October 21, 2011

Judith White wasn’t born to be a principal. She was trained to be one.

A graduate of Prince George’s public schools, White expected to become a counselor or psychologist before she started working as a substitute teacher here while in graduate school. As a young special education teacher, she realized that principals held the key to effective teaching and strong school communities, and she eagerly took advantage of opportunities that would prepare her to run a school, including Prince George’s County Public School’s own academy for aspiring administrators. After serving for three years as an assistant principal, in 2004 she was appointed principal of of Dodge Park Elementary in Landover, a high-poverty, high-needs campus.

During her tenure, she oversaw tremendous achievement gains, changed the school culture to accept “no excuses” and was one of the first principals in the system to take part in the National Board Certification for Principals program. The recipient of leadership honors from the University of Maryland and The Post, she was recently promoted to area instructional director.

We have many principals like Judith White in Prince George’s — those who are not just building managers, but instructional leaders and community collaborators. Yet, as the superintendent of a large urban district, I can say with certainty that we don’t have nearly enough to fill the need. I believe that when they don’t come to us already formed, they can be developed.

Over the next five years, Prince George’s County Public Schools, along with five other school systems nationwide, will work to strengthen the “principal pipeline” through a $12.5 million grant funded by the Wallace Foundation. The Freddie Mac Foundation is supporting our efforts with a $250,000 grant. This money will help us to address the gaps that we know exist in our current system. We do not offer aspiring leaders a cohesive internal advancement program to pursue. Though our evaluation process is in extreme need of an overhaul, we don’t have the technology in place to effectively track data related to principal evaluations and professional development.

The funds will enable us to partner with the National Institute for School Leadership to build a better training program. We will upgrade our technology to enhance our hiring, evaluation and support systems. The end result will be a plan that views recruitment, preparation, selection and support as one streamlined process.

We are investing in this work because we believe expanding the capacity of our instructional leaders will directly improve the quality of teaching and increase student achievement. About a quarter of our approximately 500 principals and assistant principals are expected to retire from our district by 2016, including a large number by the end of this year. Yet, due to increasing pressures on assistant principals and principals, fewer educators are pursuing administrative jobs.

I am well aware of the challenges facing principals these days, having served as an assistant principal and principal in Virginia, and from what I have observed as superintendent. The days are longer and harder, filled with rising demands from parents, community members, business leaders and politicians, and an ever-increasing list of needs that must be met to educate the whole child.

But I also know the job’s immeasurable rewards: the excited walk of a teacher hurrying to his or her classroom on the first day of school, the smile that spreads across children’s faces while showing off their work, and the tears of joy that parents cannot hide on graduation day. Reaching those milestones helps to make the challenges that administrators face worthwhile.

Today’s public education system requires high-quality principals who provide the vital link between the curriculum and learning, programs and outcomes. The principal sets the vision that enables teachers to carry students from grade to grade. The collaboration between principals and teachers is essential to equipping students with 21st-century skills that prepare them for college and career. In the absence of that link, it is harder to confront 21st-century challenges, such as the continuing achievement gap between poor, minority students and their more affluent peers.

I firmly believe that education is a calling, but strong leaders need training and support.

Just ask Judith White.

The writer is superintendent of the Prince George’s County Public Schools.