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Ousted Atlanta Public Schools principal: Supervisors can't teach what they don't know

The former principal of Frederick Douglass High School -- removed by APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in May  -- offers some troubling commentary today on how Atlanta Public Schools evaluates and supports principals.

Tony Lamair Burks II was recruited to Atlanta Public Schools in the aftermath of the cheating scandal. He served the district for three years, first as North Region executive director and last as principal of Frederick Douglass High School. Douglass is among the APS schools at risk of state takeover due to low performance, if Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District plan is approved by voters in November.

The AJC has reported on the leadership churn at Douglass, including this June story on Burks by APS reporter Molly Bloom:

In the past 14 years, Atlanta's Douglass High School has churned through a new principal roughly every two years. The latest former principal, Tony Burks, was removed by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in May after just one year on the job.

Alumni and parents say Douglass' high principal turnover rate is accelerating the school's slide from an engine of opportunity to one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Carstarphen did not respond to interview requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this story.

Reached by phone, Burks said only, "What's most important is that we do what's best for students at the school and fully implement the school improvement plan."

Nationwide, about a quarter of principals leave --- often by their own choice --- after a single year on the job. Turnover rates tend to be higher in high-poverty schools like Douglass, where most students are from low-income families. Several studies have linked high principal turnover to greater teacher turnover and lower student achievement.

The leadership turnover at Douglass continues. Burks' successor, DeMarcos Holland, is leaving APS to become principal of New Manchester High School in Douglas County this summer.

Some parents protested Burks' removal last year, saying he cared about students and needed more than a single year to turn around the long-struggling school. Burks was not offered another post in APS and is now chief learning officer of LEADright, an educational and executive leadership consulting firm.

In this piece, Burks shares his experience as principal of Douglass.

By Tony Lamair Burks II

The Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill is credited with preaching a powerful message using the question, "And How Are The Children?" In his sermon, O’Neill highlights the mighty Masai warriors and how they greet each other by saying "Kasserian ingera," which means, "And how are the children?"

The greeting underscores the value the Masai place on their children’s well-being. “And how are the children?” is a powerful question to ask before we begin any conversation about the children we serve and the adults who partner with us in our work.

I spent 12 months serving as the principal of Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School. There are things I know and there are stories I can tell; however, I am writing because Frederick Douglass High School will soon get its third principal since 2014. Staff, students, and alumni have wondered what must happen next to stabilize their beloved school. I believe three things must happen:

  1. The next principal should receive a multi-year contract so that she is empowered to effect lasting change without the ever-present threat of the supervisor's pen. School turnaround efforts are not sprints, they are marathons. They require commitment and focus. A multi-year contract enables a principal to focus on long-term, big picture goals and objectives. With a multi-year contract, the new principal will more likely see the results of her teamwork.
  2. The next principal should be allowed to choose members of her administrative team who will align with her vision of excellence. If she is selected for the principalship, she should be entrusted to build her team of assistant principals without being bullied into accepting transfers, granting favors, or engaging in the shuffling of incompetents also known as "the dance of the lemons."
  3. The next principal should receive differentiated support with accountability. This form of accountability cannot be the armchair support that has plagued the school since 2014. This cannot be supervise-by-text or "coach-by-numbers." A supervisor can't sit in the comfort of his office, crunch numbers on his computer, and then place a principal on a Performance Improvement Plan...all without setting foot on the campus.

Increased accountability — as a tool to support teacher effectiveness and student achievement — is a good thing. However, what was meant to help actually hurts. In turnaround schools like Frederick Douglass, principals and teachers experience accountability as punitive, not supportive.

This “accountability” is intimidating and holds educators hostage. For example, a supervisor shouldn’t show up in the fourth quarter of the school year to conduct his first walk-through visit with the principal and then give the principal a negative evaluation for the entire year. This sustains the district’s culture of fear and intimidation. Yet, this has happened in APS since 2014.

I could offer more, but I won't. In our own ways, we each must ask: "And how are the children?" I've been blessed to serve schools and districts around this country. I was the founding principal of North Carolina’s first early college high school, and I provided district oversight for California's second largest portfolio of charter schools. I've been honored to support teams of dedicated adults — from educators and bus drivers to volunteers and business owners — as they collaborate to improve the educational outcomes of students.

My service as a school transformation coach, as the superintendent-in-residence with the National Center for Urban School Transformation, and as an area superintendent has given me insights into school improvement and school transformation efforts. I know that a supervisor can't teach what he doesn't know, he can't lead where he hasn't been. The level of supervisory support Frederick Douglass High School and its principals have received since 2014 hasn't served the school or its students well.

"And how are the children," you wonder? The children aren't well; nor are the adults.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.