Hoping to halt 'churn' at Mont Pleasant
Last week, in a column on outgoing Schenectady County Community College president Quentin Bullock, I wrote that institutions sometimes trick themselves into thinking their CEOs are irreplaceable and that only one person can lead them.
Change is good, I said. Change brings fresh ideas and new vision. Change represents opportunity.
But that isn’t always true.
Sometimes change is bad. Sometimes institutions can be roiled by too much change.
Take Mont Pleasant Middle School.
In less than 16 months, the struggling school has been led by five different principals.
And now a sixth will take the reins — Peg Normandin, who oversaw the restructuring of Schenectady High School. The hope is that Normandin will bring stability to a school that has been beset by discipline problems, fighting and poor academic performance.
That could be a challenge: Research suggests that difficult schools face higher rates of principal turnover.
A 2012 study by Rand Education found that schools serving low-income children have a harder time retaining their principals and are more likely to have less-experienced principals at the helm as a result.
Each year, more than 10 percent of first-year principals at urban schools leave their posts, according to the study, which defines first-year principals as those in their first year at a given school. The turnover tends to be higher, the study says, at schools with poor standardized test scores.
“The underlying idea is that churn is not good,” Gina Schuyler Ikemoto, one of the authors of the study, told the K-12 education publication Education Week.
Churn is a good word for what’s been going on at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
During the summer, Superintendent Laurence Spring joked that his first goal for stabilizing Mont Pleasant was to keep his principal all year. Six weeks later, Principal Karmen McEvoy left the school, requesting medical leave. This was around the time reports of students aggressively confronting teachers, roaming the halls, refusing to go to class and fighting after school began to proliferate.
When I wrote about Quentin Bullock last week, I noted that the average college president serves about seven years and that the difficulty of the job explains the relatively brief tenure.
But running a middle school — especially a struggling middle school such as Mont Pleasant — strikes me as a much more difficult task than running a college.
And most people aren’t up for the challenge.
At least, not for the long term.
I don’t have any friends who are principals, but I do have friends who teach, and a number of them have taught in struggling schools filled with needy children.
I say have taught, because the majority of them eventually moved on to greener pastures, where they don’t have to deal with the types of problems they dealt with in their underfunded and underperforming schools. When my friend Sam left a high-poverty school district in New Hampshire for one of the most affluent districts in the state, he admitted to feeling a little guilty, but added,
“There’s little I can do to really help my students, so why not go to a place where I can focus on teaching and enjoy myself?”
There’s nothing unusual about Sam. People who work in high-poverty districts are more likely to suffer from burnout, or experience pressure to move to a “better school”; one of my friends was relieved when his wife left her teaching job at an impoverished elementary school in the
Bronx for one of New York City’s more middle-class schools. “I always worried about her safety,” he said.
Teachers (and principals, I suspect) are like the rest of us: They want to feel like they’re making progress at work. They want to feel safe on the job. They want stability and support and good leadership.
That’s why it takes a special type of person to look at a difficult school like Mont Pleasant and say, “I really want to work there.”
Only time will tell whether Peg Normandin is the leader Mont Pleasant needs. But she appears to have the skills and background needed for the job.
She has been helping oversee the restructuring of Schenectady High School and worked closely with teachers, principals and truancy officers during a stint as the school’s “turnaround” principal from 2010 to 2012. Since then, attendance, test scores and graduation rates have steadily improved.
I hope we see similar progress at Mont Pleasant.
Not another new principal.