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Article of Interest - Leadership

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Bridges4Kids LogoA Buddy System for Educators
by Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2003
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At Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, everyone wants a piece of Principal Shawn Ashley.

They all also want a piece of Principal Gwen Mack.

One minute, a teacher is complaining about kids loitering in the halls. The next, an aide is hauling in a boy caught in the girls' bathroom. Then a custodian is griping about co-workers.

Ashley and Mack take it all in stride. Inside their office, with two gray cubicles and two names on the door, they divvy up a monster job usually heaped on the shoulders of a single principal.

Ashley tackles athletics, activities, student discipline and school repairs. Mack covers curriculum, counseling, testing and textbooks.

Together, this unlikely duo runs a campus the size of a dozen football fields, where the green lawns of the central quad get trampled each day beneath the feet of 4,300 teenagers.

"I couldn't do this by myself," said Ashley, 49, a Poly High graduate who high-fives football players on campus as if they're his pals.

Mack, 59, the quieter one who often speaks just above a whisper, added: "If we want to do a decent job, we need to divide our responsibilities."

This buddy system has transformed management in Long Beach's six high schools and turned California's third-largest school system into a laboratory for educators nationwide desperate to stem the flight of overworked and overwhelmed principals.

"I think what you're seeing in those high schools are prototypes for the future," said Michael Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "It's an important story beyond Long Beach."

Long Beach has been using co-principals for a decade. Now other school districts, including those in Glendale and Redondo Beach, have taken a page from its playbook with the hope of freeing principals to spend more time in classrooms. School systems elsewhere in California and in Massachusetts, Vermont and other places are experimenting with the same approach.

It Doesn't Always Work

Not everyone is sold.

High schools in Pasadena and Santa Monica switched to co-principals a few years ago, only to abandon the idea because of concerns that lines of authority were confused. Some educators elsewhere say that having two principals creates unnecessary turf wars.

Even supporters concede that the management model depends largely on the personalities of the two school leaders and the way they get along with each other.

But in districts large and small, urban and rural, educators widely agree that something must be done to lighten the load on harried administrators.

While they handle such traditional chores as keeping their schools clean and making sure classes have enough textbooks, principals now face significant new state and federal pressures to raise test scores and keep their campuses free from drugs and violence.

They are literally expected to leave no child behind, as the nation's new education law commands. Failure can cost them their jobs.

Principals are often the first to arrive on campus and the last to leave; sometimes they work three or four nights a week, attending football games, banquets, plays, concerts and an assortment of other events. It's a marathon schedule that blurs into 70- and 80-hour work weeks.

"It burns people out," said George Manthey, who trains principals for the Assn. of California School Administrators. "To do the job well at a large high school is almost impossible."

That concern is magnified by the expectation that nearly half of the nation's 35,000 secondary school principals will retire in the next five years, according to the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals. The anticipated exodus has set off alarms among school district leaders across the country and spawned an array of recruitment, retention and training initiatives.

District officials in Long Beach say their home-grown reform offers a practical and relatively inexpensive solution.

Having two principals means someone is always available to answer questions, sign forms and make decisions, they say. It means two people are available to handle the thousand little decisions that land on a principal's desk at a school with 250 instructors and other employees.

Yes, most high schools have vice principals and assistant principals to handle mundane duties and respond to visitors. But parents, teachers and others often aren't satisfied with the second in command.

"Everyone wants the principal," Ashley said.

On a recent day, Mack and two of Poly High's four assistant principals were away at a meeting designed to bolster school efforts to increase student achievement.

That left Ashley in charge. And it was a busy day.

Even before Ashley put down his briefcase, a father appeared with his daughter to lodge a complaint about a boy who allegedly had exposed himself to the girl. Ashley interviewed the girl and the boy separately. Then he met with police, who were conducting their own investigation. (The boy was suspended and transferred to another campus. He also was arrested on suspicion of indecent exposure.)

The incident consumed Ashley's morning. In the midst of it, another parent called to ask how to get a bus pass for her daughter; a student stopped by to pick up a letter of recommendation for college; and a teacher approached Ashley to complain that a colleague was letting students go before the class period bell rang. Ashley promised to take care of the concern, and spoke to the offending teacher a few minutes later.

"I could be trapped in my office all day long," Ashley said, as he grabbed his sunglasses and made his way through knots of students to get a Diet Pepsi at the lunch pavilion.

The next day, Ashley was more than happy for Mack to return. After a morning spent on paperwork and meetings with administrators and counselors, the two finally had time for what they want most: to visit classrooms and talk with students and teachers.

"If you are a sole administrator and you're not in the classroom, how do you know if something's going wrong?" asked Marc Hyatt, a history teacher and the school's teachers union representative, who is pleased with the dual principal system. "It makes it easier to know when a teacher is having a problem."

Students aren't as clear about the division of labor or that two principals run the school. When asked to identify Poly High's principal, several students named Ashley, who has been at the campus for eight years six more than Mack. One student didn't know who Mack was. Most said it didn't matter whether the school had one or two principals.

"What is more important is having plenty of adult supervision on campus," said junior Samantha Heep.

Diverse Student Body

Ashley and Mack, who have worked together for two years and earn $117,000 each, oversee a sprawling and diverse campus, where about half of the 4,300 students are African American or Latino; whites, Asians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders account for the rest. The principals also are in charge of a nearby satellite campus with an additional 400 students.

Poly High is solid academically, with test scores that place it among the top half of campuses statewide. It is known for its roster of celebrity graduates, including actress Cameron Diaz, baseball great Tony Gwynn and rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.

It has a lesser-known claim to fame in education circles as the first campus in Long Beach to use multiple principals in 1992. The principal at the time, H.J. Green, feeling besieged by all his responsibilities, persuaded his bosses to let him share the position with two colleagues. "It made the job doable," Green, now retired, recalled. "It took a lot of pressure off." In subsequent years, the school system expanded the idea to all its high schools, although keeping it to two principals per campus. The change cost about $15,000 to $20,000 per school annually, mainly for replacing a vice principal position with a principal slot.

Not every pairing, though, has been a success.

One principal who had personal disagreements with her co-administrators at two separate high schools, and was said to be overly sensitive to criticism, was eventually transferred to an elementary school, officials said.

The case underscored the importance of having two principals who mesh well.

"A co-principalship is not a place for an ego trip," said Mel Collins, Ashley's partner at Poly High for five years, until the district asked him to fill a vacant principal slot at nearby Cabrillo High.

Complementary Styles

Ashley and Mack say their contrasting styles suit their duties in a school where some tasks depend on a soft touch and others require a forceful hand. She is comfortable interviewing candidates for a chemistry teaching slot or evaluating a Japanese language instructor from the back of a classroom. He is skilled at pushing workers to fix, for example, a malfunctioning filtration system that turned water murky in the school's indoor swimming pool.

"I'm more passive the quiet type," Mack said. "Shawn is more outgoing."

Although they operate in their own spheres, Ashley and Mack often talk late in the afternoons in their office, after the school empties, about their most difficult problems for example, how to write up a teacher who seems to be floundering or how to tighten security at nighttime football games.

The two never argue in public and say they resolve disagreements by deferring to each other's expertise. When the two debated recently about how to allot time after school for teacher training, Ashley let Mack make the final call.

"Shawn can't do everything and I can't do everything," Mack said.

This type of power sharing has caught on elsewhere. Glendale school officials, impressed by what they heard about in Long Beach, took the same approach in their high schools about seven years ago.

"It's like a professional marriage," said Kevin Welsh, the co-principal of Glendale's Hoover High School and the first of the district's administrators to divide the job. "It's sure nice when you have a partner you can trust."

But some who have tried the idea say it didn't live up to expectations.

In Pasadena, district officials abandoned the two-principal approach this year after trying it at two high schools during the last two years.

Supt. Percy Clark said he had received complaints from teachers, parents and students who said they were unclear about who was in charge.

"Theoretically it sounds like the magic formula, but I'm not sure this is something we can package and replicate as the model for transforming high schools," Clark said.

Officials also abandoned the co-principal approach at Santa Monica High School after a new superintendent arrived last year and decided that having two leaders left people confused. The school now has a chief educational officer and six assistant principals, each of whom oversees a portion of the student body.

"The notion of a singular point person responsible for the education in a school is very much the belief I come out of," said Supt. John Deasy. "It felt and worked better to have an ultimate point of responsibility."

District leaders in Long Beach acknowledge that their approach isn't suited for everyone. But they remain committed to their two-principal setup, in part because they believe it will add longevity to their principals' careers.

Ashley and Mack say the best part is that it allows them to get out of their cubicles more and keep in touch with what's really going on around campus.

As the lunch bell rang on a recent day, both principals grabbed their walkie-talkies and clutches of keys and headed out of their office to supervise the quad. Mack trained her eyes on a walkway where students seemed to be congregating and, in a preemptive move over her walkie-talkie, quietly directed an aide near the scene to check out the commotion. The gathering quickly dissolved on its own.

On the other side of the quad, Ashley milled around a group of football players.

"Hey, y'all," Ashley called out as he hugged one of the burly athletes and slapped another on the back.

"It's good to see a principal show some love," the football player said.

"I'm here for you," Ashley responded.


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