When Windsor-Severance Re-4 School District Superintendent Karen Trusler puts out the call for a new principal, she may get 60 or so applications at the elementary school level. Ask her about the high school level, and she’ll give you an entirely different picture.
“I may get half of that,” Trusler said.
The job of finding a quality high school principal is a tough one, Trusler said. But not nearly as tough as the job of principal itself, she added.
“The principal and athletic director at the high school level are the two most challenging jobs there are because of the time commitment and stress,” she said. “All the administrators have responsibilities, but the magnitude for high school principals with the extracurricular events, athletics, graduation and college readiness — I always wonder who’s going to apply for this position because of that magnitude.”
Trusler, who begins her seventh year as superintendent in the district, should know. During that time she has overseen four principals and hired three of those herself. Trusler is not alone in her struggles. Most of the districts in Weld County are suffering at the high school level. In one year, there have been six principal changes in the 11 traditional, public high schools in Weld.
QUICK CHANGE ACT
Two of the recent changes came with controversy. In the Valley Re-1 School District, Valley High School principal Bob Harr, who also spent three years from 2005-08 as principal at Greeley West High School, was the center of controversy at Valley High when Superintendent Jo Barbie decided not to renew his contract. Dozens of parents went before the board of education and rallied for Harr to remain. The board agreed and kept him on, but a few weeks later Harr was reassigned and Rich Dalgliesh replaced him.
Also in the last year, the school board in the Weld Central Re-3J School District in Keenesburg heard parents’ and teachers’ plea but affirmed its superintendent’s decision not to renew popular principal Don Frenzen’s contract. A day later, students at Weld Central High School walked out of class and staged a sit-in.
In Greeley, it’s musical chairs with the Adams 14 School District. Northridge High School principal Wes Paxton came from Adams City High School to replace Santiago Grado last year. Shellie Robins took over for Paxton at Adams. This year, Robins is the new principal at Greeley West High School, after Bryan Wright left to become the new principal at Adams.
With the exception of Eaton’s Mark Naill and Platte Valley’s Brad Joens who have both been at their respective school for more than a decade, Weld high school principals have an average tenure of just under three years. Some say it’s stress, some say it’s the money and some say it’s because they don’t see eye-to-eye with their superintendent. None, however, say it’s the parents or the students.
“It’s like poker,” said Mark Cousins, principal at Greeley Central High School. “You’re all in. If you’re not, they’ll figure you out. You can’t do this job effectively without having that close relationship with kids, and some you get closer to than others. For me, that’s the troubled kids. I’m close to the kids I’m around the most and those are usually the troubled kids. But they are good kids. All they need is guidance.”
Cousins, who has been in administration for 30 years, said the job isn’t getting any easier. From legislation to hours to achievement, the job of a high school principal is usually short tenured.
Kathryn Whitaker, University of Northern Colorado emeritus professor of educational leadership and policy studies, specializes in principals. She said the accountability picture has created a lot of stress on all principals but especially at the high school level.
“The job expectations are just enormous,” she said. “They evaluate teachers, discipline students, take care of facility concerns; there’s student achievement to oversee and the budget when funding has been severely impacted. They work with parents and the community, and that doesn’t include all the student extracurricular activities.
“The expectations are just almost an unreasonable part. And then coupled with all that are salary issues; many or most districts can’t afford to pay high school principals what they deserve given the 60- to 70-hour work weeks.”
SHOW ME THE MONEY
In Windsor, where the high school is 1,200 students, the starting salary is $80,000 per year; 15 miles east in Greeley it’s just more than $88,000. But go 15 miles west to Fort Collins, and a first-year high school principal will start no lower than $101,000. For those willing to drive another 45 miles south to the Boulder Valley School District, that starting salary is $105,000.
Trusler said money has a lot to do with why Windsor has a tough time getting applicants.
Windsor has been through five principals in a decade. Michelle Scallon, who was dean of students at Northridge last year, begins her first year as Windsor High School principal this year.
Everyone in the business will agree that the No Child Left Behind Act has caused tremendous headaches for everyone from the student to the parent to the teacher to the principal to the superintendent to the school boards.
Making sure every child in America is proficient or advanced by 2014 is an undertaking that causes lots of hard feelings among principals and those around them.
“A number of things that have been placed on us that make the job a lot more difficult than it used to be,” Cousins said. “NCLB, testing three times a year, just take a look at the regulations of the job 10 years ago versus today. I average about a 70-hour workweek during school.
Ben Rainbolt, who was principal at Valley High School from 1998-2007 and now works in the private sector, said the pressures of NCLB and standardized testing can cause a lot of stress.
“The accountability piece of this — NCLB, CSAP, TCAP — has just put a big spotlight on performance, performance, performance. We are measured on a test given on one day. But CSAPs reading, writing and math didn’t measure how well my kids were doing in art or technical career training. And at a high school, reading, writing and math are two or three classes a day out of all the classes they take. It’s not a very fair assessment on how my kids did at various places.”
Because of all the pressures, Cousins said it takes at least two or three years for a principal to feel comfortable in his own skin and with his teachers and the superintendent.
“The first two or three years, they question you on everything you do,” he said. “After four or five years, you don’t get questioned anymore because your record speaks for itself.”
Joens, agreed, and added that he looked a lot to others for guidance and support when he first started.
“There is no high school administrator I respect more than Ben (Rainbolt). I used him a lot in my early years,” Joens said. “Now, I’m totally institutionalized. I don’t’ know what it would be like to work for anyone else.”
Good collaboration is paramount and the most important aspect of longevity, they all said.
Joens, who begins his 12th year at Platte Valley High School in Kersey, said without his staff and superintendent Glenn McClain at the helm, he’d be lost.
“I’ve had one superintendent, and he’s been wonderful to work with,” Joens said. “It’s been me and my (athletic director) and Dr. McClain since I’ve been here. When I walked into the building there was this monster group of teachers, and by that I mean fantastic. And I have had fantastic teachers ever since.”
Joens said that is capable because McClain works with him, not above him.
“We are legitimate friends, but you can’t not be that way when you’ve been together this long,” Joens said. “But when we have disagreements we work them out like educated adults. Glenn has very interesting thoughts that are totally opposite of me, and I have thoughts that are opposite of him, but we have such great communication that we work together.”
Cousins said a lot of the job is about getting along with and having the same ideals as the superintendent. He left the Falcon 49 School District for that very reason, but he begins his fourth year at Central because he “buys in” to District 6 Superintendent Ranelle Lang’s message.
“There is a political nature to the job that causes you to be flexible in your approach,” Cousins said. “Philosophically, if you don’t pay attention to the politics side, not just the superintendent but the community, too, if you’re not cognizant of the politics, you’re doomed, and you’ll get killed by it.
“As a principal, if you are not aware of the vision and goal of the superintendent — if you can’t ride for the brand — they’re paying my check, I’d better know and buy into it. If I can’t, I need to leave and go somewhere else.”
That was exactly what happened to Rainbolt, who resigned amid controversy in 2007. He couldn’t ride the Barbie brand, he said.
“There are a lot of pressures on high school administration and even building level administration at any level,” said Rainbolt. “There is pressure from below and pressure from above. Below, students and parents want the best education, but at the top it’s all about CSAP performance. So building level admin really gets squeezed from both ways and there is not always support for it.”
Rainbolt said he wished more superintendents were like McClain.
“In Bob’s and my cases, that’s exactly why we’re not principal anymore,” he said in reference to Harr’s controversial departure as principal. “It’s Jo’s word and whatever she says goes. There is no negotiation.”
Whitaker said the superintendents are the CEOs of the organization and they have their own vision for where the district needs to go and there has to be a match of what the principal desires and what the superintendent wants to do. But she also said, when there isn’t that match, most superintendents will work with the principals to come to an equitable solution.
Naill, who begins his 11th year in Eaton, said he has lasted as long as he has because it’s a collaborative effort between he and Eaton Re-2 School District Superintendent Randy Miller.
“We all work together as a team,” Naill said. “People don’t always agree with you, and you have to have similar aspirations and goals. But you have to work together to get to those goals.”
NEVER A DAYLIGHT HOUR
The long hours tend to wear on most principals, but they also tend to push most principals. Most all said despite the issues, they have no desire to be doing anything else.
Cousins said his family get-togethers are mostly Central activities watching his daughters and their friends compete.
“If I’m going to be visible in my school and be in the halls and be part of the Greeley Central ‘family,’ then I’m going to have to be here until 8 or 9 at night doing the other stuff, the paperwork and the NCLB stuff. We do the family stuff by going to school events together as a family. My wife understands that’s my job. We enjoy the co-curricular events together as a family.”
Naill said despite the hours being long, it’s not physical labor, and he just enjoys being around people.
“I always wanted to be an educator,” he said. “Since I was little kid I wanted to teach and coach. Sometimes the hours get long, but I enjoy being around the students and watching what they do. I like working with the staff and community. It doesn’t seem like hard labor to me. It provides a lot of gratification.”
For Joens, the shorter the vacation the better.
“I struggle more in the summer months because the focus isn’t there every day,” he said. “I enjoy Christmas and spring breaks because it feels good, but I really struggle more and more each summer. If someone said ‘Let’s go to year-round school,’ it wouldn’t bother me a bit.”
THE GREATER GOOD
Despite the hours, despite the regulations, despite the disagreements, despite the pay, all the principals said they are in it for the good of the students and wouldn’t do anything different.
“We allow ourselves to get close because they are good kids,” Cousins said. “I enjoy being around them. That’s why we’re in this business. I had a young lady show up (recently) to get her diploma. She came by about 4:30 p.m. and we sat until 5:15 p.m. just talking. She got up and forgot to take her diploma with her because we got so caught up in our conversation. I had to call her mom and tell her to come back and get it.”
“I grew up in northern Colorado. I always wanted to be in this area,” Naill added. “As far as Eaton goes, we have a very strong community and a community that has high expectations and that has created a real strong culture and positive culture within the schools. The parents contribute, and the kids work hard, and when you combine those, you have a great public school environment.”
Joens said there is nowhere he’d rather be. The idea of a larger school doesn’t entice him. Kersey is home.
“I have always had a faculty that you just would not trade for anything,” he said. “No matter what anybody thinks, the teachers are the ones who do the real work. We are a support piece of that, just like a custodian is a support piece of that. And we have fantastic kids. It doesn’t always equate in fantastic TCAP scores, but we have some of the greatest human beings around.”