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Gwinnett schools principalships see frequent turnover

Aspiring principal applications are down in recent years

When Ed Shaddix was principal of North Gwinnett High, he used to say there was a reason he arrived at his office at 5:30 a.m.

“That’s the only time the phone isn’t ringing,” said Shaddix, who left the school in November to be an assistant superintendent at the Gwinnett County Public Schools’ district office.

For many principals across the district, that’s a standard schedule. Duluth High Principal Anthony Smith said he has a similar schedule, which starts around 5 a.m., and often lasts until 11 p.m. to include after-school council meetings and sporting events.

“It takes a lot out of you,” Shaddix said. “It’s a big job. It’s an important job to support and lead a community and make sure kids have what they have to be successful moving forward.”

Since the first day of the school year in August, 15 schools have made announcements that they will have a new principal, and the new school in Suwanee, Northbrook Middle, is expected to receive a principal appointment soon. It’s increased a recent trend that already topped last year’s figure of 13 schools having new principal announcements during the school year.

So while more than 10 percent of the district’s 132 schools have new leaders this year, 20 percent of the schools have had new principals since August, 2012. And the Gwinnett County Board of Education learned in November that 84 of the district’s principals — 64 percent — have five years or less experience, while 31 have six to 10 years of experience being a principal. Only four of the district’s principals have held that position for more than 15 years.

“The implication is far-reaching,” said Glenn Pethel, the district’s assistant superintendent of leadership development. “While we are very pleased with our pipeline development program, we must continue to support and develop our future leaders.”

When CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks announced the district’s senior-level restructuring in October, he said, “it is with a great amount of pleasure and pride to say we have a deep pool with which to pull from.”

Associate Superintendent Frances Davis said in November that 73 percent — 96 out of 132 — of the district’s current principals have completed the Aspiring Principal Program, which began in 2007.

Applicants to the program, though, have dwindled in recent years.

The first three years of the program averaged 64 applicants per year, but the last three years have averaged 35 applicants.

One of the member’s of the 2014 Aspiring Principal Program is new North Gwinnett High Principal Nathan Ballantine.

Ballantine was an assistant principal at Norcross High since 2006, after he came to the school as a science teacher in 2000. As a veteran educator, and aspiring principal, Ballantine said he understood the demands of the principal position, but his perspective changed when he became a principal.

“I don’t think you know until you’re sitting in the chair,” Ballantine said. “Knowing you have to make the decisions. You’re the one that has to make tough calls, and all that comes from experience, and really understand what this job’s about. Every week I start to see more and more complexity of everything that goes into it.”

The hours, specifically the 18-hour work days, are necessary because of the size of the job, Ballantine said. As a new prinicpal, he’s made it a point to be visible around the school, and at as many extra-curricular activities and events as possible.

“In high school, so many things contribute to the experience of the kids, so many outside things contribute to what they love,” he said. “Being a principal, I have to know all that, and the only way to know that is to be in as many places as I can.”

Those who currently hold, or have held the position recently, have said they noticed changes to the job in the last two decades as more regulations were added to a position where the person is expected to be visible in the community.

“There’s no doubt it’s a large cumbersome job, and I don’t think there’s any industry more regulated than education,” Shaddix said. “Being a principal today, you’ve got to be the instructional leader, got to lead adults, lead a community, there’s a lot to it.”

One of the areas of regulation Shaddix said was the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which centered on the area of accountability, and was one example of why education has changed “tremendously.”

“Expectations are pulling against you,” Shaddix said. “Gwinnett County is more urban and more diverse and more poor, and we’ve been more successful academically. Some would argue there’s a limit to sustaining that pace.”