Help Wanted: 40 Percent of School Principals in Chicago May Be About to Quit

If a study showed that 40 percent of the leading doctors in Chicago planned to quit their jobs within the next three years and another 20 percent of hospital nurses may soon be out of a job due to budget cuts, there would be an outcry of public fear and anxiety across sectors. Would health insurance rates skyrocket? Would the disabled, the elderly and those just born get the tender, specialized care they need? What about emergency room services—would the already overburdened system collapse under the lack of qualified staff? Whether one is physically fit or sick, the local healthcare industry plays a vital role in all of our lives. There’s comfort in knowing that ample doctors and nurses would be available at a moment’s notice should an accident or sudden illness come upon you or a loved one. I wish this were true for K-12 public education.

Bracing for a Mass Exodus

The Chicago Public Education Fund surveyed hundreds of public school principals last summer, and an astounding 40 percent said they plan to walk away from their jobs by 2018. Though this fact has been reported by several news outlets, no one seems to be panicking in the streets. Neither does there seem to be extreme public outrage that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is threatening to lay off 5,000 teachers—about 20 percent of its teaching force—to mitigate the $480 million gap that it knew it needed to close long before school started. The Chicago Teachers Union is poised to strike to protest such devastating and disruptive job losses, and understandably so. But it’s also hard to imagine how forcing a shutdown of the schools in the middle of the school year will help city lawmakers find the half billion dollars the district immediately needs. Even a major tax increase would take several months, if not longer, to collect. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is refusing to bail out CPS unless the city agrees to fight to weaken the teachers union’s collective bargaining power. And though the state Democrats hold a supermajority, they don’t have the political will to pass a veto-proof bill to write the district a nine-figure check. The politics alone may be one reason so many principals want to quit.

Why Principals Won’t Stay

How does one effectively run a school in CPS when the funding source is so unstable and unpredictable? When the programs that school leaders have worked so hard to establish and that students have come to know and love suddenly get eliminated due to budget cuts? What about when principals contact the central office to get answers to pressing issues and no one returns their multiple calls because most of the employees have been laid off? Principals are even finding themselves out of compliance with federal special education mandates because the district has drastically cut special services citywide. And with the last six district CEOs averaging just 14 months on the job, there are few administrative role models in the city that principals can point to, and no attractive career ladder within the district itself. Once Chicago gets past this fiscal crisis, it’ll be time to radically restructure the district. We have to start running the system like a business so that we never again find ourselves running out of money in the middle of the school year and earning credit ratings two and three levels below junk-bond status. We also have to run the district like a high-functioning school, putting children‚ not adults—at the center of every policy. Music, art and language classes can no longer be viewed as amenities; these subjects are fundamental to a child’s brain development, validating students who are more creative than academic and expanding every child’s capacity to learn in the so-called “core” subjects.

Recruitment, Retention and Reality

In 2013, Chicago Public Education Fund raised $20 million to attract high-quality candidates for principals and increase the number of top principals in Chicago from 150 to 350 by 2018. (It’s a widely researched fact that low-income students of color, who make up 87 percent of CPS, most often receive inexperienced teachers and school leaders, and a new report shows this is particularly true in CPS.) Then last year the Fund discovered that close to half of city principals plan to quit by 2018, the same year of their recruitment fulfillment goal. Smartly, they switched their primary focus from bringing in new talent to supporting and empowering the talent they already have to increase principal retention. And though we boast about Chicago being a “city of neighborhoods,” there are too many black and brown children living in neighborhoods that are far less resourced than the neighborhoods of white children. Every principal in the city is forced to confront this ugly, government-created truth everyday, and sometimes the systemic injustice is just too great to stand by silently and watch. If I were a principal, I know I just couldn’t be silent. I’d probably get fired for being too vocal about the sins of the system. Or, if I felt that my voice wasn’t strong enough to change the system, I’d be tempted to quit. The best way to recruit top-quality talent and keep principals in the work for at least five years is for CPS to promote teacher voice and provide teachers with meaningful leadership opportunities. Creating an intentional teacher-to-principal pipeline might keep the “Help Wanted” sign out of sight for longer intervals of time. It’s time for all public and private sectors to become concerned—no, outraged—about the state of public education in Chicago. This city’s potential is only as great as the children we are training to lead it.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

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