Principal Christina Ellis arrives at Miles Lane School in Bucksport around 7 a.m. most mornings in time to take her position by the front door. As approximately 300 students in grades one through four disembark 16 buses and filter inside, she greets each child, calling many by name.
She didn’t expect or even want to become a principal when she started out in education as a teacher more than a decade ago. But recently she passed a notable milestone: This will be her sixth year as principal of the elementary school, which means she’s stayed longer in one position than most other Maine principals.
“It is a very tough job with long hours, stressful days, and it can be heart wrenching at times. However, knowing I might have made a difference in so many lives is truly a remarkable feeling,” said Ellis, who has been leading a shift to a system where students must show they have learned key educational objectives to progress through their education.
It’s too early to determine if students are performing better academically, but they are more engaged and motivated, and misbehavior has decreased, Ellis said.
Principals are second only to teachers in terms of how much they can influence how students perform in school, particularly those living in poverty. Yet principals are largely overlooked for their ability to improve student achievement. And Maine schools have found it difficult to retain principals long enough for their work to matter.
When principals start at a new school, it takes an average of five years before they can even fully apply new practices to improve staff and student performance, according to the Center for Public Education, a research group supported by the National School Boards Association.
But about half of principals in Maine leave their position before they’ve completed five years, according to the Maine Principal Study last conducted in 2011, which has shown similar rates going back to 1997.
While Maine lawmakers have passed changes in recent years to make graduation requirements more rigorous and to start offering more services regionally, they have not made widespread policy changes to improve principal recruitment and retention.
“[F]ew businesses would undertake the wide-ranging reforms rained on Maine public schools without ensuring an ample supply of talented, energetic, and well-supported leaders,” summed up a 2016 report from the legislatively created Task Force on School Leadership, which examined the challenges facing Maine administrators and made recommendations for improvement.
It described Maine as having “a school leadership crisis.”
There is no shortage of people earning their certification to become a principal, said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. But they are not stepping up to apply for open positions. Those who are tend to have less experience.
“What happens now is, because there are fewer and fewer people putting out their candidacy, it makes it all that more difficult for a school and school district to find the right person, the right match,” Durost said.
High rates of turnover can mean more instability in schools: a disruption to curriculums and turnaround efforts, a cost to find and train someone new, and an increase in teacher turnover.
“Not having quality principals certainly is a huge factor in whether or not you can keep quality teachers in a school,” said Amy Johnson, assistant director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine. “There’s a lot of research about how teachers care as much about school culture as they do about salary.”
Principal turnover can also harm students’ academic growth.
Gains in student achievement tend to temporarily slow when a new principal is hired, with more pronounced slowdowns at the most challenging schools, studies show. That’s because many principals start out at more challenging schools, when they have less experience and are less effective, and then move on to schools that are easier to manage, according to the Center for Public Education.
“The continuity and consistency of having strong leadership in place over time is what helps a school to make progress and what helps students to make progress,” Durost said.
Yet the job can be a tough sell.
Maine principals oversaw an average of 407 students and 53 staff members each in 2011, the most ever recorded, according to the Maine Principal Study. That year they also reported working an average of 70 hours per week, up from 56 hours in 1997.
Far more students today are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning principals are serving more economically stressed children. At Miles Lane School, for instance, 58 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in 2016, up from 46 percent in 2007.
The Task Force on School Leadership also identified the “sheer number of initiatives, laws, and reform policies passed down to school districts and schools” and “tight budgets and state efforts to reduce administrative costs” as contributing to the problems of unfilled positions, limited candidate pools and high turnover.
Though most principals in the principal survey said they find their work rewarding, some said the rewards do not outweigh the difficulties. Fourteen percent said they would “definitely not” become a principal if they had to make the choice again, while 15 percent said they were “unsure.”
“Even though many principals love their job, it’s hard to be a good principal, a good parent and a good spouse or partner. So it’s hard to find people willing and capable of doing the job well because there are so many demands,” said Chris Record, assistant superintendent of Gorham School District and former principal of Gorham High School.
And, he added, pointing to a potential solution to grow future principals from within schools, “I’m not sure we do a great job of targeting our school leaders early on.”
Being a good principal requires “understanding, empathy, a sense of humor, good ideas of where we should be going, knowledge about the most recent research in education and the laws,” said Laura McKnight, an educator for 45 years who currently teaches first grade at Miles Lane School for Ellis.
“It takes a very special person to be a principal and do it right. Thank God we have one.”
Ellis didn’t go into education to be a principal. She first worked as a teacher in Tennessee before returning home to Maine to teach in the district that eventually consolidated into RSU 20, encompassing nine towns from Belfast to Frankfort, and then separated. She became the district’s Title I coordinator and intervention specialist, helping teachers come up with strategies to help struggling kids.
One day then-Superintendent Bruce Mailloux gave her a call. “‘I need a principal for Frankfort Elementary,’” she recalled him saying. “‘What do you think about being a principal?’”
“I told him I don’t think I’m cut out to be a principal.”
But he was convinced she was.
It turned out she felt comfortable with many aspects of her job overseeing the small elementary school she attended as a child, and which has since closed. She knew how to develop a curriculum and help lagging students. But other parts of the work that school year, 2011-2012, were new, such as discipline.
Luckily principals at other schools in the district were willing to help her, and she was willing to call them for advice. One principal, for instance, helped her develop a “consequence rubric” to better address students’ misbehavior.
Mentoring is often highlighted as a key way to ensure principals stay in the profession. But Maine and most other states do not require formal support for new school administrators, relying instead on principals to form their own networks.
Todd West, who was principal of Deer Isle-Stonington High School for 10 years where he helped turn around the struggling school, said it is challenging for school leaders in smaller, rural districts to stay connected. He purposefully developed a group of people outside his district whom he could call when he needed feedback.
“It can be a really isolating and lonely position without much learning and growth if you don’t have the ability to create that network,” he said.
Part of the reason why he became principal of Bucksport Middle School this school year was to work more closely with other principals like Ellis, who is “a great example of a real leader building the culture of the school from the bottom up,” he said.
Twenty states required some type of help, such as orientation programs or mentoring, for first-time school principals in the 2015-2016 year, according to the New Teacher Center, which reviewed all state policies.
Maine is not one of them, but it has mentoring programs available. For instance, the Maine Principals’ Association offers a basic support program for new principals called Great Beginnings that draws 20 to 30 new principals and assistant principals each year for four day-long sessions, Durost said. It costs about $500 for districts.
It also offers a more intensive mentoring program where it pairs experienced school leaders, who receive training and a stipend, with novice principals and assistant principals, to coach them over a couple years. Only a handful of districts participate, however, with fewer than 10 mentees signing up for each two-year session, Durost said. The cost to districts is about $1,200.
Rural districts, where new principals aren’t likely to have many fellow administrators nearby, are in greater need of support but less likely to be able to afford the payment, Durost said, even though the program “pays for itself if you end up with a successful relationship, a successful administrator who stays for awhile.”
There also appears to be a disconnect between superintendents’ and principals’ perceptions of what level of support is needed, according to a Maine Education Policy Research Institute survey of administrators conducted in 2016. It found most Maine superintendents — 72 percent — thought they provided adequate training and mentoring to newly hired principals. However, just 42 percent of principals agreed.
The Task Force on School Leadership recommended that Maine require new administrators to attend programs such as those offered by the Maine Principals’ Association — and to fund them, so districts wouldn’t have to.
But a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, this year to require mentoring for principals and assistant principals did not attach any funding. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it Aug. 1, saying mentoring was an “excellent idea” but not as an unfunded mandate.
Building a pipeline
Mentoring is one way for districts to develop strong leaders in their schools. Another is for school districts to offer training to current staff to become principals and tightly connect their lessons to the realities of their local schools, according to the Wallace Foundation, which researches school leadership.
That’s the idea behind a new initiative in Bangor schools.
A number of long-time principals in the Bangor school district retired in recent years, meaning no principal or assistant principal today has more than six years in the job, Superintendent Betsy Webb said. To ease transitions in the future, help educators advance professionally and tap into their know-how, Webb decided to create a leadership pipeline.
“For Maine to remain competitive in getting qualified educators and administrators, we have to have a way to grow our leaders,” Webb said. “We can’t afford to have an unstructured format. We need a pipeline.”
Training and encouraging local teachers or other staff to move into principal positions is important because “research has shown that principals are more likely to be accepted by the community when they’re a member of the community. They’re also more likely to stay in that position for a longer period of time,” said Kelly Latterman, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Bangor Educational Leadership Academy started in the fall of 2016 for selected district staff to earn the qualifications necessary to become an assistant principal or principal. In an agreement with the University of Maine, instructors come to the district to teach courses to Bangor educators, so they can earn their master’s in educational leadership. The district pays for nine credit hours per person each year.
But the key is getting participants to think about local needs.
As part of the academy, current Bangor administrators lecture about topics relevant to Bangor schools and mentor academy participants through internships within the district to provide hands-on experience. The 11 participants, who are currently all teachers, Webb said, also attend school board meetings and team meetings with local administrators; provide input on district practices such as helping to plan out professional development; and must conduct their own research on and propose a solution to an ongoing challenge.
As part of her research project, second-grade teacher Shannon Shaw at Abraham Lincoln School, which serves pre-kindergarten through grade three, learned about a way for teachers to talk to students and track what strategies they use to do addition, multiplication, subtraction and division problems, to tailor instruction accordingly — and had a much larger impact than she originally envisioned.
After getting approval from Webb to train her colleagues on the method, called Math Running Records, she began to roll it out last February. Not enough time has passed to determine a solid trend, but assessments done before and after show “significant growth at all grade levels,” said Shaw, who has been teaching for 16 years.
There was enough potential that Webb and other Bangor administrators let Shaw train teachers at the city’s other elementary schools to spread the practice districtwide.
“I have been very fortunate to work alongside principals who really make a difference. I see the power that a principal can have in their ability to really influence and empower teachers, and know that that, in turn, influences and empowers students,” Shaw said.
Webb said she wants to see Bangor’s leadership academy replicated across the state. But the model hasn’t yet spread.
Two legislative efforts in recent years to help school districts create regional leadership academies didn’t survive vetoes from LePage. In one veto letter, LePage said districts could apply for state funds to start regional leadership academies through his administration’s EMBRACE Initiative, which encourages regional education collaboratives.
None of the EMBRACE projects funded to date focus on school leadership. However, the Bangor district, with 21 other area districts, are exploring a number of possible regionalization projects to put forward for funding under the EMBRACE initiative, including regional school leadership academies.
Webb said it’s important that leadership academies be regional, so staff members from small districts that might find it difficult to start their own can participate, and to better share ideas and staff throughout the training.
Langley, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, described strong and competent school leadership as an area “where you can spend the money that can make the most difference” for student achievement. He said he’s hopeful the Bangor program will cause others to believe in the value of districts forming their own leadership pipelines.
“I think everything in education goes much slower than you’d like it to, but people want to prove the model first, and I think that will happen,” he said.
As many principals report, one thing Ellis wishes she had more of is time. The most difficult part of her job, she said, is finding balance.
The big item on her to-do list is managing ongoing changes to improve student achievement through proficiency-based learning.
So far, over the last few years, it’s required rearranging classroom layouts to create four wings where students and teachers can work more as teams and across grades; writing standards with teachers in kid-friendly language on what students are expected to master; creating rubrics to determine whether a student is “proficient;” making sure teachers know how to grade with the new rubrics; and putting it all into action, with students moving between lessons and teachers within their wing based on where they are in their learning trajectory.
As Bella Koppes, 7, of Bucksport, put it, “I need a little bit harder math because I like math, and I get it done quick.”
What is it like when students fully understand a standard? “I feel like I can teach other people stuff,” said Dawson Sukeforth, 9, of Bucksport.
The new system means students who are struggling aren’t passed over; students who are more advanced can move ahead; and the school sees better behavior overall because students are not getting frustrated with concepts that are too difficult or bored with material that’s too easy, said Cathalina Havel, a second-grade teacher.
In addition to overseeing the changes, Ellis has aimed to help children who need extra support. Instead of a guidance counselor, the school has a full-time social worker, provides space for school-based counseling through an agreement with the mental health services agency Sweetser, and, soon, will offer dental hygiene services at the school through an agreement with the Bucksport Regional Health Center.
She’s focused on ways to promote good behavior. The school has a “Check In Check Out” intervention for students who misbehave to check in with one adult each morning and afternoon on whether they’re meeting a specific goal, such as keeping their hands to themselves. They can chart their results over time and earn rewards for improvements.
Ellis also offers a “Golden Ticket” reward for students who go above and beyond meeting the school’s three main rules to be responsible, respectful and safe. Anyone can nominate students, and each week she draws the winners, who get a prize of their choosing. The most popular prizes are earning an extra 15-minute recess for their class and getting to bring a friend to eat lunch one day with Ellis.
“She’s clearly respected and viewed as the building leader, but she does it in a way where she’s very personable and makes connections with people very, very well, which is part of the secret of her success,” said Jim Boothby, the district’s superintendent.
Then, there’s community outreach: Ellis started a parent advisory committee to provide feedback on what the school is and isn’t doing well; she hosts an annual breakfast for students’ grandparents that drew 200 people this year; she brings in veterans to eat lunch with students on Veterans Day. And she’d like to do more, she said, such as offer support groups for parents to talk with one another about their experiences parenting.
Ellis continues to get ideas for ways to be involved with students and started a weekly book club with students during lunch. But sometimes the reality of her schedule catches up with her and a crisis hits, and she can’t make it.
As Durost said, “I think there’s an undervaluing and sometimes a lack of respect for how difficult the job is and how hard the people who are doing it actually work.”
But some students seem to get it. Ellis once asked first graders what they thought she did as a principal, and she’s never forgotten their answer: “I slay dragons,” she said, “and I keep the building from burning.”
This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.