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A new school year often means a new principal. The stress of the job means that principals often leave, especially in urban school districts. Erin Toner of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports that high turnover rates for principals can hurt student achievement.
ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Kids are back in class this week at Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts, the K-8 program on the city's south side. This school has a brand new principal, Lila Hillman, who's still getting her bearings in the sprawling building.
LILA HILLMAN: It seems like there's a lot of interesting ways to get to places. I mean, it's three levels. But yeah. Do you want to go upstairs?
TONER: Sure. Sure.
TONER: So she has to figure out where everything is, who everyone is, how to run a school and have answers to everyone's questions. As we walk through the halls, one teacher wants to know where to hang a cutout of a tree trunk.
HILLMAN: I think you're supposed to tape it from the outside of the room.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Outside of the room?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. Is there, like...
TONER: A few steps later, a janitor asks why all the lights went out in the school the night before.
HILLMAN: There was a little issue, but we're all good. We're all good.
TONER: Hillman says even though the job is demanding, it feels right to her. The mother of two was a middle school teacher for 10 years and an assistant principal for seven.
HILLMAN: I wanted to wait until I really felt I was ready for it because it is a major responsibility. And until I felt that I could take all that on, I really didn't want to do it. But I think I'm ready.
TONER: Across the country, schools are increasingly churning through principals, and the problem is worse in urban districts with dwindling resources. Nearly a fifth of Milwaukee's public schools are breaking in new principals this year.
JULIA D'AMATO: It's an impossible job.
TONER: Julia D'Amato retired after 10 years leading a college prep high school in Milwaukee. She says principals are often overwhelmed by the mounting responsibilities of the job and by policies that can change at the whim of superintendents or politicians. And D'Amato says especially in high-poverty schools, principals always have problems they can't solve.
D'AMATO: There were kids that had health concerns that weren't being addressed because their parents had no insurance. There were people who had mental concerns that nobody was addressing. We didn't have the resources.
TONER: Beyond social challenges, Milwaukee Superintendent Gregory Thornton thinks the relentless focus on testing and accountability is making the job much less attractive.
GREGORY THORNTON: I'm looking at test scores. And I've got to be certain that kids are moving in the right direction. I'm looking at formative data assessments. Are kids making growth from the first time they took the assessments and the second time they took the assessments? And then the ultimate for us is I'm looking at retention. I mean, are parents feeling comfortable enough to bring them back?
TONER: Retention of principals is also key and it can directly affect how kids perform. Ed Fuller is associate director of the University Council for Educational Administration. He says research shows high principal turnover causes higher teacher turnover and smaller gains in academic achievement.
ED FULLER: Part of the reasoning behind that finding is that you need a principal there who knows the families, who knows the community, who knows the students and has time to build a strong, positive culture focused on learning. And when you have high turnover, those things just don't play out very well.
TONER: Fuller and others say if you can't pay principals any more - and most school systems can't - then you have to build a better working environment. In Milwaukee, Lila Hillman is getting help with her environment. The district is providing mentor principals to guide her.
HILLMAN: For example, a budget or who to call if there's a problem with the lawnmower kind of thing. So they kind of - really, these are the people that you're going to need. And just knowing that I'm not, here you go, good luck, I think, has been very helpful.
TONER: Hillman says right now, she's trying not to focus too much on test scores and accountability. She wants to support her teachers, hoping that high student achievement follows. For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.
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