ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We like to think of school principals as instructional leaders laser-focused on student achievement. In reality, they've got lots of other things to deal with, everything from bus schedules and discipline to school maintenance and paperwork. The District of Columbia's public school system is leading the nation in its attempt to change that. It's trying to free its principals to focus on teaching and learning. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Running a school is sort of like running a small city, and the mayor needs lots of help. Enter Pankaj Rayamajhi.
PANKAJ RAYAMAJHI: Do you guys have a pass? Come on, guys. No, you can't - pull up your pants please, sir. Come on, sir. Thank you.
WESTERVELT: Rayamajhi's title is director of school strategy and logistics at the Columbia Heights Education Campus, a public middle and high school in the capital's northwest. In reality, this burly Nepal-born administrator has his hand in just about everything at the school outside of instruction.
RAYAMAJHI: Next time, uniform. Thanks, man.
WESTERVELT: Lots of research shows the vital link between school leadership and student success. But lots of principals say their daily to-do lists eat up valuable time they could better use to focus on instruction, motivation and innovation. Rayamajhi's portfolio includes maintenance, security and procurement for a school with 1,400 students. Almost every student here gets free and reduced breakfast and lunch. He oversees that, too.
RAYAMAJHI: I'll be honest with you, this is organized chaos. Boykin, Eric (ph). Chill out for a little bit. We'll talk about it.
WESTERVELT: He takes a basketball away from a student who rolls his eyes. If an instructor needs something they come to Rayamajhi.
RAYAMAJHI: Be it a teacher saying, oh, my AC's not working and my sink's clogged to a student survey that needs to be done in the next two weeks.
WESTERVELT: Part logistician, disciplinarian and coach, Rayamajhi roams the hallways and lunchrooms multitasking and talking to everyone, including the 47 employees he manages. Down the hall, he hears a group of students with a likely case of spring senioritis and he gets on his walkie-talkie.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. Pankaj, where was (unintelligible).
RAYAMAJHI: Right outside Whittaker's (ph) room. There are some students here. They're probably cutting class. Can you make sure these hallways are clear, please?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Copy.
WESTERVELT: School registration, transportation issues and customer service with parents - that's all him. The list goes on.
RAYAMAJHI: Field trips, that's all me. Like, you know, I have to get the buses.
WESTERVELT: You're kind of a chief operating officer.
RAYAMAJHI: Yeah. That's one way of putting it, yes.
WESTERVELT: Creating a system to put operations and logistics directors in place started as a pilot project in a handful of D.C. schools in 2014. The program's now grown to more than 70 of the district's 115 schools. Rayamajhi says he fields more than 500 emails, texts and calls daily from instructors, parents and co-workers. Maria Tukeva is Columbia Heights' principal and D.C.'s longest-serving school leader. She says borrowing from the corporate and charter school worlds to create an operations manager was a godsend.
MARIA TUKEVA: I mean, I was worrying about whether there was soap in the bathroom or there was toilet paper in the bathroom, which is also urgent. However, I also have to worry about is everyone learning how to read at a high level? Is everyone learning math at a high level?
WESTERVELT: It's not just liberation from TP, milk and buses. Principal Tukeva says she and her deputy principals no longer have to deal with mountains of paperwork for hiring, procurement or registration. And she says most of all, they can better focus on academic and long-term planning, and the vital work of observing teachers in the classroom and offering coaching and feedback.
TUKEVA: And then working with teacher teams to see how these results should be used to adjust instruction.
WESTERVELT: The district plans to add more directors of operations and logistics, more Pankaj Rayamajhis, to more of the city's schools over the next few years. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.
RAYAMAJHI: OK, all security, let's get ready for first lunch, please. All security, let's get ready for first lunch.
(SOUNDBITE OF DELICATE STEVE SONG, "BALLAD OF SPECK AND PEBBLE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.