By Barbara Kantrowitz and Jay Mathews Newsweek May 28, 2007 issue
It’s in the morning and Al Penna has already been on the job for an hour. Standing in the gated entryway of Binghamton High School in upstate New York, the veteran principal—about to celebrate his 60th birthday—greets hundreds of bleary-eyed teens by name. "How are we today, Louis?" "Good morning, Chris!" "Congratulations on the win, Jennifer!"
During the next few hours, Penna presides over meetings on school safety and senior awards, signs a contract for graduation photos and handles staff complaints about crackling walkie-talkies. He visits one class aimed at keeping potential dropouts in school and another where the assignment is to read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. He checks in on students laboring over the state's yearly English as a Second Language (ESL) exam. "
He even happily chows down on his favorite cafeteria lunch: gravy-doused roast beef on white bread with mashed potatoes and corn on the side.
At almost every stop, Penna points out how
Getting kids from freshman year to graduation has never been tougher. Penna knows that even that often-elusive diploma isn't enough anymore. Some postgraduate schooling has become essential to earning a middle-class income; that means adding higher-level courses like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) program to an already packed curriculum in order to prepare students for college.
So much goes into making a high school great: excellent teaching, vibrant student populations, creative classes, strong extracurriculars. The NEWSWEEK Challenge Index measures one: the number of IB and AP tests students take. But just as important is the person who leads the school. Good principals may seem unlikely superheroes—unless you're a student, teacher or parent. They set the tone for what happens from the moment the opening bell rings and can turn a troubled school around with a combination of vision, drive and very hard work. It's a 24/7 job. "Schools aren't just about just reading, writing and arithmetic anymore," says Penna. "School faculties now have the additional roles of mentor, adviser and quasi parent."
Principals also have to be politicians, crisis managers, cheerleaders, legal experts, disciplinarians, entertainers, coaches and persuasive evangelists for their school's educational mission. Add to that already daunting list the task of statistician, thanks to reams of data required by the federal No Child Left Behind law and local testing.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in data," says Jill Martin, the principal of
Finding those leaders is harder than ever. Many baby boomers, who now hold the majority of the jobs, are retiring in the next few years. Other veteran principals are leaving because of school reform or restructuring efforts or simply because they no longer want to do the work. It's estimated that in some areas, 60 percent of principals will leave their positions in the next five years. That's why there's a new focus on finding and training the best of the next generation for these jobs, including recruits from other fields. These efforts range from
Pay is also a major hurdle—as it is for teachers. Given the requirements of their jobs, successful principals probably have the skills to earn considerably more in the private sector. A recent study from the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that although administrators' salaries are increasing, they do not match the change in the consumer price index. According to the survey, high-school principals earned an average of $92,965 in 2006.
To find out more about the special pressures of running a successful high school today, NEWSWEEK talked to Penna and four other school leaders around the country. These are their very different stories.
MOTIVATING THE TEAM
For Doris Jackson, 60, principal of
COLLEGE FOR ALL
The Preuss public charter school at the
Graduating senior Rose Cao says Preuss proves that "money and skin color do not define intelligence." Students endure bus rides up to 90 minutes long from low-income south
AN OPEN DOOR
Ying Hua had been in the
Now an assistant principal at the school, Sunada, 61, is criticized for
NO FRILLS, AND A FUTURE
YES Prep's name, small size and strong AP program suggest a prestigious private school. Instead it is a public school, a hard-to-find collection of old portable classrooms on a horse farm in southeast
Barbic, 37, was a partying frat boy at Vanderbilt, looking for a purpose in life, when he tried volunteering at a neighborhood center in a poor part of
Students cannot get a diploma at YES unless they take at least one college-level course in the high school and get into at least one four-year college. Like Teach for
COMING HOMEAl Penna thought he would be a doctor when he graduated from