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Doing the principal shuffle

District officials say it is necessary to move principals around each year, though it can be hard on all involved.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published August 2, 2006


TAMPA — Shaylia Hall got her first tour of Marshall Middle School one week ago. She had just been named its principal.


She met with teachers, then settled into a room furnished with a clean desk facing a bare wall.

“I guess this is it. This is my office,” Hall said, laying claim to her place at the Plant City school.

When the school year opens this morning,   Hall won’t be the only Hillsborough County principal still adjusting to new surroundings. The School Board assigned five others to new schools last week.

It happens every year.

About half of Hillsborough’s principals have been running their schools for two years or less, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of principal appointments. Leto High is opening without any principal, after longtime leader Daniel Bonilla was transferred last week to the top slot at Jefferson High School.

District officials accept the churn, saying it gives their managers opportunities to work with diverse communities. But there is a trade­off. New principals bring new ways of doing things, which can unsettle parents. Programs change.

And when a popular principal switches schools, good teachers sometimes follow.

Change can be good, but it “comes with a bit of a price,” said Tricia Coonts, a parent involved in the PTSA at Walker Middle in Odessa, which last week welcomed its fifth principal in nine years.

To their credit, each leader quickly met with the community, Coonts said. But the changes just kept coming.

When Wynne Tye ran Walker, she encouraged interaction with students with disabilities, Coonts recalled. Two years later, she said, principal Marc Hutek emphasized reading.

“It would be nice if they could stay and see some of the things through,” Coonts said. “That’s the ideal.”

***

Since the start of the last school year, about one-fourth of Hillsborough’s 206 schools have been assigned new principals.

Lewis Brinson, the assistant superintendent overseeing administration, acknowledges the constant turnover. He isn’t thrilled about it. Ideally, he said, principals would serve three to five years at a school.

“One or two years is kind of hard to do,” Brinson said. “It’s not impossible, but it is pushing it.”

In some cases, district officials don’t have a choice. They can’t stop a principal from retiring. And spiraling student growth is forcing the district to open several schools a year, each requiring a principal of its own.

Turnover isn’t all bad, Brinson said.

“In the past, we’ve, in my opinion, allowed principals to remain at their schools too long,” he said.

But parents and teachers take note — often unhappily — when a well-liked principal departs.

Hillsborough officials say they try to match the personality of a school and its leader. They also consider stability,

Brinson said, but the district must meet the needs of every child in every school. Sometimes that means transferring a leader from one school to another.

“It may seem as though we may be a little insensitive to the needs of the school, but we are not,” he said. “If you are a leader and your school is great, then your school still will be great in your absence.”

***

Tracy Saboe started working with principal Rebecca Kaskeski when her daughter entered Davidsen Middle six years ago. She blanched when she heard over the summer that Kaskeski was leaving the school for a district job.

“We were very, very upset, to the point of tears,” said Saboe, who wishes that parents could have at least met the new principal before summer break. “They don’t make personnel changes to suit us.”

Saboe has new principals at both of her children’s North Tampa schools: One at Davidsen, where her son is a seventh-grader, and another at Alonso High, where her daughter is a senior. She’s active at both and anxious about changes, though pleased that Davidsen’s new leader made a good first impression.

Right now she’s facing the hardest part of the transition between principals, district officials say.

“Probably the most difficult period is the anxiety,” said Barbara Franques, area director for schools in east Hillsborough. Uncertainty builds over the departure “of the person they have loved and bonded with and met with great success.”It won’t ease until parents, students and staff members learn who is coming in as the replacement. Saying goodbye can pain departing principals, too.


Daniel Bonilla recalls the day he landed the principal’s job at Leto High: Nov. 14, 1998. He thought he would never leave the northwest Hillsborough school.


“I felt like I was Magellan and I had made it all the way around the Earth,” said Bonilla, whose two children graduated from Leto. “I was at the school that was closest to my heart and closest to my home.”

But district officials recently asked him to transfer to South Tampa’s Jefferson High, his alma mater. “I accepted the challenge,” he said.

Despite his reluctance to leave Leto, Bonilla says the faculty matters more to its future than he does.

***

At Marshall Middle in Plant City, art teacher Peggy Lee waited last week to meet her new principal in a cafeteria festive with red plastic table covers.

She has worked with about a half-dozen principals at Marshall. She wasn’t sorry to see some of them go. But she holds her breath each time.

“You feel like somebody put on the brakes,” said Lee, who hated to see Josie Sanders leave after three years for a district-level promotion.

Hall, her replacement, met teachers wearing a pantsuit in Marshall blue. She spoke off the cuff, crafting her remarks to smiles in the room.

“I am coming to you as one of the faculty members, part of the team,” she said, promising not to shake up things.
She oriented herself afterward with a walk around the perimeter of the campus. This is Hall’s first principal appointment. She plans to stay several years.

Experienced principals say it takes the first year to gain acceptance. Trust takes longer.

No Hillsborough principal knows that better than Harriet Foundas, in her 30th year at West Shore Elementary in South Tampa. She doesn’t just know her students. In many cases, she met their parents when they were children at the school.

“The parents have confidence in the administration because it worked when they were here,” she said. “You don’t develop rapport overnight.”

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.

[Last modified August 6, 2006, 07:35:02]


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