Prince George's County principals, administrators and county school officials spent the last four days in a sort of an annual boot-camp designed to give school managers a leg up on the incoming year. Called the Summer Leadership Conference, the four day event helps new and returning principals hit the ground running.
This year's conference focused on leadershing in times of change. In training sessions, administrators participated in team-building exercises and development sessions that focused on curriculum, systemic goals, collaborative planning, parent involvement, performance management, special education, multicultural education, and more.
During a wrap-up session which reviewed the skills taught to the principals and assistant principals over the last four days, more than 200 people sat in the cool, expansive auditorium at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville yesterday afternoon
Many were illuminated by the faint glow of tablet computer screens. This is the second year that school principals and administrators have had access to the iPad tablets, which are used to connect teachers with their documents and other digital educational tools.
"It helps save trees and cuts down on paper usage," said one principal as she slid her finger across the glowing screen.
Speakers at the wrap up session repeated a sort-of mantra, children first, as they summarized the lessons learned at the conference.
"What is our work about?" asked Doug Anthony, the director of human capital for the county school system. "It's about children."
Four years ago, before he rose to his current post, Anthony was a Prince George's County principal as well. That experience, he said, helped him to recognize the importance of leadership at the individual-school level, especially in a county with a large school system like Prince George's.
Turnover among principals is high, which makes it a challenge to maintain an individual school's culture. In the last three years, more than 100 principals have left the county school system, according to Anthony. Those schools in particular are at greater risk of higher teacher turnover if the new principal doesn't smoothly transition.
"Quality of leadership is the biggest influencer of a teacher's decision to leave a building," said Anthony.
Carletta Marrow, principal at Dr. Henry Wise, Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, said being able to adapt to change is a school administrator's greatest asset. She's been a principal in Prince George's County for seven years, the last three at Henry Wise.
"In a system as large as ours, there is a lot of transition," said Marrow. "Our challenge is to be recognized for what we are doing, avoiding the negative press and highlighting the positive."
That framework applies to how teachers and school administrators relate to students as well. Marrow's school is one of a number across the county which use a positive behavior intervention and support model which rewards good behavior with scrip that can be used at the school store. That, said Marrow, has helped to reduce the number of suspensions in her school.
Marrow acknowledged that new principals have a lot to absorb in a very quick time.
"You really have to digest it and focus on breaking it into small chunks," said Marrow. "Always put your kids first."
One of those new principals is Nicole Warner, principal of Catherine T. Reed Elementary School just outside of Greenbelt. This is her ninth year as an educator in the Prince George's County School System. Prior to this, she served as a resident principal–sort of like a principal's understudy–at Adelphi Elementary School where she got her first taste of the demands of running a school.
"It's a lot of information, but it's all information regarding student achievement," said Warner. "It helps to break it down into layers so it doesn't seem as big."
Warner will be overseeing a staff of about 80 in her new job. To gear up for that, Warner is in the process of visiting with each and every one, from the assistant principal to the custodial staff, to discuss their professional and educational goals for the upcoming year.
Her biggest challenge, even as an educator of the very young, is to create an educational culture which prepares all students for college.
"That really is a struggle when you have kids in kindergarden and pre-k," said Warner. "But you have to start that process in elementary school to get them to critically think. If you try to teach them critical thinking skills in high school as they are preparing to enter a world where critical thinking is needed, it's too late."