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Co-Principals Face Challenges Together

Many principals have days when they wish they weren't alone at the top. Mary Gentili and Jeanne Wall say they have found that working as co-principals gives them the help and support they need to efficiently run a school with 1,100 K-2 students. Included: A look at the co-principal model in action.

Robinson Elementary School co-principals Mary Gentili (left) and Jeanne Wall. (photo courtesy of Mansfield Public Schools)

At Robinson Elementary School, a visitor might find the principal in the cafeteria. Or talking with a parent in her office. At the same time.

That's because Robinson, a kindergarten through second grade school in the Mansfield (Massachusetts) Public Schools, has co-principals, Mary Gentili and Jeanne Wall. Not a principal and an assistant -- although there is an assistant principal as well -- but two principals who work together, each of whom has authority as the final decision-maker.

"We are equal principals," Gentili told Education World. "The buck stops with both of us. I love it, and it seems to work."

"I love it, too," added Wall.


Robinson Elementary
At a Glance

* Grades: K-2
* Average class size: 22
* Total enrollment: 1,121
* Ethnic breakdown:
-- White: 93.6 percent
-- African-American: 2.4 percent
-- Asian-American: 2.4 percent
-- Hispanic: 1.6 percent
* Title I school: Yes
* Free and reduced-priced lunch: 8 percent
* Special education: 14 percent
* Limited English Proficiency: 6 percent

(Source: Robinson Elementary School)

TWO PEOPLE, ONE VOICE

The two principals, good friends with deep roots in the community -- both their children attended the Mansfield schools, and Wall's granddaughter attends Robinson -- said the arrangement works because they share common educational philosophies and work ethics and they provide each other with invaluable support.

"If you are working by yourself in a large school with small children, I think it would be lonely," Gentili said. "I think you would feel pressure if you had the sole responsibility to make decisions."

"We can problem-solve and bounce ideas off one another," added Wall.

Robinson adopted the co-principal format in 1998, when the school district re-organized into centralized, rather than neighborhood, schools. At the time, there was discussion of dividing Robinson, which had been expanded several times over the years, into two schools. Administrators, though, decided it should remain as one school with two principals.

Kate Kristenson, the school's former assistant principal, said she thinks of the co-principal model as an upside-down triangle. The two points on the top are the two principals, sharing the major responsibilities, and the assistant principal is the point at the bottom.


Mansfield Schools
At a Glance

* Number of schools: 5
-- Pre-K school (1)
-- Elementary schools (2)
-- Middle school (1)
-- High school (1)
* Number of Title I schools: 1
* Total enrollment: 4,870
* Ethnic breakdown:
-- White: 96 percent
-- African-American: 3 percent
-- Other: 1 percent
* Free and reduced lunch: 6 percent
* Special education: 17 percent
* Limited English Proficiency: .5 percent
* Other information: Mansfield was rated among the top 100 communities (number 89) in the U.S.

(Source: Mansfield Public Schools)

At first, Gentili and another administrator served as co-principals and Wall was the assistant principal at Robinson. Wall joined Gentili as co-principal in 2000. Both are paid full principals' salaries.

"Initially, the cost [of two principals' salaries] came up at budget time, but now, no one questions it," Gentili said. "We had to work hard to make sure people understood it. It worked so well that it moved into the grade 3 to 5 school."

At first, some parents and teachers questioned whether one principal was more in charge than the other. A few teachers tested them, the way children might test parents; if one principal said no to a request, the teacher would ask the other one. But Gentili and her colleague made sure they spoke with one voice.

"It took the first year to establish co-principals," Gentili said. "Initially, if a teacher asked one of us, and one of us said no, the teacher would go to the other one. But if he said no, I said no."

And just because two people are doing the job doesn't mean they work fewer hours, Wall added. "We both go to school committee meetings and PTO meetings. We're still here at 7 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m."

Wall and Gentili have offices in different sections of the building and split some responsibilities and share or rotate others. Gentili's office is in the east wing of the building and Wall's in the west wing.

"We don't divide up the building," Gentili said. "We know everything that is going on. We make time every day to talk to one another."

While both principals share responsibilities for the whole building and can respond to any issue, each administrator -- Gentili, Wall, and the assistant principal -- is assigned to one of the three grades in the school.

An administrator follows that group of children during their three years at Robinson and gets to know them and their parents.

"Still, there is some overlap, and the others deal with other grades as well, but this helps to give us focus," said Wall. "This way there is a consistent contact person for the parents."

PARENT-MOTIVATED

A large part of the reason for the co-principal arrangement is to better serve parents, according to former superintendent of schools John Moretti. Parents of young children often are more anxious and have more questions than parents of older children, and having two principals allows parent concerns to be addressed quickly and directly.


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"This was not kid-motivated; this was adult-motivated," Moretti told Education World. "They [co-principals] can respond more promptly and with more quality to questions. The difference between this [and having another assistant principal] is the ability to respond in a timely, quality manner. When you have a school of almost 1,200, I question whether one person can do it effectively."

Wall and Gentili both said the ability to spend more time with parents is a big plus of having two principals.

"Some parents drive by and get worried because the building looks so big, and they are worried about their child getting lost, falling through the cracks," Gentili said. "This is the age parents are most concerned about.

"Each of us spends a lot of time with parents once kids are enrolled. We encourage them to call with questions. I was able to have three one-hour meetings with a parent considering holding her child out of kindergarten for a year. When the child started school, the parent was much more comfortable."

"I think if parents want to talk to anyone, they want to talk to the principal," continued Wall. "With 1,100 children, we pride ourselves on being accessible to them. If a parent calls today, someone will get back to them today."

Having two people in charge actually can expedite the decision-making process, added Moretti.

"When the principal speaks, there is a certain degree of finality to it," added Moretti. "The vice principal has to say, 'I'll check.' That slows the change agenda, it impedes change approval. When the principal says that's the agenda, you can go forward."

HERE, THERE, EVERYWHERE

Shared responsibility also provides Wall and Gentili with more mobility and more flexibility in their days.

"This gives us the opportunity to get into classrooms, a chance to see teachers in action, see the fruits of our labor," Wall said. "With one person, you wouldn't be able to do that as easily."

They also can focus more on curriculum, scheduling, and even student placements. Wall is responsible for the mathematics curriculum and Gentili handles the literacy curriculum. Each attends the other's curriculum meetings.

"We're able to spend more time on scheduling, like music, art, and recess, and placements, which helps with the culture of the building," Gentili said. "We are able to review each child individually before placing him or her in a class. In 2004, we only had 12 calls for parents asking us to reconsider the placement," something she attributes to the pre-placement meetings.

Mentoring is a priority in the Mansfield district, and two principals can provide more and better quality guidance to teachers and other administrators, said Moretti.

"I see the role of senior administrators to mentor the junior ones," he said. "It would be hard for any principal of an 1,100-student school to provide quality mentoring to two vice principals. Now, it's much easier to provide that. We pride ourselves on providing mentoring for junior administrators."

PREPARING NEW LEADERS

One of the beneficiaries of that mentoring was Kristenson, who in 2005-2006 became co-principal of the Jordan-Jackson Elementary School, the district's grade 3 to 5 school.

"When you're working with two principals, you have the opportunity to discuss things with two different people and get two different viewpoints," said Kristenson. "I like the idea of shared leadership. You also have two people mentoring you. "

As to whether there is any confusion about who makes a final decision, Kristenson said, "They are both the final word. Sometimes, someone just has to make a decision. But I usually try to meet with them together."

At Robinson, sharing responsibilities has made running the school more pleasant and efficient, Kristenson said. "I think it reduces the stress a lot and you can get more done," she said. "We support one another. We provide emotional and intellectual support. It's nice that it's all not on one set of shoulders."

HAPPY THERE ARE TWO HEADS

Staff members at Robinson said having access to two top administrators allows them to get issues resolved more easily.

"While one is dealing with a task, the other can talk to someone. It's like you're talking to the same person," said Scott Cohen, a second grade looping teacher in his sixth year at Robinson. "I never worry about the outcome if I talk to one or the other. Having two principals certainly is very convenient."

Monica Kiley, another second grade teacher, agreed. "I love the co-principals," Kiley told Education World. "There always is someone available to you. In a school this size, you need an extra person."

"You have two figures you know you can go to in any situation," added special education teacher Katie Fisher.

The co-principals contribute to the overall climate of the school, Cohen said. "I love being in this school. There are great checks and balances," he said "They really support each other. They get along so well and they have so many important decisions to make."

Dawn Haggis, who has two children in the school system, said she thinks with all the demands on administrators, it is almost necessary to have two principals. "I have no complaints [with the current arrangement]," she said. "Anytime I had an issue or written requests, I got a rapid response and requests were addressed."

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

While agreeing that today's administrators have more to do than ever, Dr. Vincent Ferrandino, former executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), said he is not convinced that the co-principal model can solve the problem of overburdened principals. Dr. Ferrandino said he is concerned that having two principals would create confusion about who ultimately is in charge.

"I'm a little skeptical," Dr. Ferrandino told Education World. "It depends on the structure and how the responsibilities are carved up -- it can work. But you have to look at the needs of the community and strengths of the people involved. Ultimately, there has to be one person in charge. You can't run a school by committee. It's well and good to share responsibilities, but at some point, there has to be a leader."

Shifts in financing and public attitudes also could make the arrangement short-lived in some districts. "When budgets get tight, people aren't going to want to pay two principals' salaries," he said. "This could be affected by the financial climate and community feelings. There needs to be a clear understanding by the community up front as to how the school is being run. Otherwise, there could be problems without community support."

At the same time, the increase in principals' workloads cries for some solutions, Dr. Ferrandino noted.

"Because of the changes in responsibilities for school leaders, schools are experimenting with different models. I think we're going to see variations of leadership models," he said. "The role of principals has changed so dramaticallybeing a managerial and an instructional leader requires so much time, it's impossible for one person to do it all."

In some schools, principals are passing off many of the managerial responsibilities or instructional leader duties to teachers, who then get paid a stipend, according to Dr. Ferrandino. "As more and more instructional responsibilities are placed on principals' desks, the other things are not going away."

But Wall and Gentili said it is clear to them and their staff who is in charge. They both are. "These are large schools -- to ask one person to be principal wasn't fair," Moretti added. "Not to demean our assistant principals, but when a parent has a problem, she wants to talk to the principal."

The two administrators really have to click personally and professionally for the arrangement to be successful, according to Moretti. "There needs to be a great synergy and chemistry between the two people," he said. "If you don't have the chemistry, I'm not sure it will be effective. And if they have two separate agendas, that's where it gets confusing."

Explaining to the public how the arrangement will work also is critical. "You do have to give a lot of thought to how receptive the community will be," Moretti added. "Finances are difficult across the country -- there has to be some re-allocation so the cost [of two salaries] is minimized."

Kristenson, who was eager to move on as co-principal of her own school, said she is convinced this is the way to work.

"I'm a team player -- I know the importance of working as a team," she said. "You can get more done. You have the chance to run things by another person.

"With shared leadership, you are not the only person making decisions that affect small children," she added. "We're modeling collaboration and teamwork for teachers and children. You can provide more accessibility to parents and teachers."

Added Wall, "I couldn't imagine doing it alone."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

The Principal's Partnership
See the organization's Research Brief about co-principals.

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