Principal candidates lucky to get an interview

Print More

Nationally, the job of school principal is increasingly viewed as too much work and stress for too little money, according to a survey sponsored by two national principal groups.

Half of the 403 school districts surveyed reported problems finding qualified candidates, report the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. These were districts of every kind—elementary and high school, and urban, suburban and rural. Inadequate compensation was cited as the biggest roadblock, followed by job stress and long hours.

Only a fourth of all districts said they have an internal recruitment program.

In Chicago, however, where principal salaries range from $72,000 to $98,500, there are far more applicants than jobs. Dave Peterson, assistant to the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says it’s difficult to gauge how well qualified Chicago’s applicants are. The Reform Board sets some requirements for principals, he notes, but individual local school councils can add to them.”Generally speaking, they are sincere,” he says of the applicants.

Peterson says the best measure of candidates’ qualifications is how they perform once they’re hired. “In reality, you have to be in the situation to understand what’s going on,” he says.

In the following sketches, five candidates share their experiences, which include criticism and praise, frustration and hope, but, for now, no job offer.

Paul Zeitler

Assistant Principal

Von Steuben High

“It’s time for me to have my own school,” Paul Zeitler says confidently. “I have the desire to make that kind of commitment.”

Zeitler, 48, has worked for the Chicago Public Schools for 25 years. Now an assistant principal at Von Steuben High, he notes proudly that he has worked at all levels: elementary school, high school and central office. And unlike most of his competitors, Zeitler has already met the Reform Board’s new requirements for becoming a principal. But he has yet to find a school that wants him.

For Zeitler, the competition began last year, when he applied at three high schools: Chicago Agricultural, Taft and Mather. He was granted interviews at the first two, but didn’t make the final cut. “Then I realized that high school opportunities are few and far between,” he says.

Zeitler says he thought his interview with the Chicago Ag LSC went well. “I felt I had developed a rapport with the individuals at Chicago Ag after reading their body language and their eyes,” he explains. But he soon learned that the former principal, Barbara Valerious, had re-applied and was likely to be chosen by schools chief Paul Vallas after a predicted LSC stalemate. She was.

Still, Zeitler says the Chicago Ag LSC had its act together on interviewing, distributing in advance a list of possible questions. In contrast, the Taft LSC “sort of bounced around; 20 minutes later, they would come back to something I’d said before.” He says the questions at Taft dealt mainly with special education and community involvement in the school.

Zeitler has since applied at three elementary schools, choosing them mainly for their “racial and cultural diversity”: O.A.Thorp and Bridge, neither of which invited him for an interview, and Hitch, which, at press time, had not responded. He wasn’t surprised by the rejections; many elementary schools don’t want principals whose experience is primarily in high schools. In his cover letter to the Hitch LSC, Zeitler added a sentence in boldface type: “I have elementary teaching experience.”

Most recently, Zeitler applied to the board for a principalship at one of the 12 new high schools it plans to open.

Zeitler has some advice for LSCs: As a courtesy, acknowledge all applications, and after the end of an interview, provide some feedback so candidates can hone their interviewing skills.

Zeitler finds some fault with the Reform Board, too, for the stepped-up requirements for new principals. “It is frustrating trying to get those [70 course] hours,” he says. “A lot of principals don’t want their assistants out of the building that much.” He adds that some of the required courses overlap with those required for the state (Type 75) certificate. Zeitler registered for the board-required courses last summer and completed them in March; he got them through the Illinois Administrators Academy.

Though he’s come up empty-handed several times, Zeitler plans to keep trying. “Von Steuben is a good working environment. I’m not champing at the bit,” he says. “I’m selective in what I apply for.”

-Lisa Lewis

Lilia Juarez

Assistant Principal

Pickard Elementary

Lilia Juarez was one of 95 principal candidates to go through the first principal assessment center run by a collaborative known as PENCUL, for Partnership to Encourage the Next Century’s Urban Leaders. Obtaining the highest possible ratings in eight of nine areas of assessment, she attached an 11-page printout of the results to applications she sent to six schools. None invited her for an interview.

Baffled by the lack of response, Juarez isn’t sure what to do. “Is sit and wait the answer?” she wonders. “Or a follow-up phone call?”

She acknowledges that half the schools she applied to are in a particularly desirable area, Region 1. “It’s a prime region,” she says. “Schools are not on probation.” Juarez is bilingual and sought out schools whose enrollment is partly Hispanic: Davis, Stowe, Bridge, Haugan, Jordan and Mozart.

Juarez fights discouragement, too, when she thinks about her competition: “Many of them are way ahead of me; they’ve been principals.” But she adds, “If I can go one step farther, I’ll try.”

Juarez believes part of her difficulty in finding a principal’s job is that local school councils base their initial decisions on pieces of paper: a cover letter and résumé. “They don’t even know what you look like, who you are,” she says. Juarez offers an idea for improving the process: “Maybe it should be a screening day, where all schools that need principals would go to a job fair and do interviews.” That way, she says, candidates could sell themselves in person.

While her assessment center ratings have not yet paid off, Juarez found the experience worthwhile. “I felt that test was about my profession,” she says, with questions on real, day-to-day administrative quandaries like how to handle a stuffed in-box.

As for the Reform Board’s requirements for aspiring principals, Juarez says the requisite 70 hours of course work “refocused me on what’s important,” like staff evaluation. But she says logistics have been a problem. “Classes [at the Illinois Administrators Academy] are closed, and I think they should have been a little better prepared,” she says. Juarez must wait until July to take one of her remaining courses; she has 20 hours to go.

She also believes the board should require that new principals have a minimum of eight years’ teaching experience. “The classroom is what it’s all about. To guide teachers, you need to know curriculum and instruction and the management of teachers.” In keeping with this belief, Juarez says that if she can’t find a principal position this year or next, she might go back to teaching preschool. “I think they keep you young,” she says. “I feel like one of the kids many times.”

During her 30 years at Pickard, on the Lower West Side, Juarez, 54, has taught at all grade levels.

—Lisa Lewis

Ana Martinez Estka

Region 2 Facilitator

CPS School and Community Relations

The way Ana Martinez Estka sees it, she’s already gone through the growing pains of a new principal.

Two years ago, she served as interim principal of a new school, now Zapata Academy. However, she lost her bid for the principalship. Diagnosing the situation, she says she tried too hard to get things done on her own, without engaging the teachers. “I think I’d do a much better job this time,” she says.

During her 26 years in the school system, Martinez Estka has worked at every level, including regional and central offices; she’s now Region 2 facilitator for the Office of School and Community Relations. After viewing the principalship from all these angles, she concludes that principals tend to get “overloaded in the work they’re doing and get bogged down in daily deadlines.” She says, given the choice between paperwork and human interaction, “I will choose the people, and make my excuses later if I have to.”

This year, Martinez Estka applied at four elementary schools: Hedges, Ruiz, Mozart and Morrill. The first two granted her interviews but went no further; at press time, the last two had not responded. She says she chose the schools mainly because of their large Hispanic enrollments, which range from 49 percent to 96 percent. “There are very few Hispanic women as principals,” she notes. “I’m always looking to be a role model.” She also is familiar with the schools through past jobs or acquaintances.

At Ruiz, her interview was conducted by three local school council members chosen by the full council, which Martinez Estka says made for more focused questioning. “That’s the first time I encountered that,” she says. The panel was particularly interested in how she would make curriculum decisions and build consensus, she reports.

At Hedges, she went through three short question-and-answer sessions with different groups— parents, teachers and the full LSC. Questions dealt mainly with raising reading and math test scores.

Hedges went with its interim principal, Barbara Glapa; Ruiz selected Beverly Williams, an assistant principal at James Ward Elementary.

Martinez Estka says she was glad when the Reform Act put principal selection in the hands of LSCs. “The process is a lot more open now than before,” she says. “I believe councils are getting a lot of résumés, a lot of people to choose from,” making it easier to find a custom fit.

Having met all the Reform Board’s requirements for aspiring principals, Martinez Estka has one complaint: The requirement for a combination of six years of teaching and administrative experience, with no minimum in either area, opens the door to candidates with little classroom experience. “I was not a good teacher after two years’ experience,” she says. “I would be very leery of someone who had two years’ experience and then became an administrator. Why did they leave the classroom so fast?”

Martinez Estka says that while she is bursting with ideas about how to run a school, she is comfortable waiting. “I’m in no hurry,” she says, adding, “You learn not to take rejection personally.”

—Lisa Lewis

Mary Upshaw

Teacher

Sullivan High

For the past 20 of her almost 30 years in the Chicago public schools, Mary Upshaw, 51, has been a vocational education teacher at Sullivan High. However, she applied for principal jobs at only elementary schools.

“High schools have so many things going on at the same time,” she explains. “To actually get my foot in the door, starting at the lower level would be the best for me.” Upshaw says her only administrative experience is as a part-time principal’s assistant, a role she’s played for the last three years. But she points to entrepreneurial experience as the owner for seven years of a private day-care center she founded.

Upshaw applied at Metcalfe, Barnard, Curtis, Brown and Oglesby schools. She says she chose them simply for their South Side locations, convenient to her home. “For 19 years, I have driven 75 miles a day, every day,” she says with a groan, referring to her commute to Sullivan, in Rogers Park.

Upshaw says she used her cover letter to play up her teaching experience and voluntary leadership roles, like starting the day-care center and organizing faculty activities at Sullivan. Still, none of the schools chose her as a finalist. She says the primary reason is that many local school councils favor candidates from within the school. “Most of the LSCs feel like if you’ve been here, you know exactly what’s going on, so why venture out?” she says, adding that she wishes there were a way to fight that bias.

Upshaw went through the March principal assessment center run by the PENCUL collaborative; however, she didn’t get her printed results in time to mail them to councils by the April 15 principal selection deadline. She thinks this may have hurt her chances. “If I was on the LSC,” she says, ” I would like someone who has gone through the PENCUL evaluation. When the LSC makes a decision to hire the principal, it should be on some concrete issues.”

Upshaw says she was rated “competent” or better in all skill areas for principals and received a notation for special talent in “delegating authority” and “verbally communicating with staff.”

Her one suggestion for improving the PENCUL assessment is to give participants real-life deadlines. She notes the 15 minutes participants were given to ponder hypothetical dilemmas. “Sometimes, in real life, you don’t have that luxury,” she says.

Upshaw still must meet two of the Reform Board’s requirements for aspiring principals. She has yet to begin the required 70 hours of coursework; she says she must wait for space to open up at the Illinois Administrators’ Academy, which offers the classes free. Since she is not an assistant principal or former principal, she also must line up an internship with a mentor principal.

Even so, Upshaw applauds the board’s requirements as a way to screen out casual candidates from the large pool of Chicago educators who hold state (Type 75) principal certificates. “If you’re not truly committed,” she says, “they would definitely discourage you.”

—Lisa Lewis

Mona Miller

Assistant Principal

Tanner Elementary

Mona Miller, 44, grew up in Greater Grand Crossing and has worked at one of its neighborhood schools, Tanner Elementary, for the past 10 years—first as a teacher and then, for the past four years, as an assistant principal.

When the principal’s job opened up, she applied. She also sent applications to four other South Side schools, Barnard, Curtis, Drake and West Pullman.

“I tried to select communities that I was somewhat familiar with,” Miller says. In choosing schools, she also considered the level of parent and community involvement. Size and student performance were not factors, she says.

Miller was granted an interview at her own school, but another Tanner assistant principal got the position. Miller declined to comment on the situation. She also interviewed at West Pullman, but has not heard from them since. “I’m not sure why they didn’t call me back for the second interview,” she says.

In her West Pullman interview, Miller says she was able to respond at length to a question about her familiarity with the neighborhood. She was also asked what she would bring to the school and what she would do to improve the school. Overall, “the questions that were asked were fine,” Miller says.

Miller has no quarrels with the selection process. “I think it’s fair, from what I’ve experienced,” she says. “I’m pretty sure they have lots of resumes to read. … It’s probably hard to go through 60 or 70 candidates and come up with three or four candidates.”

Once Miller completes seven hours of coursework in June, she will have fulfilled all the requirements to become a Chicago public school principal. Miller says that, so far, all of the classes have been helpful, especially those on teacher evaluation and clinical supervision. She is taking her courses from the Illinois Administrators Academy.

Miller counts her experience at Tanner as a big plus. “We’ve had such marvelous opportunities to be involved with school improvement planning, budget, discipline, everything,” she says. “We’ve had such a wealth of experience that the move from assistant principal to principal wouldn’t be such a [leap].”

She is looking forward to the day when, as a principal, “I’m more in control of how programs will be implemented, how I will include the entire community, parents, businesses, all of that. I think a principal plays a very important part in making sure that happens.”