Thursday, January 3, 2008

Hot topic: can you judge a school by its principal?

"I love the school, the teachers, the parents, the campus—but I don't know about the principal?"

I frequently hear something along these lines from many parents, who then go on to explain exactly why they didn't connect with the school's leader on a tour. "He seemed too old-fashioned." "He was spacey." "She seemed stand-offish." "She wasn't enthusiastic." "She had a chip on her shoulder." "His office smelled weird."

Just how much emphasis should parents looking at schools put on the school's principal? I wonder. No doubt a principal plays a key leadership role in the school. They hire the teachers. They determine the school's direction. They set the tone.

I wonder if I should discount a school just because the principal rubbed me the wrong way or I heard a piece of gossip from a friend? I doubt that I can judge a principal from a quick 10-minute Q&A session on a school tour—though a gut feeling shouldn't be entirely ignored. And it's hard for me to imagine that any principal could be all that bad. Anyone working in education must have good intentions. They must care about children. But then I think, What if Alice was really struggling in school and I needed to confront the principal? A situation like this would be hard if the principal and I didn't have a bond.

I've also heard from parents with kids already in school that they almost never see or interact with the principal. This makes me think, why am I so concerned about the principal if I'm never even going to see her?

I'm not making this post to solicit gossipy dirt on certain principals. Rather, I'm hoping some parents with kids in school can talk about their experiences and offer their thoughts. What makes a good principal? Should you cut a school from your list if you didn't like the principal? Does your school's principal play a big role in your child's education? And finally, feel free to talk about the good ones.

12 comments:

  1. There's a lot don't know about the bureaucracy of the SF public school system. However, when I toured schools last year I noticed several principals who seemed to really understand the system and work within it to get what they needed for their school, whether it was continued funding for a art or computer teacher, or being the first to pilot the salad bar program. To me, this was an important factor. I imagine the principal needs to communicate with the District about many matters and he or she needs to be a good advocate for the school, in addition to all the other duties.

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  2. I had some years of experience as an involved parent in a school with a principal who was totally engaging, charming and personable
    -- but was actually a very poor principal for a number of clear-cut reasons.

    Prospective parents would say to us, "Wow, your principal is just wonderful!" Of course we wanted them to like the school -- which WAS still a very good school -- so what were we supposed to say? "Nah, she just talks a good game, but she actually sucks..."?

    I guess there are two lessons: just as in life, superficial charm doesn't necessarily correlate with true worth; but also, a school that has other assets can survive (and even do quite well with) a not-so-great principal.

    That said, I'd still find myself judging based on my impression of the principal.

    Plus there can be extreme situations. As I've posted, back when we first applied, Miraloma Elementary was a very unappealing school. We fought hard to get out of it after our son was assigned there in the lottery. The principal was truly (sorry to be so blunt) hopeless deadwood. The school was ripe for a turnaround, and the minute it got a good principal it took off. In that case, the principal really was holding the school down.

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  3. This is yet another interesting thread and one I'm pondering myself as I am searching for public middle school. I was drawn to our current school because of the principal, who since retired and was replaced by a completely different, but absolutely fantastic principal. Both really made the school a tremendous success and have been wonderful friends, partners and leaders. That said, we're leaning towards a middle school that has a principal that doesn't enthuse me in the least. I'm having to evaluate our decision based on other things (a solid staff already in place, great programs, parents raving about it.) The final decision is a tough one testing my firm beliefs that principals are a key to a school's success.

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  4. What constitutes a "good" principal is partially a matter of personal preference. Do you prefer a principal who is decisive or one who defers to parents and/or teachers? My impression on tours was that some successful schools (Clarendon, Creative Arts Charter) are essentially run by active parents and accordinly have rather weak principals.

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  5. The time a principal really matters is when you have a problem. Then you want to be able to go into his/her office, explain your problem, be heard, and work together to reach a mutually agreeable solution. That is how I evaluated principals when I looked at schools - I am actually at a school where the principal is rather weak but over time we have crafted a reasonably good working relationship. I see this principal's faults clearly and am not able to do much about them, but at the same time we are able to work together.

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  6. As both a parent and a former teacher, I agree with those that sense that a poor principal can be compensated for by a strong staff and parent group. Having a good principal who is a respected leader in the school is a bonus, but not a requirement for a good school.

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  7. SF preschooler parentJanuary 4, 2008 at 7:48 AM

    I think a problem with evaluating a school by its principal is that they may cycle out during your kid's time there, and you have no guarantee on what the quality of the next principal is.

    Frex, SF Community, has no principal but rotates the post between it teachers. This is both a strength and a weakness: it's a weakness in that the school could lack leadership and ability to change, but it's a strength in that because the culture of the school is less dependent on a single personality, you can be more sure the school is not going to rapidly tank after a change in head. Especially for K-8 schools, I'd think this would be a concern.

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  8. Coming from the context of working for private companies for so many years, I strongly believe that the top leader in any organization sets the tone for the whole organization. In that regard, I think that strong leadership at a school is crucial.

    Fortunately, most of the principals whom we saw were impressive. I imagine that the jobs are competitive and hopefully well compensated...?

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  9. this is a very timely thread for me actually. i am torn over whether or not to include a school on our "List of 7" in part because the I'm not impressed with the principal. the school is still very under-performing so it doesn't have the staff or strong parental involvement to balance/deflate what i see as a weak factor. that said, some parents i've spoken with really admire this principal. i guess i need to go back and see it one last time to make a final decision.

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  10. I think it's important to have a strong principal. I don't think this precludes having a strong parent voice either. A confident leader isn't afraid to listen to all voices. A strong PTA/ Principal partnership is invaluable. I would suggest prospective parents attend a PTA meeting to get a feel of the community.

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  11. I totally agree in concept that the leader sets the tone and a strong principal is important.

    But my own experiences have taught me that a school with other strengths can function quite nicely with a weak principal, so that was my point.

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  12. My experience may be a unique one for the City...the worst teacher (8th grade) I ever had in my educational career just happend to now be the principal of my #1 choice school. Unfortunetly my experiences with this person as a student has made me redirect my feeling about dealing with this person again, hence, I will not send my children to this school. As a previous post had mentioned, a principal is the "head of the organization". As a parent I have to be confident that this person will resolve any concerns I have regarding the education of my children.

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