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At PPS, the principals are the new kids at school this year

Turnover reasons vary; students, staff, families adjust


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Cleveland Principal Paul Cook has led his school for 12 years, one of the longest-serving principals in PPS. He credits his supportive community of parents, the alumni association and business partners.   Paul Cook remembers hesitating when the Cleveland High School principal job was offered to him 12 years ago.

“My kids were young; I asked them, and they said, ‘OK, Dad, I think that would be cool,’” Cook recalls.

Cook then asked the superintendent if he’d still be allowed to coach his boys’ teams with a principal’s demanding schedule. Assured that he would, he took the job.

Twelve years later, Cook advises young principals to maintain a work-life balance, as he has done, “or it will overwhelm you,” he says.

In an age where test scores, dwindling resources and political pressures are enough to drive any educator to burnout, Cook is one of Portland Public Schools’ longest-serving principals in the same building.

Twelve years at Cleveland puts him in the Hall of Fame, in fact, considering that one in three PPS schools have a new building leader this year.

PPS assigned 23 new principals (of 78 total schools) this fall, compared with 10 last year and 19, 27 and 16 in each of the three years prior.

National Public Radio cited earlier this month that nearly one-fifth of Milwaukee, Wis., public schools are breaking in new principals this year, due to the universal challenges of school districts to retain quality principals.

PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles says that's not the case here. Human resources staff "reviewed our records and said PPS is not experiencing that kind of trend here with our principals," she says.

Whatever the reason for the turnover, thousands of PPS families, teachers and staff are still in transition mode with their new building leader.

For all, it's a leap of faith. For many, it's revitalizing.

That's the feeling families have at Creston School in Southeast Portland, where former Ockley Green Principal Conrad Hurdle is now at the helm.

"Our Back to School Picnic was one of the highest attended events we've had," says PTA President Lisa Kensel. "Even though the school year is still young, I believe that Mr. Hurdle has been a good fit for our community at Creston, and he's been easy to work with. We are hopeful that it will continue to be smooth and full of positive energy."

On the downside, a change in leadership can — and does — bring clashes in policy and style.

Frequent turnover with a new principal can be stressful to school communities and even damaging, according to a 2012 study by the Calif.-based nonprofit RAND Corp.

The study finds evidence that high principal turnover causes higher teacher turnover and smaller gains in academic achievement.

"We find that new principals placed in low-performing schools are somewhat more likely to leave after one year, but that may be because these schools are under greater scrutiny by their districts, the state, and the public," the report cites. "Rapid turnover appears to stem from school, district or (charter) choices based on performance rather than individual choices on the part of the principals — in particular, a desire to 'trade up' to a 'better' school."

Veteran principals say it's critical, when stepping into a new role, to determine what needs to change and what doesn't.

"The more engaged I am with the tenor of this building, the more comfortable I feel about the systems in place," says Joe Galati, former Chief Joseph principal who is now at Llewelyn. "For me, I want to involve key stakeholders in my decision-making. There are things that I want to do. However, to do this I need to be transparent, authentic and, most of all, realistic."

Other schools with newly assigned principals this year include: Abernethy, ACCESS, Alliance, Arleta, Atkinson, Boise-Eliot, Benson, Bridger, Chief Joseph/Ockley Green, Duniway, East-West Sylvan, Grant, Hosford, Jackson, King, Kelly, Lane, Lent, Vestal, Woodmere and Woodstock.

Key to longevity

Research from the Center for Public Education shows it takes five years for a principal to put a teaching staff in place, as well as fully implement policies and practices that will positively impact a school's performance. Yet the average length of a principal's tenure is three to four years; shorter for low-performing schools.

What does it take for a principal to stay 12 years at a school?

Back at Cleveland, Paul Cook has stayed for two reasons: stability for his community, and seeing his projects to fruition.

He says he's been offered other positions, inside and outide of the district, but has turned them down because he truly loves what he does every day.

“I’m a long-range planner," he says. "I’ve always felt when administrations have started something and they leave, it puts the school into a backward spiral. At least give it some legs, so the next person can add to it."

At Cleveland he's started or helped grow projects and partnerships like their track and field upgrade project, which first kicked off in 2003 and is wrapping up this year with the opening of the concession field house.

That project will be dedicated at Cleveland’s homecoming Oct. 10 and named in honor of Thomas Cameron, the 2005 Cleveland graduate who was killed in a Coast Guard helicopter crash last year.

During his tenure Cook also has overseen the growth of the International Baccalaureate program, the Chinese immersion program, the Ninth Grade Academy and the AVID program, among others.

Recent years brought a heated debate over high school schedules, as well as the new high school framework, which grew Cleveland to 1,525, on par with Lincoln and the other large comprehensive schools.

"It's been a wild ride," Cook says, noting that he's nowhere close to thinking about retirement, but when he does retire, he plans to stay busy.

Varied reasons for leaving

So why do principals leave? Six retired this year; Atkinson's Debbie Armendariz was recruited to lead PPS' Dual Language/Immersion program; Grant's Vivian Orlen left the state; King's Kim Patterson took a job with the state; East-West Sylvan's Cate Boyce is on a two-year fellowship; and the rest — including eight interim or assistant principals now serving as principal for the first time — shuffled between the schools.

That's never been Cook's plan.

In his 30 years with PPS, he’s only been at one other school, his alma mater, the former Marshall High School. He taught there for 12 years, coached football and track and served as vice principal there for another five years.

Being able to tell parents that you’re “from the community” helps a lot when handling student discipline issues, he says.

Cook says he doesn't have any secrets to his staying power, except for the “rock-solid” administrative teams he put in place, and the shared leadership he offers his 110 staff members, working creatively with them to solve staffing and other issues as problems came up.

He engages with families at school events, and relies on support from the district when things get tough.

"It's a tough job as principal, and every move can be scrutinized," he says. "To know you have that support from district leaders means a lot."

Not far from Cleveland, Southeast Portland's Grout Elementary School has a principal who ties Cook for longevity in a building.

Susan McElroy also is in her 12th year on the job, having earned the Portland PTA Council's Principal of the Year award last year.

Former PTA President Johanna Colgrove says it's hard to quantify what McElroy does to make the school great. She builds relationships with local organizations that help the school, writes an endless number of grants, and takes the time to know every student, parent and teacher, Colgrove says.

"They all trust her to have their best interests considered when she makes decisions," Colgrove says. "When teachers, students, parents come to her with new ideas, she listens, and her first instinct is to say, 'Yes, let's find a way.' "