Jarrell: Our Survey of New Orleans Principals Shows Nearly Half Are Thinking About Leaving. Here’s Our Blueprint for Helping Them Stay

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As our country confronts a deadly virus and rises up against racism and inequity, the school year begins amid turbulence and change. It also begins in a context like no other; given the rates of COVID-19 in Louisiana, New Orleans made the tough but necessary decision to begin school virtually this year.

Our school leaders, despite impossible odds, remain steadfast. At New Schools for New Orleans, our team met with leaders of all 86 public schools in the city this summer. Even in the middle of a pandemic, with terrific uncertainty, each leader came to our meetings with determination, warmth and attention to detail. They shared their individual, personalized graduation plans for each senior this past June. They presented innovative distance learning models. They outlined new human resources policies that increased protections for educators when we are safely able to go back to schools.

Our children, educators and community are in good hands.

Still, like many urban districts across the country, New Orleans is seeing high principal attrition. In fact, between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, 22 percent of our principals did not return to their roles. In this extraordinary time, we must do a better job at supporting our school leaders.

Over the past six months, our team studied this closely. We surveyed 85 percent of New Orleans principals, had extensive one-on-one interviews and combed through Louisiana Department of Education workforce data. Most of all, we listened.

We found that school leaders did not want to leave. More than half said they wanted to continue in their current role for at least an additional five years. If they did leave, they said, it would not be because of low compensation, new academic standards or struggles with creating a positive school culture.

But for the other half, systemic issues are impeding their ability to stay. They need more effective teachers for their teams, but right now, there simply aren’t enough of them — and attrition citywide is high. They need more mental health supports for their students and help for students with Individualized Education Plans, but there are not enough resources to go around. And, related to all this, they need more school funding. School leaders need to be able to pay teachers more. They need money for more counselors, support staff and mental health care providers.

School leaders also need help individually. They crave continued learning opportunities to improve their own skills. They need more time to get things done as well as rest and recharge.

They are also eager for collaboration. School leaders manage everything from their school’s curricular choices to its staffing to its finances. Too often, they feel alone, with little support and new chances to receive formal professional development. Our school leaders are constantly learning new things, but they do not always have the opportunity to share what they learn with other schools across our system. One leader might have a great plan for family engagement and another for teacher development. When leaders can have these conversations, schools are able to benefit from the brilliance of not only their own staff but also the leaders of schools citywide.

As a result of what we heard from school leaders, New Schools for New Orleans recently released a leadership blueprint that details clear supports and resources for our leaders to leverage.

  • First, we are inviting all school leaders to be a part of the NOLA School Leader Collaborative, attend meetings and get the chance to share best practices. This will allow school leaders to learn from one another and bring back tested ideas to their own school communities. Sessions will cover topics like virtual learning, diversity, equity, inclusion and how to build culturally affirming environments.
  • Second, we are creating targeted professional development and training for our new school leaders. Overwhelmingly, they said they wished they had more support early on, so we will provide opportunities for them to learn and grow the skills required for their job. They will have the chance to attend sessions on leading through change, building visions and values, growing a strong team and student culture and more.
  • Third, we will continue to match school leaders with coaches to help develop their practice.
  • Finally, we are building leadership succession planning systems to ensure successful school leader transitions.

Our schools — their principals, teachers and teams — lead our school system. We wouldn’t want it any other way. We are proud that our public school system allows individual schools to make the right decisions for their students, parents and teachers. Our successes, including increases in ACT scores, graduation rates and college matriculation, stem from the decisions and actions of our educators themselves. We are excited to build on our schools’ successes and make sure that our outstanding school leaders have the resources and support that they need to continue to flourish.

Alex Jarrell is chief innovation officer at New School for New Orleans. Previously, he was principal at KIPP Central City Academy, founder of KIPP Booker T. Washington High School and a sixth-grade English teacher.

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