Friday, February 21, 1997
Numbers not the measure
of a principal

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Principals are like schoolkids. They hate being graded.

Especially if they think the test is unfair.

Cincinnati Public Schools' principals are miffed about their performance reviews. They feel their salaries, and possibly their employment status, are being determined by measures - test scores and attendance figures - beyond their direct control.

It makes them angry they're being graded by the numbers. Not for touching lives.

They're right. The school system's evaluation process is wrongheaded. It needs to be revised so we don't lose the good principals and fail to nudge the bad ones.

Attention must be paid to the intangible things a principal does. Look at those acts of caring that cannot be tabulated by a calculator: riding home kids who missed their bus; giving advice to the honor-roll student whose parents fight night and day. These are important measures of a principal's worth and skill.

To find out what makes a good principal, I talked with three of the best: Dennis Matthews, Ron Schneider and Frank Price. They're statewide award winners. Each is dedicated and hard-working, open to new ideas while cherishing lasting ideals.

Mission: Possible

Dennis Matthews runs Withrow High School with the firm hand of a disciplinarian who loves learning. ''School is a place for academics. I won't accept any excuses for someone disrupting my students' education.''

In May, he was named Ohio's secondary-school principal of the year. ''This is not a job to me,'' he says, ''This is a mission. We're changing lives here.''

''You must love children and have a passion for this profession,'' says Frank Price, principal of Fairfield's West Elementary School. Last spring, the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education said he was the state's Outstanding Elementary School Administrator for 1996.

''Take a common-sense approach,'' urges Ron Schneider of Taylor Mill's Twenhofel Middle School.

''You're dealing with people,'' says the man who, earlier this month, was named Middle School Principal of the Year by the Kentucky Department of Education. ''Each child is different. Each parent is different. Each teacher is different. What fits John may not fit Jane.''

These principals earned their awards by being on their toes and on their feet.

''You must be mobile,'' Mr. Schneider says. ''I just drop into classrooms.''

''The kids never know where I'm going to show up,'' Mr. Matthews adds. ''When a student comes up to me with a problem, I say, 'Let's walk and talk.' ''

That walking conversation shows, says Ron Schneider, ''the right tone has been set. Students have to feel secure so they can come up and talk to the principal. I'm trying to keep drugs out of the school. The kids have to feel safe to say to me, 'So-and-so brought this stuff to school.' ''

To set that tone, Frank Price says, ''Always be honest. Kids can see right through you. They know when adults are being dishonest. Listen when students and parents talk to you. Don't blow them off. And, every day, when you come to school, remember to check your ego at the door.''

That can be accomplished by looking up before going inside.

''Your name is not carved in stone over the entrance. It's not your building. It belongs to the community.''

The good principals never forget that. So they treat the school and the kids inside with care.

Pat on the back

Principals, like students, are not machines. They need to be graded by personalized reviews.

Rethink these evaluations. Test scores and absentee rates are something to talk about, but not to judge on. Keep them as one part of an overall evaluation.

Then dispatch some of our highly paid administrators to walk the halls with the principals for a few days. See them at work. Note how they are with students, parents and the public.

Don't give them a raise by counting the number of parent conferences they have in a week. Take the time to see how many lives they change for the better.

This could give the principals in this troubled school system something they can always use more of: encouragement.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.