More than a quarter of D.C. Public Schools have had at least three principals since August 2012, a pattern of upheaval that worries parents and teachers who say constant change in leadership can generate instability, inhibit trust and stall academic progress.
Capitol Hill’s Eliot-Hine Middle School, for example, is heading into its second straight school year with a new principal. In 2016, a fresh chief took over after the previous one left for another DCPS school. But the position will be filled anew this upcoming academic year.
“With the constant churn, it’s impossible to build loyalty to the neighborhood school,” said Joe Weedon, father of a seventh-grader at Eliot-Hine and a representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.
DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson is sympathetic, saying he expects principals to lead the same school for at least five years. That’s how long he and others believe it typically takes to produce strong academic results and build a vibrant school community through strong relationships with parents, teachers and students.
Wilson, who took office in February, acknowledged the high turnover at some schools. But he said that leadership continuity is extremely important to him and that he will work to ensure school leaders are in place as long as possible.
“Our effort going forward is to do everything we can so that we have successful leaders,” he said. “We have to do everything we can do to keep them.”
Since August 2012, 31 of the 115 DCPS schools have had at least three different principals, counting interim leaders, according to a Washington Post analysis of records. Some principals were forced out when their contracts were not renewed. Others quit to take jobs elsewhere, and some retired. Still others moved within the D.C. system, landing at other campuses or central-office jobs.
It’s nearly impossible to know why every principal left the job, because the information is considered private personnel data. The Post sought to speak to principals who are no longer in the system, but most did not respond to messages. Others declined to comment on the record because they were in other education jobs or still looking for a job.
Educators say principals are the key to academic success. They set priorities for teachers and students and help build strong relationships between them and among parents and educators.
But the demands on principals are strenuous. They often face pressure to turn struggling schools around quickly, even if they have just taken over. Many are yanked out of schools within a few years and are unable to fulfill their plans for improvement.
“The job comes with a lot of expectations, which require a great deal of emotional strength,” Wilson said.
DCPS officials say they have made strides in stabilizing school leadership. The number of principals staying in the same school from one year to the next has risen over the past five years, from 84 principals returning to the same school in 2012-2013 to 92 doing the same in the coming year.
Wilson said it’s important for principals to stay in place at least five years, but he also wants to have school leaders who are so effective that other districts will try to steal them away.
When most classes resume Aug. 21, 20 percent of DCPS schools will start under a new principal. Research shows DCPS’s turnover rate is not unusual. Many systems lose anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of their principals each year, experts say.
“That’s common, but it’s certainly not what we want for schools,” said Ed Fuller, an associate education professor at Penn State University who has studied principal retention.
While DCPS has improved its overall year-to-year retention, Fuller said the churn in the 31 high-turnover schools is a troubling pattern. Thirteen of those schools are southeast of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, which have a large number of schools and low-income neighborhoods. Just one — Wilson High — is in Ward 3 in Northwest.
“With rapid turnover, you can really create a dysfunctional school, in terms of structure, and that’s when it translates to less academic achievement,” Fuller said.
Academic performance tends to drop when there is principal turnover, Fuller said, and it can take several years to recover. Teachers see a pattern of new leadership and tend not to buy into the new principal’s vision, and the school also starts to lose teachers, which affects student achievement.
Burroughs Elementary School in Northeast had five principals in the past five years, counting interim leaders, most in the city system. In 2013-2014, a new principal took over, replacing one who had a four-year tenure. The new principal led the school for just over two years before she moved to another school in the middle of the 2015-2016 school year.
The system hired an interim for the rest of the school year. Then, a new principal was hired, but she quit in October 2016 for personal reasons, and another interim was appointed. Beginning this school year, he will serve as principal permanently.
Regina Coleman, a parent at Burroughs, said losing Principal Aqueelha James in 2016 was “a big blow” to the school because James had worked hard to strengthen the community there and was putting into practice good ideas for school improvement.
But Coleman, a self-described optimist who leads the school’s parent organization, said the lack of continuity meant more teachers stepped up for leadership roles and parents started getting more involved.
“We turned lemons into lemonade,” she said. “It revitalized us to come together.”
Coleman said parents are excited that LeVar Jenkins is staying on as principal.
“We need to be settled and need someone who is going to be here for a while,” Coleman said.
Eliot-Hine, with about 200 students, will start in August with a new principal. It also had a new principal last school year.
Weedon said he and other parents at Eliot-Hine are upset. He said enrollment has fallen and some teachers have left. Although Weedon didn’t blame principal turnover alone for the instability, he said it doesn’t help.
“It is incredibly frustrating to see the lack of planning, support and continuity,” he said.
The school had stability for five years, starting in 2011, with Tynika Young as principal. But Young moved to another school in 2016, and Isamar Vargas took over.
Weedon said Vargas came with a vision to improve the school’s technology, overhaul student discipline and boost the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
But Vargas left after one year. She is now a principal in Massachusetts. Eugenia Young will take over at Eliot-Hine. Weedon said he hasn’t heard much yet about the new principal.
LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Northeast has also had three principals in the past five years. In 2013-2014, Deborah Ann Cox replaced Richard Rogers, who was promoted to the central office. But two years later, Cox left. Justin Ralston has led the school since last year.
Ralston said he has no interest in moving to another school or the central office. He said it takes several years for a principal to build trust with parents and staff and to set a plan for meeting the academic needs of students.
“Having a continual leader and that continuity is incredibly important,” Ralston said.