In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.
Cynthia Schneider first dreamed of opening a school like World Journalism Preparatory School over 20 years ago when she was a teacher in the Midwest. In 2006, as part of the Principals Leadership Academy, she wrote the proposal and founded the 6-12 school shortly thereafter.
All of the students participate in one of the school’s media outlets: print and web newspapers, a magazine, a yearbook, and TV production. Schneider said the instruction is based on some key tenets of journalism. For one, “everything that kids do in the classroom is meant to be shared with a wider group not just within four walls,” she said. “I want them to learn to take initiative, to defend things that they believe, to actually get facts and evidence for whatever it is that they are working towards.”
How is social media and digital technology used within the classroom at World Journalism Prep?
Last year we sort of opened it up so that kids could bring their iPads, their own laptops. What we found was that it soaked up our bandwidth so much that we couldn’t sustain that without a huge upgrade. We can’t offer that. We have some kids who have the use of electronics in their I.E.P.’s for example. So a student who has a difficult time writing in longhand could have a laptop. Basically, the whole school is pretty technological. The use of Google Docs and websites by the teachers and all those things, that’s just sort of inherent. When it comes to smart phones, the basic policy is if the teacher has some specific need for students to bring in their phones to use, if it’s approved ahead of time, then we’re okay with it.
Technically, students aren’t even allowed to bring their phones to campus.
No, but we’re not a scanned campus. If we were a scanned campus, they wouldn’t be able to have it come in. The fact that we are a journalism school and the kids are being taught to gather information and data sort of requires a different tact with it. So the kids don’t have them confiscated at the door. What we do is if we see the phone, even the outline in your pants pocket, first of all, your pants are too tight. Two, it’s not to be on you. It’s to be in your locker turned off. So we have those conversations all the time. But if I were a parent in this city and they couldn’t have cell phones in their travel to and from school, I would be upset.
With the city recently losing state funds due to a lack of a teacher/principal evaluation deals, how do you expect to absorb potential budget cuts such as in the area of technology students use in school?
Well, we operate within the budget for those things and I’m never going to expect students to make up the difference. To do that would be to give up, lose my ability to comply with the chancellor’s regulations. We’re not a Title I school, so we get no extra money for anything. We’re always struggling in terms of money. We get cut constantly.
Staffing is the biggest issue when it comes to money. We’re understaffed. We have so many people doing so many things. In a perfect world, if I could staff the way I needed to staff, I’d need 10 more teachers, seriously, in order to get done the things that need to get done. So we operate really on a shoestring as it is.
Are you anxious about the city and union’s standoff when it comes to making teacher/principal evaluation deal?
Make a deal. Just get it done. The center of the discussion needs to be kids, what’s best for kids. Is the best teacher doing the best they can and having an opportunity to grow and get better? As a teacher, do I get more information when I have, do I learn how to grow more from frequent feedback and visits with a rubric that’s easy to follow? Am I more likely to get better with that? Sure. It all seems sort of common sense to me but common sense often doesn’t rule the politics of the people who are in the discussion.
What should a teacher/principal evaluation look like?
We’re part of the Teacher Effectiveness Program. We’re using the Danielson Framework. We’re doing the frequent observations and rating teachers along the continuum that the city has.
How is the Danielson Framework working out for your school so far?
I really like it. I think it allows for greater conversation between teachers and administrators to make sure we’re on the same page, we know what we’re talking about, we can give them specific feedback and there’s actual support and information. It gives all the adults in the building an opportunity to calibrate their lenses about what’s effective.
As far as our work, we’re trying to make it low risk for the teachers. I don’t want my teachers to feel like they’re getting dinged on anything. It isn’t about trying to catch people doing something they’re not supposed to do. It’s like how teachers deal with kids. This is where you are and these are the things you need to do to get better. If you’re going to be a better writer, you need to do this. If you want to become a better teacher in this area, let’s try this. The real impact of the Teacher Effectiveness program is that it really forces administrators to be frequently in classes, to give feedback to teachers all the time, to have conversations with them about what they’re seeing, to help surface where they need support and what they’re struggling with. Not an “I gotcha” but a “how can I help you?”.
The D.O.E. recently sent a memo asking principals to use teachers from within the ATR pool as substitutes instead of hiring outside. Has that been a challenge? What do you think of this decision?
It’s so dependent on the individuals. I can’t cast the ATR pool with one brush. You just can’t do that. It is what it is. In my opinion, I think the ATR pool should be non-existent. I think the D.O.E. needs to say, “If you don’t have a job by June 31st, then you’re done.” And let them go on unemployment, search more for a job, get themselves hired. And if you don’t have a job, I don’t see where after all these years any reasonable person expects to carry people who can’t get a job.