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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."
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.
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."
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.
"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.
"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.