May 21, 2007

principal hard to find

Every comprehensive high school in Thurston County’s three largest districts has hired at least one principal since 1999, and some have hired two.

The job always has been complex and required long hours, local educators say. The workday can begin as early 6:30 a.m. and extend well into the evening with student functions, parent gatherings and school board meetings.

But Washington’s new high school graduation requirements and new federal accountability measures under the No Child Left Behind Act have tacked on additional pressures, officials say.

“You’re trying to balance the needs of students, the needs of parents and the needs of staff with all of the mandates coming down from the state and federal government,” said Jim Hainer, who has been principal at Black Hills High since fall 2005.

Jocelyn McCabe, the Association of Washington School Principals’ communications director, said turnover has increased the past five years, though the association doesn’t track statistics.

“I think it really has to do with the stress and responsibility of running a high school,” she said, adding that state and federal changes likely have played a role. “We’re seeing a lot more scrutiny of how students are performing.”

Upcoming changes

Three new principals are expected this fall in the county:

The Olympia School District will hire new principals at two of its three high schools — Avanti and Capital.

• At Avanti, the district’s alternative high school, interim Principal Darrell Johnston was brought on to serve one year in fall 2006 after former Principal Joy Walton became administrator of the Olympia Regional Academy.

• At Capital, Principal Teri Poff will become executive director for teaching and learning in the Franklin Pierce School District’s administration office in Tacoma.

• Plus, the Tumwater School District is searching for a new executive director at New Market Skills Center, which provides career, technical and vocational classes to high school students. John Aultman, New Market’s executive director since fall 2000, has accepted an administrative post in the Shelton School District.

Recruiting challenges

Though there were at least 20 candidates for both the Avanti and Capital positions, local educators say they don’t see as many applicants as five or 10 years ago.

“When you post a principal position, you’re not going to have a deep applicant pool,” said Brian Wharton, a former River Ridge High principal who was promoted to North Thurston Public Schools’ assistant superintendent of human resources in 2006.

That trend has emerged even though some local principals consider their jobs well-paying. According to the state salary survey for 2005-06, the average principal’s salary was $83,976.

The ranges for the open Olympia School District posts are higher:

• $89,469 to $97,781 at Avanti

• $96,843 to $105,334 at Capital

“This is a good-paying job, but if you’re doing it for the money, you’re not going to last a long time,” Hainer said. “You’ve got to find the job that fits you.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Washington School Principals expects to work with 248 principal interns — educators working toward an administrative credential — in 2007-08. McCabe said those numbers are encouraging but the association would like to see even more.

‘A great experience’

Neither Poff nor Wharton decided to leave because of job stress. Both had goals of becoming district-level administrators.

“My preference would have been to wait several years,” Wharton said. “It was one of those things where the opportunity fell into place.”

Poff said she highly recommends the Capital job but had always wanted to become a district-level executive director of teaching and learning.

“Whoever does step into the position will inherit a great school,” she said.

That said, Poff described the high school principal position as a stressful one that has grown more so in the past five years.

“There are increased expectations for you as an institutional leader and you also need to gather a lot of input from staff, students and parents,” she said.

Hainer said he tries to manage stress by creating balance with his personal life. He tries to get home at a decent hour even if it’s just to eat dinner before heading back out. He also exercises and has lost 40 pounds since January. And his wife sometimes joins him at after-school events.

“Part of it is deciding what things am I going to commit to being there,” Hainer said. “You’re never really off the clock.”

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