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By Jan Walker

The first few weeks in the life of a beginning middle level principal can be pretty challenging. One of the best pieces of survival advice was given to me by my superintendent in an early conversation soon after I had been hired as the new principal. He suggested I develop an “entry plan” and implement the plan during my first few weeks before the new school year, and I now recommend such a plan to all beginning principals. The plan provides structure and direction while alleviating some of that initial sense of uncertainty in a new district.

As an organizational tool, an entry plan consists of a leader’s activities designed to gather information and to synthesize a variety of perspectives about the school or district. The uniqueness of each entry plan is contingent on the leader’s responsibilities and the projects specific to the school and district (Kinley, J, 2002; O’Rourke, Provenzano, Bellamy, &Ballek, 2007). A plan provides a quick scan of the environment, and furnishes a better understanding of school goals, climate, expectations, strengths, and needs (Neely, Berube, &Wilson, 2002). My entry plan was comprised of three parts: reviewing building and district documents; meeting with district and external personnel; and soliciting responses from conversations with the staff and parents.

Semi-Structured Conversations
Early in the summer, I sent a letter to the faculty and staff introducing myself and telling them how excited I was to be working with them during the new school year. Although I acknowledged they may be away on vacation and have made other plans, I invited them to visit me during the month of July, suggesting they set up a meeting. The majority of the staff was able to spend a few minutes of their summer to meet with me. The time spent in those conversations was invaluable.

During our conversations, we took time getting to know each other before I posed my questions. As they responded to my three questions, I jotted down notes. I asked them:

1. What are the strengths of the school?

2. What are the areas we might work on or improve?

3. What expectations do you have of me, as your principal?

I also met with the officers of our parent organization at an evening meeting and asked the group the same three questions. When I finished my visits, I compiled all the responses and kept them in two separate categories. All of the information, both positive and negative, was shared with the parent committee and staff at our first meeting.

The strengths, areas for improvement, and expectations of me were informative and interesting. More importantly, the information served as the initial springboard for specific targets of improvement. Several patterns emerged from both staff and parents. The parents overwhelmingly felt that the strengths of the school were the staff; while the staff recognized both the quality of the staff and the positive involvement of parents as strengths. This affirmation of mutual recognition and respect did more to build relationships than I could ever have imagined. In addition, it was very clear that both groups expected me to be visible, to be in the classrooms, and to know the students. There were also several issues of concern that became apparent such as dealing with curriculum, communication needs, and operational or procedural routine. I felt it was important to communicate the information from these discussions to the larger school community through the first “Parent Letter.”

Document Review
The document review began almost as soon as I entered the building as principal. My review included: building budgets, handbooks and board policies, the previous year’s faculty and parent group meeting minutes, and staff evaluations. In addition, I was also examining student achievement data, and building goals and school improvement plans. Much of the first few days and evenings were consumed with studying these documents, seeking clarification from other administrators regarding application and operation, and determining potential areas in need of change.

Meetings With District and External Personnel
Another part of the entry plan involved meeting with internal district and building personnel and outside personnel. One of my first meetings was with the building secretary and custodian. Spending time to get to know the secretary and custodian is critical because the quality of these relationships built over time is vital for a principal’s success (O’Rourke, et al., 2007). The secretary and I discussed expectations and developed a daily communication routine and sharing of my weekly calendar. The custodian and I set up facility maintenance goals and monthly meetings to monitor building and playground needs including repairs, routine and non-routine maintenance, and event planning.

An initial appointment was made with the curriculum director/school improvement consultant to review the middle level curriculum and professional development focus and to confirm my involvement in supervising the building’s curriculum and instruction. In addition, I met with our assessment manager for assistance in interpreting test data and in determining alignment of our building improvement plans. I also scheduled a meeting with the district facilities personnel to become familiar with the security system in the building and district procedures. Other district personnel meetings may include the district finance officer, the special education and ESL consultant, and the transportation director.

To become more knowledgeable regarding the building’s emergency response plans, I arranged a meeting with the county emergency personnel. As we walked through the building, we designed safe routes and locations for various situations. A school’s emergency response plan should be a framework of key functions including the communication network, evacuation routes, potential long term shelters, and first aid (Brunner &Lewis, 2006). The plan was revised and shared with the district personnel and the building staff at the start of school.

When a beginning principal walks through the door of the school for the first time, reality hits. The entry plan is a great organizational tool to help beginning principals quickly acclimate to the reality of a new building and new challenges.

References
Bruner, J., &Lewis, D. (2006). Planning for emergencies. Principal Leadership, 6(8), 65-66.
Kinley, J. F. (2002). A smooth drive depends on your entry. The School Administrator. http://www.aasa.org/publications/content.cfm?ItemNumber=1873
Namin, R. Superintendent entry plan. 2005-2006 http://www.rcmahar.mec.edu/Entry_Plan/Entry_Plan.htm
Neely, R. O.; Berube, W. &Wilson, J. (2002). The entry plan: A systematic transition to a new superintendency. http://www.aasa.org/publications/saarticledetail.cfm?ItemNumber=1874&snItem Number=950&tnItemNumber=951
O’Rourke, A., Provenzano, J., Bellamy, T., &Ballek, K. (2007). Countdown to the principalship. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education, Inc.

Jan Walker is currently an associate professor in educational leadership at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. She has been an elementary principal, K–8 principal, and a professor in educational leadership for nine years. She can be contacted at jan.walker@drake.edu.

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