When she started teaching in Chicago 23 years ago, Vaunce Ashby loved being on the frontlines of education. Becoming a principal was not something she desired.
'Are you crazy?' she asked a former mentor who suggested it. 'I was always anti-administration. Principals, I thought, were prim and proper. I'm just not that kind of person.'
Times, and Ashby, have changed. This month, she took over as principal at Kennedy Elementary on Madison's east side. 'I'm just beaming,' she says while preparing lectures on school rules and reconfiguring teacher assignments. 'I've been on the verge of tears every day, but I'm having a ball.'
Kennedy is one of many Madison public schools starting the year under relatively new leadership. Ten of the district's 48 schools have a new principal, and 11 principals are in just their second year.
Never a stress-free job, being a principal today is harder than ever. School boards and superintendents demand improved test scores; teachers need more support and flexibility; parents and others expect services well beyond teaching the three Rs.
Good principals must satisfy interest groups and carry out the goals of policymakers. They must master the bureaucracy, feed their teachers' energy, inspire students and families. They must blend nimbleness with strategic planning, instant pragmatism with sustained idealism.
'The quality of a principal is the single most important factor in a school's success,' says Superintendent Art Rainwater.
Talk about pressure.
Patrick Delmore, the former principal at O'Keeffe Middle School, knows how hard it can be.
'You might intellectually know the many facets of the job,' he says. 'But even if you work pretty efficiently, you find out quickly how important it is to work those extra hours.'
For Delmore, that often meant arriving before sunrise and staying late. And weekends were his only time for uninterrupted work.
Delmore spent much of his first year as principal ' in 1990 at Leopold elementary ' assessing how well his school operated. He read curricula, studied the school's management systems, got a feel for its climate, watched staff interactions, met kids and families. Only then could he effectively shepherd his staff and students.
A principal's first year is critical, says Jane Belmore, who's worked both as a principal and as an assistant superintendent. Belmore is now working on an urban principal project for the state Department of Public Instruction, developing a state model for a master's principal license.
'My first year as a principal was really difficult,' Belmore admits. 'I had to learn to survive.' Her advice to Madison's rookies: 'Get to know the community of staff, parents and students, hone quickly a strong moral compass, and listen, listen, listen.'
Belmore has one more tip: Be cautious. 'You can make a misstep that first year that can be very hard to fix.'
In recent years, says Delmore, Madison has moved toward a 'much more district-directed, prescriptive curriculum.' This has meant tighter oversight and 'certainly less autonomy' for principals and teachers, who must focus constant attention on test data, suspension numbers and parent climate surveys.
Burnout, conflicts and outright failure are occupational hazards for educational administrators, despite advanced degrees and years of preparation. Some of Madison's newly assigned principals have struggled elsewhere, causing lingering concern.
Last spring, following complaints from parents and staff, Rainwater announced the transfer of six elementary school principals. The teachers union has praised this 'scrambling' of personnel, saying it provides 'a much better work environment' and 'peace' for several schools. But some staffers and parents passed on their complaints to the receiving schools. One principal, Bev Cann from Lowell, had such a rocky start at Kennedy, where she was reassigned, that she filed for a leave of absence.
Former principal Ruth Robarts, chair of the school board's human resources committee, says reassignment 'shouldn't be a solution to a serious problem' with existing personnel. Her committee will study principal policies this year, and Robarts says professional support and merit pay will likely be reviewed.
But Ashby, who was named to lead Kennedy after Cann stepped aside, is looking forward to a great school year.
'Everything I do is to help kids succeed,' she says. 'I'm ready to settle into this job. I feel like I'm going to be here awhile, and that's exciting.'
By the numbers
Number of principals in Madison schools: 48
Number who are female: 34
Number who are African American or Hispanic, respectively: 7 and 1
Average number of years in district: 13.6
Longest at the same school: 9 years
(Deborah Hoffman at Franklin Elementary, Sandra Gunderson at Mendota Elementary and Catherine McMillan at Hawthorne Elementary)
New to the district this year: 3
(Karen Sieber at Stephens Elementary, Lynn Winn at Falk Elementary and John Broome at La Follette High)
Most years in district: 37 years
(Linda Kailin at Muir Elementary)
high school level
Average salary: $91,412