seem to move forward since the "vision" for the school is ever changing.

N by NW

Anonymous said...

Isn't the Thurgood Marshall principal (Breidenbach) taking 1/2 of that teaching staff with her to Fairmount? What's that going to do for the TM APP community?

curious

Lynn said...

It's just three teachers at this point. It's possible though that more could apply when the rest of the positions are posted.

Anonymous said...

Part of the appeal of Seattle's option schools is that they have the right by board policy to approve the hiring of their principal. In theory this brings in and keeps good leadership.

Goodloe-Johnson tried to stomp all over this board policy a few years ago and got called on it.

Option Dad

Charlie Mas said...

Dr. Goodloe-Johnson intentionally misquoted the policy to the Board and claimed that it meant that option school communities could choose their school secretary - but not the principal. The Board didn't say diddly.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Board policy cited by Option School Dad and by Charlie is for alternative schools, not option schools. All of the alternative schools are now option schools, but do all option schools consider themselves alternative schools bound by the Board policy regarding alternative schools? Not sure about that. In any event, Charlie is correct -- I was at the School Board meeting where Dr. Goodloe-Johnson made that statement and was not challenged by anyone on the Board. She also made the same statement in a letter she wrote to our Site Council. And, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson appointed a new principal for our alternative school who was not committed to our school's vision and mission. Not surprisingly, this prinicpal turned out to be a bad fit.

However, a few years later, our alternative school lobbied hard for compliance with the alt school policy and worked with Phil Brockman and HR to develop a process in which the school community would have input into selection of a new principal. We were told that the process we developed would be used as a model for other schools -- not just other alternative schools. While I think it's critically important for alternative schools to be involved in selecting a principal to make sure the principal supports the vision and mission of the school, I also think all school communities should have this opportunity.

Last, the policy does not give the alt school the right to approve the hiring of a principal. The final decision regarding the hiring of a principal rests with the Superintendent. The policy gives the school community the right to have input into the decision.

Alt School Mom

Charlie Mas said...

I want to be very, very clear. The Board did not defend the real meaning of the policy, did not enforce the policy, and did nothing when Dr. Goodloe-Johnson violated the policy.

They stood, slack-jawed and inert, as the codified and hard-won rights of school communities were trampled. That's the School Board.

Jan said...

Well, at least that was THAT school board. Many boards struggle when presented in the middle of a meeting with misinformation from the staff, but:
1. MGJ's operational style, with the board and the school community, was both heavy handed and duplicitous. Mr. Banda might misquote a policy, but I don't think he would ever employ some of the tactics I recall from the MGJ days.

2. Recall that that was the board that lost any ability to distinquish between "reasonable deference" and "craven submission" -- and signed a policy stating that they would never disagree with MGJ (at least publicly). I doubt that any of the current members know the text of some of these policies like Charlie, but I think they are far less allergic to the idea of pushing back if they think a policy is being misrepresented.

But I would like it if there were a policy that captured the principal appointment philosophy and process -- and included community involvement. Right now, it seems like squeaky wheels (and alts) get a shot at a reasonable process, and everybody else just wakes up one day to a "done deal."

And thanks for the peek back down memory lane into the bad old days. The work is never done -- but we are not where we once were!

Praying said...

Julie Breidenbach was a horrible principal her first year at Thurgood Marshall. She had no experience and lacked the skill and knowledge to work with inter-urban city kids, especially African-American boys. Granted the racial tension that she stepped into complicated things as Thurgood Marshall had just been forced to merge with half of the AP program and lost the heart of their school in the process, Mrs. Winifred Todd (principal) and Mrs. Brown (counselor), both were moved to Dunlap Elemetary to "clean up" their program (Ugh NCLB!).

With all of that said though, I think that SPS has made a good decision in placing Mrs. Breidenbach in an AP school where she seems better able to handle the kids...or so I pray.

I know many like her, but I also know many from that 1st year at Thurgood Marshall that have seen her at her worst and still homeschool their kids because of it!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of principals, which principals at Seattle Schools are considered the best to work with? Which Seattle school principals are the worse? I will be transferring here to Seattle with my husband. This information will help me figure where to apply.

Anonymous said...

There are two principals to avoid: Cothron McMillian at MLK and Norma Zavala at Concord. They are the worst of the worst.