Putting Education Reform To The Test

How Losing a Principal Can Hurt Students


Leon Superintendent Jackie Pons

Principals are the key to making a school successful. That’s what the research shows.

So what happens when a superintendent pulls several top performing principals out of their roles to fill upper management positions?

That’s the move Leon County Superintendent Jackie Pons made, and now he’s defending his decision to reassign seven of his principals.

Seven of his district managers were retiring at once. In better budget times, Pons could’ve filled those positions with trained central-office administrators.

But these are not good times, budget-wise. Pons cut 60 administrative positions to keep classroom funding intact. All those cuts at the district level meant no one was “on the bench” to fill the upper-level slots as they became vacant.

Pons told the Tallahassee Democrat the staffing decisions have been very challenging, saying, “The tough decisions don’t always please everybody.”

The result is a district-wide turnover of school leaders. Those tough decisions include reassigning four of the district’s six high school principals to higher level positions.

Another high school principal retired. That means only one high school in Leon County will have the same principal in the fall.

The high school vacancies are being filled by principals who will leave their middle and elementary schools. In turn, those lower level leadership roles must be filled.

Effective Principals Stay Put

For Pons, the biggest controversy surrounds popular Leon High School principal Rocky Hanna. Parents and students are begging Pons to change his mind.


Former Leon High Principal Rocky Hanna

Hanna is a Leon graduate who became principal there in 2005. He doesn’t want this promotion, according to family members.

Hanna hasn’t said whether he will accept his new role as a division director or resign.

An effective, or ineffective, principal sets the tone for a school. And a case in Pasco County shows what happens when leadership is bad.

Anna Falcone has been principal of Connerton Elementary since it opened two years ago. Teachers complained so much about her management style that the district gave them an out.

Last week, teachers at Connerton were offered a fast track to other teaching jobs in the district. Eleven teachers opted for a transfer.

Connerton’s assistant principal was sent to work at another school. Pasco Superintendent Heather Fiorentino hasn’t made a decision about whether to reassign Falcone.

Superintendents can have a tough time finding the right fit for the crucial role of school principal.

The Wallace Foundation says many districts “struggle to find suitably skilled and experienced principals, partly because of the above-average replacement rates required by a bulge in the proportion of incumbents currently becoming eligible for retirement.”

Wallace Foundation researchers discovered what happens when a school loses its principal. In a report last January, they wrote:

A rule of thumb is that a principal should be in place about five to seven years in order to have a beneficial impact on a school. In fact, the average length of a principal’s stay in 80 schools studied by the Minnesota-Toronto researchers was 3.6 years.

They further found that higher turnover was associated with lower student performance on reading and math achievement tests, apparently because turnover takes a toll on the overall climate of the school.

“It is far from a trivial problem,” the researchers say. “Schools experiencing exceptionally rapid principal turnover, for example, are often reported to suffer from lack of shared purpose, cynicism among staff about principal commitment, and an inability to maintain a school-improvement focus long enough to actually accomplish any meaningful change.”

The lesson? Effective principals stay put.

Other key findings from Wallace:

  • On average, schools experience fairly rapid principal turnover: about one new principal every three to four years.
  • Rapid principal turnover has moderately negative effects on school culture.
  • Rapid principal turnover explains a modest but significant amount of variation in student achievement across schools.
  • Principals newly assigned to schools who initially work within the existing culture of their schools, rather than attempting to quickly, substantially change it, are more likely to avoid negative turnover effects.


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