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Two Principals Lead One School

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Principal Marilyn Prall was about to lose assistant principal Martha Deichler, who was moving up to head another school. Then Prall had an idea for "an alternative leadership model" for Vista Square Elementary School. She persuaded the district superintendent to allow her and Deichler to lead the school as co-principals. Their partnership was launched when the school opened in July, and the hard work and the fun haven't stopped since. Included: Is co-principaling for you? Tips from the co-principals!

When Marilyn Prall, co-principal at Vista Square Elementary School (Chula Vista, California), walks across the playground or enters the cafeteria, she may hear calls of "Miss Prall" or "Ms. Deichler." "I answer to both names usually, rather than making a big deal out of it," Prall told Education World. "The students are thinking more about what they want to say than to whom they're saying it. When they think about it, or write us letters or draw pictures, they know who is who."

Is Co-Principaling the Way to Go?

Marilyn Prall has some tips for a principal who might benefit from having a co-principal:

* Know yourself. Be sure you really want a co-principal, because the arrangement will mean giving up some turf. Maybe you're a "solo act." Will you be able to tolerate someone who may disagree with you and who has the same degree of decision-making power as you?

* Involve the staff and community early in the process. If Prall and Deichler had not had strong support from both those constituencies, their proposal would not have been approved.

* Figure out the kind of person you can work with. As Prall says, "You will spend long hours with this person -- more than you spend with your spouse, usually."

* To persuade the superintendent, having an administrator like Dr. Gil, who supports innovation, helps. But you'll also need hard data on such issues as student and staff mobility, numbers of staff evaluations, and the number of efforts you, as principal, make to increase student achievement. In your proposal, focus not on your needs but on the benefit to students and the community.

Martha Prall is in her fourth year as principal at the school. The first two years she was the sole administrator on site. "Our district had been assigning assistant principals (APs) strictly according to number of students," Prall says, "but I started pointing out complexity of school sites and span of control. My third year we hired an AP -- Martha Deichler, who had been a teacher at the school for 16 years."

A few months later, when Deichler was offered her own job as principal, Prall didn't want to lose her expertise. "The school needs someone who knows the programs, the community, and students as well as I do," Prall told Education World. "With so much mobility of the students and families, I wanted stability with staffing, including the administration."

Prall proposed to the district superintendent "an alternative leadership model" for the Vista Square school. She offered to share her title, with her and Deichler becoming co-principals.

SUPERINTENDENT'S OK

District Superintendent Dr. Libia Gil told Education World she was "easily persuaded by their display of courage and enthusiasm in presenting a well-thought-out proposal to benefit the school community -- at no additional cost to the district."

Prall and Deichler agreed to split the difference in their salaries in order to fund both positions at no extra cost to taxpayers. Prall took an $8,000 a year pay cut, and Deichler agreed to work for less than what she would have earned as principal of another school.

Of prime importance to Dr. Gil is Deichler's and Prall's interest in testing the hypothesis that stabilizing leadership would help increase student and family stability. "We agreed to a two-year pilot and will reassess the status at that time," she said. "We anticipate that the co-principalship will continue although funding sources may shift."

WORKING TOGETHER

Deichler and Prall went into the two-year trial period of co-principalship knowing they could make it work. Both felt the need to have two principals to meet with all parents, receive and respond to calls from teachers, and connect with all students. "I decided to join Marilyn as co-principal because I really love the school and community of Vista Square," Deichler told Education World. "My own two daughters attended this school, and I started the school garden here, and I really feel a part of what's happening at Vista Square. When Marilyn and I realized the energy for change we could produce with two of us, we decided to go for it."

The two cite mutual respect, honesty, and shared values as traits that have given them common ground in working together. And neatness counts: Prall and Deichler share a 15-by-15 foot office and a phone. Both have impeccable educational credentials and professional backgrounds. Not that the course of co-principalship is always smooth. When they very occasionally disagree, both say they are able to work through it because of mutual respect.

About Vista Square

Vista Square Elementary School is in a diverse, eclectic community. Co-principal Martha Deichler described the school's surroundings: "If you walked just a half mile from our school, you would walk past a tattoo parlor, six bars, a trailer park, five motels, a thrift shop, a cool '50s cafe, two card rooms, duplexes, apartments, a drive-through Starbucks, a Jack-in-the-Box [fast-food restaurant], five taco shops, a small market, and a host of other small eateries, rentals, and apartments."

The school has 755 students, approximately 60 more than it had last year. About 78 percent of students are Hispanic, and 73 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch programs. "Our student mobility hovers around 40 percent," said Prall. "A number of our students live in motels."

Vista Square is home to a family resource center with family advocates, welfare-to-work staff, Child Protective Service workers, youth counselors, and job counselors. The school also houses adult education classes in, for example, parenting, learning English as a second language, and earning a high school degree. In addition, the school has the South County Deaf and Hard of Hearing (D/HH) Program, which is fully integrated into the life of the school. Many of the D/HH students are included in regular classes with an interpreter throughout the day. Interpreters sign at every assembly and school function, and many students know some American Sign Language (ASL). At student request, an after-school ASL class is taught.

TEACHER'S VIEW

"Marilyn and Martha afford Vista Square with many needed outside programs that would be difficult to maintain with only one principal," first- and second-grade team teacher Rebecca Bayer told Education World.

"Another key benefit of having two principals at Vista Square is that staff, parents, and children have increased accessibility, allowing for more direct contact with the administration," added Bayer. "While one principal is at a district meeting, the other is able to observe classroom teachers, conference with parents, and work with students having behavior problems. Together, they solve problems in very creative and effective ways."

Bayer pointed to steps the co-principals took to curb tardiness and absences. If a student comes to school on time every day for a week, he or she gets a raffle ticket. At the end of each school quarter, a raffle drawing is held. The two students whose tickets are drawn receive a bicycle, helmet, and lock, all donated from local stores. Since this program was put in place, the number of tardies and absences has decreased.

MAKING IT WORK

Prall and Deichler shared insights into making a co-principalship like theirs work.

  • Have no secrets. Maintain open, honest communication at all times.
  • Never undercut in public a decision the other has made. If you disagree, talk about it only behind closed doors.
  • Trust the other person, who has as much ability and authority as you do.
  • Make time to debrief and plan together every day, so you're not both working on the same thing. This also helps you figure out if the same people are approaching both of you about an issue.
  • Know that at times parents, students, and staff members will try to play you off against each other by going to whomever they think will give them the decision they want. Open, honest communication will solve this problem.

"When we disagree," Prall says, "we do it in the office with the door shut, and sometimes, the conversation gets excited, more than heated. We are both confident and not intimidated by the other, so we actually are not afraid of these discussions -- we learn a lot from each other."

And as they're learning a lot from working together, Marilyn Prall and Martha Deichler, or "M & M" as staff members and people in the community sometimes call them, are teaching a lot to students, staff members, and the community by setting a cooperative example.

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