Over the past few weeks, principal resignations and retirements in Chicago’s public schools have been big news, but this year’s challenges were predictable. In fact, in our 2015 School Leadership Report, we noted that 60 percent of Chicago principals leave before year five and that 25 percent of them might leave as soon as this school year. And that was before the uncertainty in Springfield.
However, observing a predictable problem doesn’t solve it. If our shared goal is to find shared solutions, there are three important points missed in the recent media maelstrom about high-profile departures:
1. We lose too many good principals every year. As Catalyst Chicago reported, 54 principals* – out of more than 500 principals in CPS-operated schools – retired or resigned as of June 22. We lost 46 over the same time period last year and 49 in 2014. CPS leaders have made a valid point: the lack of a budget may drive those numbers up before the school year starts. Parents and other community members have also rightly pointed out that our city’s best leaders need stable, reliable resource projections much earlier every If we are interested in stable leadership for the long term, solving for this year’s budget crisis is a necessary but insufficient step. We need a predictable revenue in line with CPS’ needs so that principals can plan securely for the futures of their school communities.
2. We have to fight to keep them, starting now. You don’t need to look beyond Lake View High Schools’s Scott Grens and Gwendolyn Brooks’ D’Andre Weaver to see that local and national districts are calling to offer our city’s best principals predictability, stability and promotions. Programs like the Chicago Principals Fellowship and the Independent Schools Principal (ISP) program – recently highlighted by the Chicago Sun-Times – have helped to keep 57 top principals in their roles over the last two years. Principals like Tara Shelton at South Loop, Armando Rodriguez at Goode and Michelle Willis at Gillespie are staying because the civic and philanthropic communities are investing in their success through these programs long before they receive that first recruiter’s call. Those efforts, along with others that meet specific principal needs – such as increased autonomy and differentiated support – should grow rapidly to meet demand and to allow CPS to actively compete with other communities for the best talent.
3. We have to partner closely with Local School Councils. Local School Councils (LSCs) are the elected bodies responsible for hiring and renewing principal contracts in Chicago. As WBEZ reported, some LSCs are struggling with how best to fill the vacant roles. Of the 54 openings, half have been filled for next year. We can all do more to help the remaining half make the right decisions in time for the start of a new year. This starts with efforts to make sure newly-elected LSC members are trained and receive supports in early July so that they can immediately engage in hiring conversations with their communities.
Rapid principal turnover has real, negative consequences for the health of our schools, students and communities. According to a report from the School Leaders Network, principal turnover correlates to declining student achievement in Math and ELA in the year following a vacancy, and it can take the next principal up to three years to regain progress for the school.
Paying attention now – when principals are leaving – makes a good news story. Paying attention in September and January and April – when principals are deciding whether or not to stay – makes a bigger difference for schools and the students they serve.
*As of early July, 56 principals retired or resigned.