Apodaca: Pressure is on principals like never before

Here in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District it's the Year of the Principal.

NMUSD has undergone a large rate of turnover in its principal ranks recently. As the new school year gets underway, eight campuses have new principals; six were hired from outside the district and two were transfers from within.

Normally, this wouldn't necessarily be something to get overly worked up about.

But these are not normal times. The educational landscape is changing fast: A huge reform movement in teaching methodology is underway. Schools are increasingly being held accountable for student progress, and educators are being scrutinized and evaluated as never before.

All of which means that the recent choices for top leadership spots at several district campuses are more critical than ever.

To be sure, the job of a school principal has always been tough.

The position of principal emerged in the early 20th century as schools grew larger and more complex and the need arose for a manager to oversee administration. Early on, teachers did double duty — thus the title "principal teacher."

As time went on, the job of principal segued into a full-time position, but the duties remained largely operational — managing personnel, finances, supplies and scheduling, among other managerial tasks.

But today's principal is all that and much more. Increasingly, principals are called upon to delve more deeply into classroom instruction, setting the tone and direction, mentoring teachers and leading reform.

Gone are the autocrats who dictated policies and rules from on high while keeping a distance from classroom interaction. These days principals must be collaborative and inclusive, the school's public face, internal cheerleader and hands-on facilitator.

On any given day, principals juggle multiple balls. They oversee policy, communicate goals, administer discipline, handle teacher issues and concerns, organize calendars and schedules, speak to parents, give out awards, monitor classroom and playground activities, and attend district meetings before heading back to the ranch to put out fires that arose in his or her absence. I probably missed some other important stuff.

Some days pass, according to one principal's account, with barely a moment for a bathroom break, much less lunch.

Now tasked with implementing a huge and controversial educational reform movement, principals' feet will be put to the fire to a degree never before seen.

The new Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states including California, will begin working their way into classrooms this year before the official rollout in the 2014-15 school year.

Newport-Mesa Supt. Fred Navarro is a big proponent of the new standards, which are intended to emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills over rote memorization. Just one year into the job himself, Navarro might easily consider the new blood at the school sites an opportunity to solidify his leadership at a pivotal moment.

According to Navarro, the best principals were "great teachers." Principals also must be "coaches" with an ability to "understand child development and ... the changes we're going through."

The hiring of new principals also provides an opening to get parents to buy into the district's vision. The newly installed administrators won the jobs after a laborious process that involved community forums, panel interviews and background checks.

Each school had its own set of priorities. Some parents lobbied for candidates who were multilingual, for instance, while at Newport Harbor High School priority was given to finding a principal with experience in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

"Really it's an opportunity to get our community, our families and our staff together in deciding the future of our schools," Navarro said.

So far, I'm hearing lots of positive feedback and sensing a feeling of excitement and hopefulness among many parents. Some have told me they were highly impressed after hearing their new principals speak at meet-and-greet sessions and PTA meetings, and were encouraged by subtle changes they noticed during the first few weeks of school.

But principals know that it will take a lot more than striking the right tone and saying the things that parents want to hear. The honeymoon phase for new leadership can be mercilessly short, and rocky times could lie ahead for even the most savvy, experienced and dedicated principals.

Even now, issues are arising with Common Core implementation throughout the state, and the question of how to handle standardized testing until the new standards are fully integrated remains to be resolved. Regardless of how students are tested, the principals will have to answer for results that don't live up to expectations.

These and other thorny issues — how best to incorporate technology into teaching, being one — promise to keep many principals working double overtime.

"When people have clear expectations, they want a structure in place and accountability," Navarro said.

Trouble is, not everyone's expectations are the same. Managing an increasingly complicated educational landscape while trying to address the needs and concerns of teachers and the diverse communities they serve won't always follow a clear, well-lit path.

Going forward, principals must be prepared to cope with enormous change, ambiguity and uncertain benchmarks for success. Let's hope they're up to the job.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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