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  • by Blaine Helwig

The Accidental Principal

Updated: Jun 15

My wife and I just finished walking our third ‘El Camino’ in Spain three weeks ago. There are two major walking routes that stretch from France to Santiago de Compostela – a city located just above Portugal. The 500 plus mile Camino de Frances or the Camino del Norte take approximately 32 to 37 days to complete, depending upon the number of rest days taken. At that trail distance for either Camino, the daily trekking can accurately be described as extreme exercise with between 16 to 23 miles of hiking each day with a 12-to-20-pound backpack in tow. These Caminos are strenuous both mentally and physically, but those treks are the most satisfying endurance adventures in my life.

There is an expression that I have heard uttered frequently on each of our three hikes – ‘The Camino Provides.’ It is voiced repeatedly by good-natured and easy-going trekkers. This phrase means that there will be divine or magical intervention along the long journey, so that – for instance, food and shelter are provided precisely in the time of need. The hikers that subscribe to this laid-back philosophy sleep where they find space – inside or outside, and they locate their daily food and water intake as it makes itself readily available each day.

In all honesty, as much as I am attracted to that carefree attitude, my wife and I cannot hike by that philosophy. We are planners! We know exact lengths of daily stage distances, intermittent stopping points each day for restaurants/cafes, expected terrain geography, and most of all, a nightly reserved sleeping accommodation when we complete a day’s hike. Many people begin these Caminos; however, those that successfully navigate and complete them, are almost always the folks like us – the planners. For example, when there is not an open café or small town over particularly long distances, we have stored food and extra water in our backpacks. We have guide books and digital apps that provide up-to-date information that is continually reviewed at least a week in advance. We are prepared for the typical injuries with braces and medical needs for our knees, ankles, blisters, or extremely sore and aching muscles. We have purchased top-of-the-line hiking gear from head to toe. Also, any new development in changing weather or environmental conditions is immediately addressed. This preparation readily affords us the ability to side-step or easily overcome and avoid or minimize mishaps that easily may mushroom into a small catastrophe. For the ‘happenstance Camino Provides’ hikers, it is the unanticipated issues as well as the lack of planning that usually are the primary reason their journeys end unsuccessfully.

A Highly Successful Social and Academic School

Requires Planning and Know-How!

It is that time in July when campus principals are returning to their schools from their summer breaks, and as expected, they confront the many typical and obvious administrative tasks. For instance, the principal and assistant principal address hiring staff as needed, survey the school grounds for any and all required upkeep, verify textbook and laptop counts, ensure the custodians prepare and clean the classrooms so they are ready for teachers and students to return, and report any maintenance issues to central office so that any repairs can be timely scheduled. However, all of these tasks are the essential perfunctory tasks of a typical campus administration – physical plant maintenance. In reality, the real work does not begin until the first day when students return. Public schools are a nine-month journey where the primary reason for the collective work of campus staff is to create a heightened social and academic center for children to learn and excel. In short, school personnel’s primary existence is to provide their students’ academic prowess and mastery in accordance with specified state standards in each core subject area.

How is Student Achievement Measured?

After the aforementioned obligatory administrative tasks are completed, the principal needs to ask themselves one question: “How did our students perform academically last year?” Now, what does this really mean? If it is a traditional or charter public school, I can absolutely guarantee that this means the level of performance on grade level standardized assessments that begin in third (3rd) grade. Of course, there is a lot of learning that goes on throughout the course of the school year that is not measured by an annual standardized test; however, I have met few school and district administrators over the last two decades that privately do not admit the following: Standardized test scores for all their failings are accurate! They know that these assessments are grade level tests, and that when a third grader scores a 40% (for example) on a reading or math test, that child cannot read or do math with regard to grade level expectations.

Let’s Compare Title 1 and Non-Title 1 Academic Performance

If the elementary or middle school is one of the 40 percent non-Title 1 low-income schools in this country, the answer is invariably, “Pretty darn well! Over 90 percent of our students passed or met expectations on a grade level standardized test in each subject matter.” Quite honestly, those medium and high socioeconomic principals are quite comfortable (and rightly should be) to do it all over, again, in the upcoming school year. However, principals of low socioeconomic Title 1 schools should not be envious that non-Title 1 principals have forgiving academic environments. In fact, they do possess a relatively easy academic situation! However, medium and high-socioeconomic or non-Title 1 principals have unique political problems to handle at their campuses with parents and community. Moreover, having worked in those schools as both a classroom teacher and an administrator, I can personally attest that those issues can be extremely challenging on a day-to-day basis.

So, what about the other 60 percent of public schools in the United States – those classified as Title 1 or low-income campuses based on free and reduced lunch student counts?

Unfortunately for Title 1 principals, there is a lot of work to do IF they have any intention to perform better than the previous school year, and most likely, previous school years (plural). It is at this juncture point where the principal actually becomes the campus’ instructional leader, or they become what I commonly define as a ‘physical plant manager’ or an ‘accidental principal.’ Before continuing, my administrator labeling is not intended to be mean-spirited – it is based objectively on empirical and factual student outcomes. Title 1 campus administrators have to make a careful set of priorities if their school is to academically improve – otherwise, the campus chronically scores in the same 5 to 8 percent range of student academic performance – year after year. Thus, they are not improving anything; or, more accurately, they are only managing the physical school environment. Pragmatically, they are hoping their school performs better academically accidentally or by pure chance. Note: The vast majority of urban and rural Title 1 schools perform approximately 40 to 60 percent lower, on average, in direct comparison with student standardized assessments to their more affluent counterparts, non-Title 1 campuses. Albeit, same test – same day administered – same teaching time during the school year – but, the geographical location of the schools is different.

How NOT to be an Accidental Principal.

On the positive side, an elementary principal must not only want to better the academic outcomes at their school, they must be willing to put in the effort and make it their number one priority. This leads to a conundrum for Title 1 administrators.

  • First, does the low-income campus administration know the isolated factors at their campus that cause low student performance? Basically, do they actually know what problem they are trying to solve that is triggering chronically low student outcomes?

  • Second, if the principal does know what to change academically, are they willing to do anything about it? Or, can excuses be made to cover the fact that they are an accidental principal forevermore?

  • Third, if the principal does not know what to change academically, do they possess the humility and courage to try and find out what to do differently at their campus to stop the relative academic failure in comparison with non-Title 1 schools?

Let’s assume that the principal does NOT know the factors for their students’ low academic performance, and they are willing to change methodologies and put in the effort. Thus, after the obligatory physical setting is in place at the campus upon their return in July, the principal has to breakdown campus improvement operations into three main areas: Systems, Curricular Resources and Personnel.

The Systems at the campus must be efficient and effective – arrival and dismissal of students, classroom management and classroom routines (assuring high time on task and preservation of instructional minutes), common area transitions, etc.

The Curricular Resources implemented at the school must be a rock-solid Tier 1 skill-based curriculum since the infamous Achievement Gap is actually a skill gap in both literacy, science and mathematics. However, the two-tiered resources must be stop-gap resources (e.g., daily numeracy, literacy to rectify prior grade level skill gaps) and bridge resources (i.e., problem solving resources that stress grade level applications). This specific curricular resource work not only accelerates students back to grade level, but the Tier 1 curriculum will work as designed. Note: All Tier 1 curriculum assumes no prior grade level academic numeracy and literacy gaps; however, this is NOT the existential environment of a Title 1 campus. Students are academically behind in urban and rural Title 1 campuses – many times more than one grade level.

The Personnel at a Title 1 school will always be a constant unless the district is willing to expend money it does not have to hire only experienced educators. Consequently, a typical Title 1 campus faculty will be comprised of experienced teachers and entry-level ones. However, instructional support staff is another issue altogether. Administrators and instructional coaches must assist classroom teachers via modeling spaced repetition, effective lesson delivery, and efficient daily routines and effective classroom management. Then, after the modeling is complete at the beginning of the year (and intermittently during the year, as needed), they must work with specific groups of students to help close numeracy and literacy gaps – teachers cannot do this work alone. Administrators, coaches and interventionists must support the classroom in this manner, or the campus has 4 to 5 principals walking around the campus all day, and teachers are all left on their classroom island, alone.

This management process at Title 1 elementary schools described above yields academic results equal to the highest socioeconomic elementary schools – mid 90 percent passing and 40 to 60 percent mastery rates on standardized test scores. In effect, the achievement gap is completely eradicated between low- and high-income elementary schools. All pertinent information in Systems, Curricular Resources and Personnel can be located, read, and/or downloaded for free at the New 3Rs Academic Transformation.

Positive and Negative Closing Thoughts

It may seem obvious to the reader that the discussion to this point has focused solely on solving the academic problems at Title 1 campuses and not the social aspect. Again, there is good news. Solving the academic issues sidesteps many problems. For one, student discipline issues and self-esteem are greatly minimized when the academic problems are eradicated. Of course, there will still be work to do in those specific areas, but now those issues are nothing more than a speed bump and not a massive hole to fill. Additionally, classroom teachers’ Tier 1 daily core lessons are considerably more effective since students are not lacking prior grade level skill levels. Thus, teacher attrition is greatly lessened since students are highly successful, and their daily work is much more meaningful and satisfying – the social and academic mission of the school is realized. In summary, many of students’ social issues and discipline problems as well as the Title 1 campus chronic academic struggles fade away or are greatly lessoned with heightened academics. Thus, as with the Camino analogy, a principal sidesteps a lot of secondary problems with planning and preparation that addresses and solves the campus’ rudimentary problems.

The positive overarching message is the following: It takes a plan – a structured plan implemented with know-how and consistency to positively change the academic environment at a campus and provide underserved children equitable opportunity. Once the entire process is set-up and implemented, the overall work load decreases rapidly, and a Title 1 school operates like a medium to high socioeconomic school. Why? The mass of students is on grade-level and the Tier 1 curriculum works as it is designed – prior literacy and numeracy gaps are no more for the continuously enrolled students! Then, the only challenge with each new school year is maintaining the overall programming that also addresses the same academic gaps with the newly enrolled students, and fortunately, that is not that many children even with student mobility as high as 25 percent.

The negative overarching message is the following: If the administrator enacts a plan for the upcoming school year that looks great on paper, but it does not address fundamental learning and academic issues, then realistically, children at their campus are being willfully ignored both socially and academically. In this case, the campus administrator is just another Title 1 ‘accidental principal’ in the public school system – hoping by chance something sticks by throwing random ‘solutions’ at that wall. Unfortunately, as the years pass, campus leadership and classroom instruction evolve into the all-too-common cycle of ‘rinse and repeat,’ as is currently the practice of the vast majority of this country’s Title 1 schools.


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