D.C. school system is losing at least eight veteran principals

At least eight veteran D.C. Public Schools principals have announced that they are leaving their jobs, reviving what has become an annual debate about turnover among the system’s school leaders.

The departing principals include two key figures in arts education: Patrick Pope, who used a heavy emphasis on dance, music, theater and visual arts to spur a turnaround at high-poverty Savoy Elementary in Anacostia; and Rory Pullens, the highly regarded principal of Duke Ellington School of the Arts since 2006.

Other schools that will have new leaders in the fall are Lafayette, Hearst, Hyde-Addison and H.D. Cooke elementary schools, all in Northwest Washington; Oyster-Adams Bilingual, a K-8 school also in Northwest; and Hart Middle in Southeast.

The list is sure to grow in coming weeks, with some principals announcing voluntary departures and the school system firing others via letters of “non-reappointment.” Principals work on one-year contracts, and administrators can choose not to renew them without giving a reason.

About 20 percent of schools had to replace their principals last year, a somewhat lower percentage than in the previous two years but still much higher than in neighboring suburban school systems. Parents and activists have long said the level of turnover leads to instability and stagnation in too many city schools.

A schools spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Morale among principals suffered this year when more than half were rated less than effective on new evaluations that gave significant weight to students’ standardized test scores. DCPS officials acknowledged that they should have done a better job explaining how the evaluations would work. They have since tweaked them and say they plan to look at further changes in the future.

A task force is considering whether and how to offer multiyear contracts in an effort to give principals some measure of job security as they try to improve their schools, work that often takes years to show results.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee and is running for mayor, said he wants the school system to implement 360-degree evaluations that would give principals a chance to rate their supervisors and to voice frustrations without fear of reprisal.

“There’s something amiss when we have such a high degree of turnover among our most talented principals,” Catania said.

Pope is retiring after more than 30 years as an educator in city schools, including a turbulent period in 2009 and 2010 during which he was removed from Hardy Middle School by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, spurring an angry backlash among parents and teachers.

During the past three years, Pope has begun a transformation at Savoy, operating on the principle that art and music can motivate students to engage in school. In partnership with a White House arts initiative, Savoy has hosted — and Savoy students have performed for — the likes of first lady Michelle Obama, actress Kerry Washington and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“I remain in awe of the potential our children have and the heights to which we know that they can aspire,” Pope wrote in a letter to the school community announcing his departure and promising that support for Savoy’s arts programs will continue.

Pullens — who worked for decades as a writer, director and producer in the entertainment industry before switching careers — is widely credited with improving Ellington’s academics and arts programs. He is headed west to serve as the executive director of arts education for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Los Angeles is Pullens’s home town, and the school system there has been courting him for years, nearly luring him away in 2011. In an e-mail, Pullens said he is moving now to be closer to his aging parents.

John Payne, Ellington’s director of student affairs, will take over as principal in July and will serve in that role as the school building undergoes a complete renovation.

Ellington is led by an autonomous board of directors, which had the authority to promote Payne immediately. But the school system will choose other principals with the help of panels of teachers, staff and community members.

Lynn Main, a 2012 recipient of the school system’s Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Leadership, announced in January that she would retire after 13 years at the helm of Lafayette, one of the city’s highest-performing and most sought-after schools.

Two other Rubenstein winners are among those leaving: Billy Kearney at Hart and Monica Liang-Aguirre at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School.

Liang-Aguirre, whose husband is Jesus Aguirre, the District’s state superintendent of education, has won a fellowship in school system leadership.

Kearney announced this week that he intended to leave Hart, according to a person in the school system who is not authorized to speak to the media and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Kearney has led Hart since November 2008, when Rhee tapped him to replace a principal who was fired after a surge of violence and disorder.

Kearney did not respond to a request for comment.

Hearst’s Deborah Bergeron said this week that she has taken a job as principal of Manassas Park High School, which is closer to her home in Virginia.

Dana Nerenberg, who has led Hyde-Addison in Georgetown for eight years, is moving to Oregon to live with her fiancé, according to a letter she wrote to parents that was reprinted in the Georgetown Metropolitan.

And Kathleen Black, of H.D. Cooke in Adams Morgan, recently received a doctorate in education and is the mother of a 13-year-old girl and an 8-month-old baby.

“It’s just time for a different pace of life,” she wrote in an e-mail. “ The principalship is fast-paced and highly-charged. It’s given me great rewards and learning experiences over the past 7 years and I will miss my school and students tremendously.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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