Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School’s plight is not unlike that of many schools in the nation’s urban districts: The 918-student school in Prince George’s County has a high poverty rate, mounting disciplinary issues and plummeting test scores.
But it is the lack of leadership stability that has many in the small city of Laurel concerned about the school’s future and its ability to tackle its most perplexing challenges.
In the past five years, the school has had five principals. And this week, schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell named its sixth.
John Mangrum, formerly an assistant principal at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, is the third principal to take the helm of Eisenhower Middle since classes started in August.
“The school, the staff, the students and parents deserve the stability and the continuity of a permanent principal,” County Council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) said at a recent school board meeting. Lehman, who encouraged Maxwell and the Board of Education to install permanent leadership, told the board that “the students, the families and the larger school community deserve better.”
Former principal Dwight Jefferson started the 2014-2015 school year but was removed after a student alleged that the principal struck him. Jefferson was replaced by John Brooks, a retired principal who returned to the system in September to become the school’s interim principal.
The school has not had stable leadership since Charoscar Coleman left in 2011 after nearly eight years as principal. Coleman has worked at two high schools since leaving Eisenhower and is now principal of Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro.
Sito Narcisse, an associate superintendent for the school system, said Eisenhower has “been moving forward” despite the upheaval. “There has been a lot of good work,” he said.
Ronald G. Dortch, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association, said he has become so frustrated by the constant turnover that he has considered pulling his eighth-grade daughter out of the school. He said he has repeatedly fielded questions from his daughter about the principals, some of whom have been on the job less than half of the school year.
“Why does she have to leave?” Dortch said he remembered his daughter asking after Brenda Chapman left in 2012 after serving for a little more than a year.
Principals in Prince George’s typically remain at one school for about six years. The average stay at Eisenhower in the past five years has been a little more than six months.
After Coleman left, Chapman served until the middle of the 2012-2013 school year. Loretta Williams replaced her, serving the remainder of the school year. In 2013-2014, Jeffrey Holmes became the principal. He left after a year to become an instructional director and was replaced by Jefferson.
A recent report by the School Leaders Network stated that annually, a quarter of the country’s principals quit their schools and that nearly 50 percent leave after three years. The group’s study also found that it takes an average of five years for a principal to put a vision in place, improve the teaching staff and fully implement policies that could have a positive effect on a school’s performance.
The study also found that leadership vacuums can hamper progress and that schools that grapple with principal turnover are constantly dealing with low performance.
“As a result of principal churn, students achieve less in both math and reading during the first year and after leaders’ turnover, and schools that experience principal churn year after year realize serious cumulative negative effects on students — a condition that is exacerbated for schools serving underprivileged students,” the study says.
At Eisenhower, where 72 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty, math scores on state tests for seventh-graders have hit their lowest levels in 10 years, with 41.3 percent proficiency. Drops occurred during the past two years.
Edward J. Fuller, executive director of the Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis, said principal turnover can create a “vicious cycle” that affects student achievement and tends to lead to greater teacher turnover.
After each new principal comes along, teachers become frustrated and many leave, which makes it more likely that a principal will not be successful and often leads to his or her exit, Fuller said.
“You can’t have a viable organization and have that much turnover,” Fuller said. “I think this is one of the overlooked foundational aspects of effective schooling. We talk about effective teachers, but it’s difficult to have effective learning if you have instability in leadership.”
When Dortch’s daughter entered the school two years ago as a sixth-grader, Dortch said, he already had concerns because of the “bad things” he had heard about the school, most related to isolated disciplinary problems.
“The only way that I felt my child would be safe would be for me to be at the school every day,” he said. That led him on the path to becoming head of the parent-teacher-student group, he said.
Dortch maintains that administrators who have taken a hard line on students with behavioral problems — using suspensions and expulsions — have not been supported by current and previous school district administrations.
Narcisse, who joined the school system a year ago, said he could not comment on decisions made by former principals or about the case involving Jefferson.
Narcisse said the administration is working with the school to create an “alternative learning center” there. Students with academic, social or behavioral challenges will be referred to the center, which will allow them to remain in school but away from regular classes.
“This will allow them to build up their skill set,” Narcisse said of the center, which is to open this month.
Narcisse said the school system realizes that parents are concerned about the rapid turnover in the school’s leadership.
“The goal is to make sure we get a good leader for stability and to move forward for the school and the community,” he said.