David Pinder, a D.C. schools official, delivered the frustrating results of a principal search to the Anacostia High teachers.
The school was searching for its sixth principal in a decade and a nationwide hunt had yielded few strong contenders to lead students in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Pinder said community and faculty panels, which help select principals in the city, had found most of the four finalists unimpressive, according to an audio recording of a June staff meeting obtained by The Washington Post.
The only candidate the panel thought could be a suitable choice would be going to Dunbar High, a District high school that also needed a new leader.
One teacher asked if Pinder, an instructional superintendent for high schools, could bring in more candidates.
“We don’t have anymore candidates,” Pinder said, adding that there were a couple internal candidates whom the school system would consider on an interim basis.
As Washington recruited principals for challenged high schools, the school system was engulfed in a graduation-rate scandal that revealed some students received diplomas in violation of city laws. D.C. schools say that high-profile controversies have not affected recruitment, but some high school teachers and education leaders questioned whether there were enough experienced applicants to have a competitive process to fill the principal slots at four high schools that serve some of the city’s most vulnerable teenagers.
“The standards that we have for one to be a principal in D.C. are very high,” said Amanda Alexander, the interim D.C. schools chancellor. “Our selections process is very rigorous. While we have a lot of people who apply and want to serve as a principal in D.C., very few are chosen.”
D.C. schools was made aware of the recording at Anacostia. Alexander said in a statement that the school system is “committed to recruiting, developing, and retaining a talented and diverse team of school leaders who are invested in our students and the communities they serve.”
Anacostia, Woodson and Ballou — the only three comprehensive high schools in the largely poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River — will start the school year with new principals. Dunbar High in Northwest Washington, where students largely come from low-income families, will also have a new leader.
High principal turnover is common in urban schools across the country, but the District’s new school leaders are being installed at critical time in the city’s public schools. A city commissioned report uncovered that 1 in 3 graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite missing too many classes or improperly enrolling in makeup classes.
The appointed principals — three of whom have long worked for the school system, and another who was the principal of a D.C. charter school — will be scrutinized as they take on the difficult task of bolstering academic outcomes on these campuses, where many students are starting high school several grade levels behind in reading and math.
Both the appointed leaders at Anacostia and Dunbar have never held permanent principal roles, though they did serve as assistant principals and completed the school system’s internal 30-month principal training and mentorship program. (The Anacostia principal was appointed as an interim leader, though is expected to serve for at least a year.)
The four new principals did not respond to requests for comment.
Citywide, 84 percent of principals working in the traditional public school system’s 116 schools will be returning to their schools in August. That’s been a steady improvement from the 75 percent retention rate in 2014. Nationally, 72 percent of principals in schools serving primarily low-income students remained at their schools, according to a 2014 study from the Department of Education, while 80 percent of principals in more affluent schools stayed in their jobs.
Alexander noted that eight of the 19 vacancies occurred because principals received promotions in the school system or moved to another school.
But Richard Jackson — a former D.C. high school principal who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the school system — said people are reluctant to come into the District.
D.C. Public Schools are different from most other school districts because principals operate under one-year contracts. Jackson said that arrangement does not provide would-be principals enough job security to uproot their families.
Jackson said the one-year contract makes it easy for principals not to return for a second year. He said it takes a principal years to improve a school, and the one-year contract can push them to make short-term decisions to see fast results and save their jobs.
“If you are a talented principal, or an aspiring leader,” Jackson asked. “Would you uproot your family and come to a city where you saw that when there was a crisis, they would dismiss a principal?”
At Ballou and Dunbar, both principals were placed on administrative leave in February following the graduation revelations.
A school spokesman confirmed that the principals were never fired. Instead, they were paid out for the remainder of their year-long contract, which ended in June.
Teachers at Anacostia and Ballou, who spoke to The Post anonymously in fear of retaliation, said they want to give their principals a shot, but are frustrated by the selection process. The teachers said it appeared that central office selected the principals without their input since none of the finalists they interviewed were picked for the job.
They questioned how their school communities could rebuild trust if they weren’t included in the leadership search process.
Teachers at the two schools said there were only a few candidates who interviewed for the positions who did not already work in Washington.
Willie Jackson — a Ballou graduate who was the principal of Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School — was named the principal of his alma mater. He briefly served as interim principal this year following revelations of the inflated graduation rate.
William Haith, who was named Anacostia principal, was also not picked as a finalist by the panel.
Nadine Smith, who along with Haith completed the school system’s principal training program, was appointed Dunbar principal. She was in the finalist pool at all four schools.
William Massey was named principal at Woodson High. He served as the principal at the Parkside middle and high school campuses of Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, which is located near Woodson in Northeast Washington.
Performance at the high school declined under his tenure, and the charter network is at risk of being shutdown across the city if it doesn’t improve. Massey was also a finalist at other D.C. high schools.
Laura Fuchs, a teacher at Woodson who sat on the principal selection committee, said she liked that Massey had experience working in the community and seemed aware of the challenges facing many Woodson students.
She said that her colleagues were aware that similar D.C. high schools shared some of the same finalists.
“Out of our choices, he was the one we wanted,” Fuchs said.
Jean Desravines, the chief executive of New Leaders — an organization that identifies and trains educators to be principals in high-needs schools — says that school districts across the nation struggle to retain principals. He doesn’t think the recent scandals have impacted the city’s recruitment efforts, and said that the challenges in high school leadership are not unique to Washington.
“It’s far easier to identify an elementary principal than a high school one,” he said.