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Executives Get an Education as
Principals for a Day


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Once a year, bankers, lawyers, computer executives, plumbers, and others get to step out of their offices and walk the hallways and visit the classrooms as part of PENCIL's Principal for a Day Program. Several Rhode Island business people who envisioned eight hours of watching principals sign forms had a lot to learn about a principal's day… Included: Long-term benefits of principal shadowing programs, such as school-business partnerships.

When was the last time an eight-hour experience in your own neighborhood evoked descriptions like "eye-opening," and "blown away"?

That's how seasoned business executives described stepping into a principal's world for one day through the Principal for A Day Program. The national initiative, started by PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning), encourages community members to spend a day with a school administrator and take it all in.

This year, 19 cities throughout the U.S. participated in the Principal For A Day Program, according to PENCIL. (The organization did not have figures for the total number of business people and principals who took part.) Among the participants were 76 schools in Rhode Island. Education World talked with members of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and several principals who were "shadowed" about their experiences and hopes for future collaborations.

Mary Carvalho (standing, left), principal of Lonsdale Elementary School in Lincoln, Rhode Island, watches her "shadow," Christine A. Nowak, director of marketing for the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, read to a third grade class. (Photo courtesy of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce)

"Now when I have a bad day, I think of her [the principal she shadowed]," said Claudine Tikoian, assistant vice president for commercial lending at Sovereign Bank in Providence, Rhode Island. "Our days [at the bank] are manageable; she has so much work, that it is impossible to get it all done. She touches 500 students a year and has an impact."


Among the reasons the chamber participated in Principal For A Day was to give business people a perspective on what the public schools are like today, said Paul Ouellette, the chamber's vice president of community development and education. Thirty-two business people and 32 principals from the chamber's region took part, and still the chamber had a waiting list of members. "It exceeded my expectations," he said. "Last year, only two people in northern Rhode Island participated. We knew we could do better this year."

For many of the chamber participants, their principal's day was not what they expected. They envisioned the principals from their own school days, who rarely seemed to emerge from behind paper-piled desks and only knew a few students' names -- usually the students your mother told you to avoid.

"Many people were really blown away by what students are doing technically, and how busy principals are," Ouellette said. "The impression was that schools are more open than they used to be. People were surprised at how many principals seemed to know the kids by name.

"It was a real eye-opener," Ouellette continued. "The challenges principals face are far greater than 20 years ago. One of the comments made was that the principal should have roller skates -- they are like business leaders, but business leaders don't have to call the mothers of their employees. Principals have to shift gears constantly."

The Principal For A Day Program also allows the business and education communities to make their needs known. "We're trying to get the business side out; often businesses say students are not prepared -- educators need to hear what business leaders need," Ouellette told Education World. Shadowing also is a good first step toward creating more school-business partnerships, said Kenneth Cahill, executive director of the Region 1, Rhode Island, School-to-Career Partnership, which enlisted the chamber to oversee the event. "We wanted to do something sustainable, not just a one-day event," Cahill said. "We told them [participants] as best they can, to try to build something in to continue the partnership."

Many businesses already know they can provide valuable resources to schools. "It's like one person said, 'I wish I knew my principal needed computers. I have a whole warehouse full of them,'" said Ouellette. "They also could use more career-planning programs." A follow-up meeting for participants was set for late April.


Besides getting a snapshot of a principal's day, chamber members wanted to learn the types of support most needed by schools.

"It's important for educators to know what we need, and it's good for us to have a better idea of their challenges," said Tikoian of Sovereign Bank, who shadowed Margaret Tincknell, principal of Bernon Heights Elementary School in Woonsocket.

Learn More About the Principal For A Day Program

Information about the Principal For A Day Program is available through PENCIL.

The challenges started rolling in with the buses. "She [Tikoian] was overwhelmed by how many unexpected interruptions I had," said Tincknell. "She said I was busier than any CEO she had seen. She saw people waiting for me when I came in. She saw the day-to-day concerns of teachers, parents, and students. At noon, I still had not unloaded my briefcase, which had work in it I brought home the night before. She saw how functional and yet how diverse an administrator has to be, like a manager and an educator, and all the things one has to focus on."

Tikoian, who attended Woonsocket schools, said the visit "certainly was an eye-opening experience for me. I have a much greater appreciation for principals; I never saw principals when I was a kid. I had no clue what went on. There are 580 students in the school, and she knows almost all their names, and knows a little about each one."


The variety of skills and tactics principals employ impressed Tikoian and other executives. "There is an amazing scope of things an elementary school principal does. She is like a CEO who has to look at the big picture, but, in addition, she has to be hands-on and handle every little squabble," Tikoian said. "A principal has to react a lot; on the top level in business, you have assistants who help make decisions. She's handling everyday problems you can't plan for, like breaking up fights between parents in the parking lot."

Besides all the planned and unplanned daily responsibilities, Tikoian also visited on a day when Tincknell had to tour the school with local public safety officials and discuss plans for establishing a shelter-in-place in the event an emergency prevented students and staff from leaving the building. That tour took two hours. Parent-teacher conferences also were scheduled from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., making it an almost 12-hour day.

The extensive responsibilities and limited control assigned to principals struck Thomas Mrva, president and chief executive officer of Lighthouse Computer Services Inc., in Lincoln, Rhode Island. "The principal is like the president of a company with both hands tied behind his back -- he's limited by funding," said Mrva, who shadowed Steven Knowlton, principal of North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School. "The principal is like everything. He's a traffic cop, mentor, leader, disciplinarian, and he demands respect.

"It was a great experience for me; it gave me more appreciation for what teachers and principals go through," added Mrva. "Steve Knowlton has so many age groups. I would give the guy a medal of honor."

Jack Kramer, senior vice president government affairs and community relations for CVS, whose headquarters is in Woonsocket, said he assumed the elementary school principal with whom he was paired -- Vielka Rollins of Leo A. Savoie Elementary School in Woonsocket -- would be anchored to her desk, weighed down with administrative responsibilities.

"She did have all the administrative responsibilities, but she had everything else as well," Kramer told Education World. "Like handling things on the fly, discipline problems (on the day Kramer visited, two students were caught stealing), teacher conflicts, listening to maintenance people, observing student teachers, working with the school nurse, budgets, and administration.

"It's one thing if she's an executive in a $24 billion company, but [being a principal] is a tough job," Kramer added. "And she does it all with a big smile."


Shadowed principals said they wanted business people to see not only how diverse and numerous their responsibilities are, but how their responsibilities are growing as their resources are shrinking.

"I thought it was a neat thing to do, make connections with people in the business community," said Knowlton, principal of North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School. "We don't have enough on-the-job training. I thought this was a good way to get the ball rolling. I wanted the person to see what our school is all about, what takes place. He [Mrva] sat in on some planning sessions. I tried to give him a little taste of everything we do."

"I wanted him to have a sense of how busy administrators in school systems are, and the challenges we face, and how we manage to put everything together," said Rollins of Savoie. "We have to respond to a lot of people. To alleviate these challenges, we need funding. The challenges we face are many. It is critical for business leaders to know that."

Besides talking about the pharmacy industry and reading to some students, Kramer also observed teachers asking for support in conferences, classroom instruction, activities, and disciplinary action.

Savoie already has a partnership with CVS, so Rollins knows how beneficial those relationships can be, and hope this one grows. "I knew partnering with the private sector is very important. We learned we have a lot of resources working together."

Kramer can discuss with staff members the skills needed in the pharmacy field, like the ability to work cooperatively and having a solid understanding of science and math, so the ideas can be incorporated into professional development programs and in reports to the district office, said Rollins. "I'm looking forward to all the things we can do together -- I know he is a good and important resource for the school. I'd like to see more community involvement."


After watching principals cope with the routine and the urgent in hallways, classrooms, and parking lots, several chamber members said they are ready to get more involved with the schools.

"I wanted to see how businesses could find a way to help our schools," said Mrva. "One of my sons came home and said the school was out of tissues and the teacher was asking for donations. I was pretty surprised. Teachers don't complain about what little they have.

"The focus in business is on rapid change -- now I realize you can't always do that in education," Mrva continued. "But I would like to see teachers develop a wish list. Either I or someone else might have a warehouse full of stuff they need. I'd like to see an online program to link teachers' wish lists with business supplies. That could help a lot with furniture, fixtures, or computers."

CVS already pays for a counselor and helps with events at Savoie, but Kramer said he can see that partnership expanding by allowing classes to tour the CVS corporate office and having pharmacists guest lecture at the school.

During Tikoian's visit to Bernon Heights, she spoke with students about the importance of writing, mathematics, and people skills in the banking field. The women hope the relationship continues; Tincknell plans to shadow Tikoian at Sovereign Bank this summer, and Tikoian may return to Bernon to teach some banking lessons. "I hope this program really takes off," Tikoian added.