June 12, 2002 News & Opinion » Featured story

Who will lead them? 

If you'd come in late to East High School's athletic awards ceremony last Tuesday, you would've been greeted by a balding, middle-aged white guy with a close-cut beard, his East High sweatshirt matching the purple plastic tablecloth. He would have handed you a program and told you to sit anywhere, then he'd go hand out plaques to triathletes. You wouldn't know it if you were a first-timer at East, but that's Ed Cavalier. "I just had my retirement dinner last night, so I guess it's official," he says. Cavalier's leaving East after 15 years as principal, despite parents' pleas for him to reconsider.

                  If it's true what some parents say --- that principal Ed Cavalier walks on water --- then surely there's a lot of sloshing over the edges these days, what with all the goodbye tears filling the pool.

                  It's a rowdy night at East, one of many events during the annual Spirit Week, when students are honored for their achievements. The room is writhing with the energy of teenage athletes, choked-up emotion, and the bursting pride of parents. Lots of cheering, lots of clapping and ovations; in-jokes about how an assistant coach earned all his gray hairs, nicknames for memorable teammates: "the little guy with attitude."

                  On water or solid ground, Cavalier doesn't walk so much as he floats, like the purple and gold helium balloons swaying throughout the cafeteria. He moves between presenter and awardee, giving a plaque, a handshake, a hug, then sitting on a folding chair in the corner, out of sight while others take the mic. This is the kids' night and he wants to be part of it, like he has at every game, every student event.

                  "It's been a 16- to 17-hour-a-day labor of love for the past 15 years," he says, "and I'm feeling the aging process. I could've retired last year. One morning last December I woke up and said, 'I think I want to retire.' It wasn't a cerebral decision; I just don't have the energy any more to run the programs as they should be run. I know I'm going to miss my job terribly."

At the end of this month, one quarter of the city school district's principals will leave their offices for the last time. Cavalier has put a total of 34 years into the district; most of his fellow retirees have racked up decades of service as well, moving from classroom teacher to vice principal to principal. In exchange for the long years of service, they will receive retirement packages designed to clear out higher-paid employees and save the district money on lower-paid replacements. But the loss is more than financial. It's human.

                  It isn't unusual to hear words like "concern" and "crisis" when people talk about the city schools, but these days it's not just because of the budget deficit or the teacher layoffs. It's because 14 seasoned principals are stepping down this month. That's over 400 years of collective experience walking out the door, and nearly 9,500 students who will have to adjust to new principals.

                  The 14 gave notice earlier this year. Now that the Rochester Board of Education recently adopted the state retirement incentive package, up to 15 more district administrators could decide to retire this summer, says Richard Stear, president of the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester, the administrators' union. One or two principals might be among them.

                  The district is not only losing expert principals, but among those leaving are half the directors of subject departments in the district's central office.

                  "Experience is hard to calculate," Stear says. "Knowledge of the job is not transferred or written down. The first couple of years when the old principals are gone are the hardest; new people face a steep learning curve." The loss doesn't become apparent until a specific situation arises, he says --- mundane things like coordinating special events, or processes mastered through experience, like school-based planning or reaching consensus at a meeting.

                  "Many principals have had long experience and are very supportive of their teachers and attentive to the instructional program of their schools," says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. "They see themselves as a buffer between the outside bureaucratic pressures and the teaching-learning dynamic of the school. Some have honed the art of creative insubordination. They comply differently. This only comes from experience and from the heart."

                  This summer, new principals must be found for 10 elementary schools, Charlotte Middle School, and three high schools --- East, Franklin, and Wilson. According to city school district protocol, the selection process is a collaboration between the district's central office and the school that is losing its principal.

                  This is how it's supposed to work: The district's human resources department organizes a screening committee of district staff, school staff, and a parent representative. The committee selects a pool of candidates, which it offers to a school team of teachers and parents. The school can choose to interview the candidates or decline. If the team interviews, it recommends up to three finalists to the superintendent, who makes the final decision. If the team declines the opportunity, the superintendent appoints a new principal.

                  Schools are included in the decision-making process through a policy adopted by the school board; the policy follows the New York State Department of Education's regulations mandating shared decision-making in school districts.

                  But according to the district's "Principal Selection Process Handbook," the district doesn't even have to offer the school team a chance to interview; the superintendent can bypass the school altogether and appoint a principal on his own.

                  Because the school board dismissed Superintendent Janey earlier this year, Urbanski says the district may end up going about the replacement process in the wrong way. The board is split as to whether Janey or an interim superintendent should oversee the replacements, so school-based teams may end up left out of the interview process if time runs out, Urbanski says --- violating the board's own inclusion policy.

                  Replacement of principals is going according to the contract between the district and the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester, says Richard Stear. "The majority of the school board has empowered Superintendent Janey to carry on the district's process," he says. The district's central office has kept the Association in the loop throughout the process, Stear says.

                  Barbara Jarzyniecki, communications director for the school district, insists the selection process is inclusive and on track. "Our human resources department completed its selection of candidates [in late May]," she says, and is now setting up interview sessions with school-based teams. The teams should be submitting names of the finalists to Janey by mid-June, after which he will schedule concluding interviews with the candidates.

For now, Janey is still active, and has the last word in the principal-selection process. But some board members fear he won't devote as much attention as necessary to the replacement process.

                  "I have grave concerns about an outgoing superintendent selecting one- quarter of our principals," says Joanne Giuffrida, president of the school board. She and two fellow board members, Jim Bowers and Darryl Porter, are in favor of appointing an interim superintendent and asking Janey to pack up his desk now.

                  It's a matter of accountability, she says; no matter what decisions Janey makes at the end of his term --- including appointments for new principals --- he will no longer be accountable to the board come September 1. Janey's replacement, on the other hand, will have no input on the new principals, but will be responsible for their performance and accountable to the board.

                  The other side of the school board divide, led by board member Rob Brown, believes Janey will make sound choices since he's familiar with the candidates and their performance in the district.

                  But where will these candidates come from? Many are already in the system --- current principals and vice-principals. "The necessary qualities for a principal are quite extensive," Brown says, leadership being the most important. Aside from instructional commitment, a principal must be a strong manager, something learned only through experience. And there's potentially another, relatively new source for vice-principals and other administrators.

                  Two years ago, in anticipation of mass retirement of principals, the school district established a masters program with St. John Fisher College to groom future city school administrators. These graduates are meant to fill the positions vacated by vice-principals who move up to principalships. The curriculum focuses on issues specific to the district; most of the program's students are district teachers. There is a pool of 50 or so administrators who have graduated over the last two years.

It'll be a little scary when the Old Wise One leaves the building for the last time. Those who are left behind may have to adjust for a year or two until things feel right again. "Back in the early '70s when a bunch of us principals were new teachers --- Ed Cavalier, [Wilson Magnet's] Suzanne Johnston --- the old-timers must have wondered about us," says Bob Pedzich, retiring headmaster of Franklin High School. "But there's a lot of good talent in the district. This is a chance for new ideas to come forth, and to explore ideas and options that we never thought of."

                  When asked why they're retiring this year, many principals say they're tired, that it's time to go. Some took over schools in trouble or schools thought to be in trouble, and they worked to turn around reputations, achievement levels, and test scores. When asked about their accomplishments, most of the principals brush off any personal praise and talk about The Team --- administrators, teachers, parents, community.

                  Their to-do lists seem to share two priorities: "First, I wanted to provide a safe, nurturing environment," says Musette Castle, retiring principal of Charlotte Middle School. "We wanted to remove all of the kids' excuses," says Ed Cavalier. East High and many other city schools have established partnerships with community organizations. Some have school-based health centers that serve the neighborhood as well as the students, and in-house student-support centers with community agency services.

                  East, Franklin, and Wilson high schools have expanded their curricula outside the academic track to meet a range of student interests and needs. The academic programs worked for the kids who weren't struggling, Cavalier says, but East needed a way to motivate the kids who were. The school established "co-curricular" courses, including the only high-school firefighter-training program in the US, and programs in culinary arts, finance, and information technology, and a teaching-learning magnet curriculum that guarantees its graduates teaching positions in the city school district once they become state-certified.

                  Cavalier also established strong ties with parents. "He always values our opinions," says Donna Saranacki, whose two daughters graduated from East. "He tells us, 'Parents hold the real power in a school.'" Parents involved in East's Parent Teacher Student Association say they look forward to hearing Cavalier's reports at their monthly meetings. And not just because he paints a rosy picture. "It's the best part of the meeting," says Joyce Nakada. "He starts with all the positive things that are happening, and then he talks about his struggles and obstacles and how he will overcome them."

                  Saranacki still comes back to East to help with special events. "I was always able to contact Ed any time when my kids were students," she says. "There were times when they were lost or fumbling, and he talked to me right away. One of my daughters suffered from depression during her junior year and I didn't even know it. The counselors picked up on it and Ed called a special school where she went for a year. He knew who to call, and he did it right away."

                  Involved parents were instrumental in helping Wilson Magnet find its groove. "When I arrived, the school had a reputation for poor performance and discipline," says Suzanne Johnston, who's retiring from Wilson, where she's been principal since 1985. "The community was the prime mover for turning the school around. People said, 'Fix it or close it' and they gave us a clear indication of what they wanted for their youngsters." In response to parents' input, Johnston and her staff worked to establish a magnet-school program that was competitive in terms of university placement. They developed a full Advanced Placement curriculum, and last year, Wilson was accepted into the rigorous International Baccalaureate Program, one of only four New York public schools to gain accreditation. Next year, the first class of program participants will graduate.

                  Patricia Heffernan, retiring principal of School #23, says she inherited a school with a 75-percent poverty rate six years ago. "But all kids can learn. We have a broad range of kids: two-thirds perform at or above grade level and one-third perform below --- pretty good, considering our poverty rate," she says. "You can't put all your resources into either group, so we've developed stand-alone enrichment activities in all subjects. We can give extra work, as well as remediation."

                  There's been a bigger push to recognize kids for their achievements. Cavalier initiated Spirit Week at East. And there are more and more recognition ceremonies at Charlotte Middle School throughout the year, with parents encouraged to attend, Castle says. Franklin's Pedzich has his teachers calling or visiting parents throughout the week, "to talk with them about the good things as well as the problems." Parents tend to not get involved in schools, Pedzich says, because they're usually contacted only when there's a problem.

                  Pedzich and his staff added a half-hour to the daily schedule to shore up shaky academics. To get extra help, kids can stay even longer on certain days or attend Saturday-morning school. Franklin also schedules double periods in English and math for students who are struggling with the basics.

                  "Our school is not in a vacuum," says Ralph Spezio, retiring principal of School #17. "We see it as the center of an urban village. It's the beacon of the community, a true community school." Through a series of partnerships with community organizations, the school has established programs for music and student-teacher training. An on-campus health center serves 2,500 neighborhood residents throughout the year, and is completely unique in New York State.

                  Retiring principal Bill Lewis has found resources for his school, #57, in an unlikely and somewhat controversial place. Over the last 13 years, he's cultivated a relationship between the school and neighborhood churches, inviting congregants to come into classrooms and read with the kids. He makes regular visits to neighbors' front porches. "I think it's important to connect the three greatest institutions of this country," he says, "family, church, and school."

                  So how to measure success? The retiring principals say they've seen test scores go up, suspensions go down, more kids reading more books, and less grumbling among staff. "When I arrived, the building was covered with graffiti and kids were running through the halls," says Spezio. "Substitute teachers refused to come or would slam their room keys down on the office counter midday and leave." Three years ago, the school district implemented a voluntary teacher-transfer policy. "This year, no one at our school wanted out," he says, "and 30 teachers wanted in."

There's a mural that fills an entire wall of the East High commons room. Students painted it last year to show different aspects of school life. In the foreground, a female African-American teacher writes "Welcome to East High School" on a blackboard. Further up, two students --- an African-American boy and a white girl --- stand side-by-side in caps and gowns, diplomas in their hands. Off to the right of the girl is a small figure, a balding middle-aged white guy with a close-cut beard. He wears a dark suit and a red-and-white striped tie and stands relaxed. He is smaller than the two students, but his right hand is on the girl's shoulder, like a guardian angel, like a parent, like a principal.

In the money

Aside from a chance to catch up on sleep, what do principals get if they retire this year?

                  All school district employees receive a New York State pension when they retire, but this year, a couple of early retirement incentives sweeten the deal. Retiring principals can choose between the district's Voluntary Early Separation Agreement (VESA) and the state retirement incentive plan.

                  The state pension plan gives employees a yearly payout based on years of service and highest average salary. The state retirement incentive, just adopted by the school board, adds more money to the pension plan depending on how long an employee has served.

                  VESA was created last year to offset the sudden teacher shortages created every June, the traditional time teachers gave notice of their retirement. In the city school district, a mad dash would ensue over the summer to replace hundreds of teachers by fall. The plan pays out $50,000 over five years. To be eligible, an employee has to be at least 50 years old, earning at least a $50,000 base salary, and with the city school district for at least five consecutive years.

                  District employees who meet the eligibility requirements can choose only one retirement incentive, but those who were already signed up for VESA when the state incentive came through can switch to the state plan if they prefer.

                  VESA moves higher-paid employees out of the district and makes room for lower-paid new employees. The average salary of a veteran teacher is $70,000; an entry-level teacher will earn $33,000 to $35,000 --- a savings of at least $35,000 per employee. The district anticipates payroll savings of as much as $4 million a year over the next four years, according to Louis Kash, the district's former chief financial officer who helped engineer the package. After that, the savings should increase yearly, he says.

                  The state retirement incentive will save the school district somewhere between $6 million and $20 million, depending on how many employees choose to retire this year. The state incentive will cost the district significantly more money over time than will VESA, Kash says. But by offering the option, the district hopes more employees will choose to leave this year, lowering the anticipated number of teacher layoffs.

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