Rookie Chicago Principal Faces Early Challenges In Chicago, where one in three schools has a new principal, Lisa Moreno is the new head of John D. Shoop Academy. Like many new principals around the country, Moreno faces a range of challenges — from curbing bad behavior to improving standardized test scores.
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Rookie Chicago Principal Faces Early Challenges

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Rookie Chicago Principal Faces Early Challenges

Rookie Chicago Principal Faces Early Challenges

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More than one out of four Chicago schools started the year with a new principal - the unprecedented turnover as a result of incentives for early retirement by the district. It's also part of a national trend as more baby boom educators retire. We'll hear more about those outgoing educators in a moment.

First, NPR's David Schaper spent a day with one of Chicago's rookie principals to get a look at the challenges they face as they come in.

Ms. LISA MORENO (Principal, John D. Shoop Academy): Hi. Good morning. Good morning.

DAVID SCHAPER: It's about 8:15 and many of the students of Shoop Academy in Chicago South Side are lining up in the hallway for breakfast. And there to greet them is their new principal - 39-year-old Lisa Moreno.

Ms. MORENO: Good morning.

SHAPER: Construction on a huge new addition to this elementary school to relieve overcrowding finished this summer, so Shoop has a cafeteria and hot meals for the first time. Moreno passes the breakfast line and heads out to the playground to encourage more kids to come in and to keep an eye on some of the eighth graders who are already trying to push it with her staff.

Ms. MORENO: You just try to make sure that they don't think that they are going to run the school. Breakfast. Go around. Hurry up. Let me see - it's 8:30. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Get in line.

SCHAPER: But a little later, an eighth grade girl starts a fight and threatens a school aide. Moreno hurries over to get the details.

Ms. MORENO: What happened?

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) She said, you better let me go before I hit you. So - and she look like she was about to swing. So…

Ms. MORENO: Okay.

SCHAPER: The girl is taken inside. And despite the incident, the kids line up and marched quietly into school.

Ms. MORENO: Actually, a much smoother morning, even than yesterday. So that's a good thing.

SCHAPER: Every day, it gets a little better for this new principal. And Lisa Moreno got a head start over most of her rookie principal peers. After three years as an assistant principal in a high school, she was hired here last March. And Moreno ran Shoop for the last two months of the school year. Still, a new year brings new problems, like unfinished construction, books, materials and computers that still haven't arrived, payroll problems, and a main school office packed with people who want her attention - including new students just arriving to register and enroll even though it's now the second full week of classes.

Ms. MORENO: You are multi-tasking. You are always present. You have to change just at a moment's notice any time you're asked to make several different decisions at one time.

SCHAPER: More than 90 percent of Shoop students are low-income, qualifying for free or reduced price meals, and all are African-American. Shoop is an elementary school that is struggling academically. Test scores are stagnant. And the school hasn't posted adequate yearly progress or AYP for four years. Under No Child Left Behind, if Shoop students don't perform significantly better this year and next, the school could be shut down and reconstituted with a new staff.

So after morning announcements with a new P.A. system not quite working right, returning a few calls and completing a few other administrative tasks, Moreno makes the rounds through the school.

Ms. MORENO: This is our primary wing where we have kindergarten in these two classrooms over here.

SCHAPER: She pokes her head into several classrooms and she explains why.

Ms. MORENO: Because it's important, first of all, that I am out here, that I'm visible, that I can see what's going on in the classroom. I don't like surprises. So if a parent calls and says, my kid says they're not doing anything, I like to be able to say, well, you know, I was there yesterday and when I went by, they were actually working on fractions, or they were doing a writing activity. And you can't say that if you haven't been doing it. So it's a big building, I do get my exercise.

SCHAPER: But there are often interruptions, supplies that need to be ordered, purchase orders to be approved, phone calls, meetings. But the number one problem facing new principal Lisa Moreno is student discipline, as I saw firsthand at the end of the day as she went outside to see the kids off.

Ms. MORENO: Uh-oh. Uh-oh. What's happening?

SCHAPER: Moreno runs around the corner of the building.

Ms. MORENO: Fight. What happened?

Unidentified Man: I don't know.

Ms. MORENO: No, no, no. No, no. No. We're going in. We're going in.

SCHAPER: She takes one of the fighting seventh graders into the office, an assistant principal takes the other, and another crisis dissipates.

A half an hour later, Moreno sits down to take stock of what appears to be a difficult day.

Ms. MORENO: You know what? I'm still going to say this is mild. This was actually a mild day. I've had some challenging days.

SCHAPER: And there are many more challenging days ahead. Tonight, Lisa Moreno will be staying late, several hours after the kids have gone home.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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