As NASSP celebrates its 100th anniversary, the role of the secondary school principal continues to evolve as technology, politics, culture, and economics—as well as teacher and student expectations—affect the educational landscape in the United States. For this month’s roundtable discussion, we convened a group including Alan Tenreiro, principal of Cumberland High School in Rhode Island, who was named 2016 NASSP National Principal of the Year; Kevin McHugh, currently superintendent of Pennsbury School District in Pennsylvania and former principal of Pennwood Middle School, Yardley, PA, and NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year in 2002; and Doris Alvarez, director of the Educator Network at the University of California–San Diego’s Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, who is a former principal of Hoover High School in San Diego and NASSP National High School Principal of the Year in 1997. The roundtable, conducted in November 2015, was moderated by Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein.
Levin-Epstein: Doris, when you were the high school principal of the year (POY) in 1997, what were the issues that you were grappling with the most?
Alvarez: Hoover High School, one of the oldest high schools in San Diego, is located in an area of high poverty. We had a diverse population of more than 2,000 students. When I became principal in 1987, there were many challenges—high dropout rates, student underachievement, and a high need for taking care of health issues that were keeping students out of school. We established a health clinic in partnership with Rady Children’s Hospital–San Diego and other social service agencies to provide additional health services and counseling. Then we began to restructure the school. We followed such models as Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, and we formed academies, studied the research, and determined what we needed to do in order to improve student achievement and engagement. We fortunately had support from the state because of an initiative called Second to None, which gave us additional grant money to restructure high schools. So we were quite busy, but we were able to make a lot of changes with teachers working together in teams, looking at student work together, and instituting professional development during the school day. Some of these practices are common right now, but at that time were very new.
McHugh: Back in 2001, a lot of things were going on. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had just been passed, and we were starting to uncover what that meant. There was lots of concern about 100 percent of our students reaching proficiency by 2014, which no one felt was practical or doable. It was a target at that time that we thought we would move forward, and in about five years there would be a reauthorization and a resetting of what those expectations would be, and here we are—2015—and we still don’t have a resetting of NCLB, so it certainly has outlived its potential time. Unfortunately, 9/11 had just occurred, and that hit our school here in Bucks County particularly hard. One of the pilots of the second plane that hit the towers was a parent in our school, and his daughter was in school at the time, and that was a monumental event for us. When I became principal of the year, it was the main topic of the convocation of principals down in Washington, D.C., that year. It was a very troubling time.
Some of the things that were going on in our schools from a middle level standpoint: In my school we were really making some major headway with middle level concepts. Teaming had been revitalized in our school over the last five years, and we had a great program on promoting creativity among our kids. We had mentors coming in [for] the arts and various things going on in the school that were really uplifting. Developing relationships between teachers and kids was really at the forefront of what we were doing. Those were the big issues during my time as state POY and then national POY.
Tenreiro: It’s interesting to hear how some of those things are still going on today, but I think today one of the big ones is a mental health crisis. It really seems to be an underresourced, undersupported area for schools that are grappling with the amount of mental issues that we’re seeing in students.
I have 1,400 students at the high school and one full-time school psychologist and one part-time (two days a week) social worker, and it’s tough for us to be as proactive as we want to be in those areas.
I think that we’re also grappling with the culture or the overemphasis on testing that’s occurring and trying to separate that from the higher bar that the Common Core brings. We’re also incorporating a lot more data use, as well as the use of technology, and leveraging it as a tool within instructional practice, which enables us to really personalize learning for students. But it takes a lot of work and capacity-building with teachers around instructional practice because I think it’s still all about that in the end. I think the other thing we’ve worked a lot at is a movement toward standards-based grading and competency-based decision making when we look at graduation decisions for students, and in many ways I think that’s a newer, less-traditional way of making those judgments with students.
McHugh: Alan, are you getting pushback from your teachers on changes to the grading norms? We’re engaging in some of that with our staff, and the nontraditional grading paradigms seem to be so problematic for some of our more traditional teachers.
Tenreiro: Yes, we certainly have had our issues. We’re still grappling with it. We just changed the report card and the transcript to report out on standards and learner qualities, and it’s sort of the last push for many people. Philosophically, we’ve really been doing a lot of professional development around it for the last two to three years because those underlying value sets that people have around the issue of grading are really strong.
Alvarez: We found that when we were attempting many of the same things, in terms of changing the portfolio and using the portfolio as the basis for assessment, that our biggest problems were parents because it was so difficult for them to understand.
Tenreiro: We actually have arrived at a political compromise of a hybrid between numerical grades and standards-based grades. We still have some progress to make, but conversations are more focused on academic standards and helping students meet them. I did make somewhere around eight visits to parent homes, and they would have about 40 people at some of these homes, and we’d go through the vision for grading. That helped a bit, I think, because we were talking to people about what would stay the same and what would be improved. Our goal is to make our reporting system as accurate, consistent, and as meaningful as possible.
Alvarez: How are your universities handling the grading? Are they on board or are they involved at all?
Tenreiro: One of the first things we did was [hold] a college panel here at the high school with parents and a number of different colleges from around the region, and all of them said the same thing—that it didn’t really matter to them how high schools reported on performance because they figured out how to manage that, and they have their own ways of taking whatever information we give them and putting it into their own system. So, in the end, they said the biggest factors are the individual student profile, meaning the level of challenging courses they took, and then the school profile as a whole.
Levin-Epstein: I want to come back to the technology issue. Doris, in 1997, when you talked about leveraging technology and instruction, what did you mean?
Alvarez: We were just getting computers, really. We had computers, of course, but only in shared labs. For example, teachers were still using overhead projectors, not whiteboards. So it took a while, and computers were considered a luxury. However, by 1999, in the new school I founded on the University of California campus, the school was built to incorporate technology, and it became an important part of teacher training and staff development.
McHugh: From a standpoint of technology use in our school district, there were pockets of experimentation in 2002. Some different types of programs were just coming into being. There was no real “smart” technology, no leveling to individual students’ needs; it was kind of “all or nothing.” We had Internet capability in our classrooms, but it was really kind of sporadically applied, and I look back on it and say it was just a lot of experimentation by the people who were on the forefront, and a little bit of fear from everyone else. That has obviously changed quite a bit in the last 15 years. Technology is just so ubiquitous now, in terms of our assessment systems and targeting intelligently to individual needs and providing remedial resources for kids that we weren’t able to target as specifically back then; we really couldn’t use the assessment data formatively like we can now. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve expanded our infrastructure enough to provide real accessibility for our students and used different programs that are more web-based and not just standalone. I think it has changed pretty dramatically over that period.
Tenreiro: Kids are very much on an information journey nowadays. It brings up opportunities and some challenges also. We need to work with kids on digital citizenship and their appropriate use of social media. We have new issues around student privacy concerns with app use and the confidential nature of the information that might be shared over the apps that teachers are using, so those are issues that come along with the use of technology across the school. We’re a 1:1 Chromebook district (that just happened last year), and prior to that, we had some computer labs in the building and we had three or four desktop computers that really seem ancient now.
Levin-Epstein: How has the role of the principal changed in the last 18 years?
Alvarez: A principal of a high school is so tremendously busy; your days go by so quickly. At one time there was a mandate for frequent classroom visitations. We had to account for the number of daily visitations we made. We had responsibilities to all stakeholders: students, community, parents, and teachers. Since Hoover High was in a community that was not considered to be a school where teachers would choose to teach, professional development was a critical part of my leadership role. Student discipline was a big issue, and this is why we worked on developing the mental health clinic, so we could obtain resources such as counseling from professionals. Really, the role of the principal is multifaceted: putting out fires, working with teachers in implementing reform efforts, keeping up with mandates, keeping up with the literature. I think in my case as principal, I was really looking at how to make the school a better learning environment for kids, and that was the key. I think the role of the principal was to lead that charge in collaboration with teachers. I don’t think that mindset is any different from any principal today.
McHugh: I think one of the most glaring differences from back in the late 1990s and early 2000s is that we’re far more data-oriented now than we were back then. But I think there are more similarities from my perspective than there are differences. Certainly security has become much more of an issue for our principals. But the number one thing I did as a building administrator that I see our current building administrators prioritizing right now is hiring good teachers. You want to get the best person that you can possibly get into that job. Supervision of instruction is also right up there as a priority—making sure teachers are getting better, really working with all of their students, and working on their craft. We may have different tools now for evaluation that are a little more scientific than before, but that was really the goal of the principal. Putting things into place, doing the managerial things to make sure things worked properly, but also being the leader and working on the relationships with your staff is what matters.
Tenreiro: I always use this line when I talk about principals, but I think principals are at the center of policy, practice, and the public will. I think in all three of those areas right now they’re not always aligned, and they’re in a rapid rate of transition. It’s a very interesting position to be in to take policies, whether it was NCLB or policies today, and try and put those into practice and deal with the community and stakeholders and their reactions. We are trying to remodel education around college and career-ready standards, and there’s a lot of work to be done around that. There’s definitely some work around transforming student mindsets from a belief that intelligence is fixed to a belief that they have that potential to grow through effort.
Levin-Epstein: If you were providing a piece of advice to someone who is just becoming a principal now, what would it be?
Alvarez: I would say that what I learned as a principal in the 12 years I was at Hoover High and then the 10 years later is that a principal cannot do it alone. You have to work in collaboration with your staff, your parents, and your community and find ways to do that, because that is going to be key to your success.
McHugh: Care deeply about your teachers and your students. Period.
Tenreiro: Principals need to understand the change process, and they need to remind themselves that it’s a continuous process. The emotional intelligence, the ability to understand relationships and also to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses, I think that’s one of the most important parts of a 21st-century school leader.