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Musical Chair Principals

By Joe Rector
It’s hard to believe that July 4th marked the middle of summer for school kids. I still reel with the knowledge that schools open their doors the first part of August or the last of July in some places. What happened to the policy that school began the day after Labor Day? As the doors open, thousands of Knox County children and hundreds of teachers and staff members will begin the year with new principals at the helm.

No one has explained to my satisfaction why so many Knox County principals are reassigned each year. In the paper, ten individuals were named to new positions. That didn’t include principals who had already been moved. This shake-up began in earnest during the reign of former appointed Superintendent Lindsey, and it continues with vigor under the guidance of Superintendent McIntyre.

I was educated in Knox County Schools. At Ball Camp, D.T. Strange occupied the principal’s office throughout my eight years there. The community knew the man and felt comfortable dealing with him during good and bad times. He survived a fire that destroyed the older part of the school and managed a school where several students attended classes in a small building across the road during the rebuilding of the school.

During my first years at Karns High School, Bill Orr was named as principal. Orr putted to school each morning on his scooter and seemed to look upon students, parents, and community with cool detachment. Before long, Mildred Doyle removed him from Karns and placed him in a less visible job at the central office, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Billy K. Nicely replaced Orr, and he was the perfect fit. Nicely had been an assistant principal, and he was known for his fair and tough approach. He’d whistle while he walked the halls to check on classrooms and what went on in them. Billy K. loved to talk with students. He could cut up and laugh with the kids he’d disciplined with the paddle the day before. What was important was his understanding of the community and his efforts to make sure the school met its needs.

These days, principals don’t have the opportunity to get familiar with the communities where they work. Too many schools no longer serve as the central points for communities, and part of the reason is that principals don’t stay long enough to become vested in a school or its people. A year or two isn’t enough time to establish a rapport with folks and to define the vision a principal has for a school.

I don’t know what the musical chair game with Knox County principals achieves… other than upheaval. Sure, some individuals prove to be poor choices for leadership roles, and they should be removed. However, wholesale moves in our schools might be ways for the head of schools to show his power and to squelch any dissent. “Keep ‘em guessing” might be Mr. McIntyre’s motto.

At the same time, I firmly believe that many qualified persons for principal positions are already teaching in the Knox County system. So, the practice of hiring individuals from Massachusetts or Nashville or any other area further brings in people who aren’t familiar with the history or customs of a community. In many cases, doing so is a waste of money and, more than likely, an exercise in futility. The same holds true for spending grant money to hire a company in “Boston” to study resource allocation. The superintendent will ask the school board to kick in a 30% matching fund to hire the firm. Isn’t there a local company capable of the task? Too, how is spending $1.56 million a smart allocation of resources? What would that money buy for the students and teachers of Knox County?

Most Knox County residents don’t understand the rationale behind moving principals each year. Of course, most folks in Knoxville don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to elect the superintendent for their systems. They figure if their property taxes go toward financing the schools that they should have a say in who sits at the helm of the system level or the building level.

Maybe it’s time to swap the central office leadership. This time it can be filled with someone who has lived in the area and understands the culture of the area and who places emphasis on stability and permanency. That person might subscribe to the belief that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.!”

 

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