Devoted Staff Takes on Endless To-Do List
by Tina Griego
October 27, 2004
Every Tuesday morning, North High School Principal Darlene LeDoux and her three assistant principals gather in her office to go over the list of things done and to do. It is taken for granted that there will never come a day when all is done. In this way, being a school administrator is something like being in charge of a small city.
City Hall needs its mayor and its sheriff. It needs its planners, advisers, managers, accountants. Its problem solvers and judges. The four administrators wear all these hats. And, like running a city, running a school means being pushed and pulled. Pressure comes from above and below. The mundane competes with the urgent, the peripheral with the center.
And so, not long after the school year began, the four met to discuss:
- CSAP portfolios.
- Tardy policy.
- Custodians who are not showing up for work.
- Graffiti cleanup.
They each bring a list and everything goes up on a whiteboard. Someone always adds an item or two during the meeting and it is not long before the board is covered.
Assistant Principal John de la Garza tells his colleagues that he checked out what other schools were doing with late students. Some schools have adopted "pass rooms," he says, classrooms where latecomers were sent to wait out the rest of the period.
"That would be heavily supported by the faculty."
"Is it best for the kids, though?"
"It'd eliminate classroom disruption."
"That's best for the teachers. Whether it's best for the kids is another issue."
"The problem is pass rooms become a dumping ground. I don't know, if teachers are spending the first 15 minutes taking roll, I might be 15 minutes late, too."
LeDoux pats her notebook with finality. "I'd suggest we look at other options. I don't think this is a best practice. I think it's a way of corralling kids. I think it's an easy out for kids and teachers. I won't support it.
"Andy, how's detention going?"
"It started last Thursday," Assistant Principal Andy Schrant says. "We had one student on Thursday. Two on Friday. We had two no-shows both days."
They get sidetracked on some kind of triplicate form and after agreeing that it is both expensive and confusing, they move to attendance.
Rigor of homework cuts both ways
Student absences are a huge issue at North. Administrators have been working on interventions to hold "non-attenders" accountable. They include a contract requiring students to show up on time, attend all classes and after-school and weekend tutoring and complete weekly progress reports. The contract is signed by both student and parents.
"In Boulder Valley (school district)," de la Garza starts - this is where he previously worked - "after three absences, something happens, after five, something happens."
"I thought we had that," LeDoux says.
"It's a little different," de la Garza says. "It's not what's happening."
"We're trying to track down some students at their home numbers," Assistant Principal Angelique Acevedo-Barron says, "but a lot of the numbers aren't working."
"I have 49 new students on contracts," de la Garza says.
They move on to the CSAP portfolios. Some of the teachers are "freaked out" by the portfolios, Acevedo-Barron says. Teachers are to gather all the standardized test data on each of their students to help guide classroom instruction.
"The biggest issue for me is getting the kids reading," she says. "The more they read, the better they'll be at it. We need to raise rigor. The more they read, the better. The more they write, the better. But if you're a teacher and you give 180 kids 10-page research papers, your life is gone."
They talk for two hours. I sit through several meetings and wonder if running a school was always this complicated. A student's - even a parent's - view of school administrators is limited. Most of us know only what we believe is necessary to know, and generally it's something along the lines of: Being sent to the principal's office is bad.
If, as a student, I ever bothered to consider the scope of my principal's job, I imagine I would have thought simply that it was to make sure we all behaved and did well. I suppose that definition would still stand, though the job today is dressed up in words like "resource allocation," "action plan," "stakeholder focus" and "facilitating the development, articulation, implementation and stewardship of a school's vision of learning." The detailed Denver Public School standards for an administrator run five pages.
In general, the administrators' goals are the district goals: To set high expectations, to improve student performance, to close the gap between better and poorer performing students.
Trying to find time for leadership
Yet, it is clear from conversations I've had with other principals and from my time in this school and others that administrators are spending an enormous amount of time on management issues. Personnel. Scheduling. Evaluations. Discipline. Budget. Safety. District mandates.
We have a noncustodial parent who wants to meet her child here with a minister, what do we do? We have 239 students with less than 247 instructional minutes. Well, 139 of those students haven't shown up at all. Make sure you check the gym before the pep rally. We don't want kids stashing silly string and stink bombs. Is there anything we can do about the audio in the gym? A reform commissioner is visiting next week. Make sure we have enough coffee and doughnuts. Some of the departments are really stressed out; they haven't had any time together. How are we doing on teacher objectives? We have three custodians missing 50 percent of the week. We only have a budget for 90 sub days this year. How many more security cameras do we need? How much are they going to cost? Where are we going to get that money?
I wouldn't call this minutia. It's vital to the smooth functioning of the school, this town where residents rightfully expect certain things as a matter of course: A clean building, a safe environment, an expectation that the neighbors will be civil and that everyone will work their hardest.
But, it robs time from crucial teacher support and staff development. LeDoux estimates she spends 10 to 15 percent of her time on staff development. As the year progresses and the startup challenges are resolved, that portion of time might go up to 30 percent, she says, and it will include much more classroom observation.
This tension between management and leadership is a source of great frustration to all the administrators here.
"I can't spend as much time in the classroom as I want, and I need to," LeDoux told me recently. "I need to be there. I need to know who's struggling."
On Tuesday, she added: "I really think we have to revisit the role of the principal and what we want them to do. Do we want them to manage the building? I thought I was here to improve instruction."
In the meantime, the four administrators of North High School work more than hard. They started in the summer and since school started, they have been clocking at least 60 hours a week. A 75-, even 80-hour workweek is common once community meetings, game supervision and school functions are included. This holds true despite the fact that LeDoux divvied up the workload so that each of her three assistant principals has a general area (curriculum, discipline, scheduling) and several academic departments for which they are responsible.
I've watched them for 10 weeks now. Tomorrow and Friday, I will tell you more about who they are and why they came to North. For now, I'll say this is a strong team led by a strong woman. Each has talents and strengths that mesh well. One is the daughter of a baker and a lunchroom worker. One was a teen father. One was a football star. One is a national award-winning teacher.
All came from humble backgrounds and climbed fast and far. Two have doctorates. Two spoke Spanish before they spoke English. Two were first generation high school graduates. They are all bilingual.
They knew they were in for a challenge when they took over North two years ago. What they didn't know, couldn't know, until they sat in those front offices, was just how big that challenge would be.
griegot@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2699