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Principal-in-Residence Speaks Out on Key Issues


Preventing violence in schools, involving parents in education, and findingstrength in diversity -- in an interview with Education World, Carole Kennedy, the new principal-in-residence at the Department of Education, touches on those issues and more! She suggests solutions to problems that plague educators and articulates insights into the essential role principals play in schools.

Carole Kennedy is serving a two-year term as the current principal-in-residence for the U.S. Department of Education. She has experience as an elementary and middle school principal and helped develop the nationally recognized Parents as Educational Partners (PEP) program. Kennedy also assisted Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and the National PTA in presenting standards to increase parent and family involvement in education. She has served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGP).

This week, Education World talks with Kennedy about making parents partners in education, preventing violence in schools, celebrating diversity, what makes a great school, and other issues of vital interest to educators and children's families.
Students surround the U.S. Department of Education's principal-in-residence, Carole Kennedy.

Education World: How did you come to be selected principal-in-residence?

Carole Kennedy: I became aware of the position of when I served on the NAESP board of directors. I did not anticipate I might ever fill that position. However, last year events that made my application possible fell into place. Any principal can apply. Three finalists visit the Department of Education for a day of interviews and activities. I was selected. I believe that my experiences as president of NAESP, my travels during that year, and the opportunities to visit with and know colleagues from across the nation strengthened my application. Secretary Riley initiated the position because he felt it was imperative that the principal's voice be heard in the department.

EW: What does a principal-in-residence do?

Kennedy: The job varies. I advise those in the Department of Education on legislative and programmatic policy and practice from the viewpoint of principals. I serve as a liaison between the department and national education organizations, especially the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and NAESP. I sit on several committees within the department. I answer requests from educators for resources and information, preview publications, and solicit information and recommendations from my colleagues across the country. The principal-in-residence can also develop a project of personal choice. I recently gained approval for the Principals' Leadership Forum to be held in Washington, D.C., in July. I travel on behalf of the Department of Education, make school visits, and speak to a variety of audiences.

EW: Do you have Secretary Riley's ear? What kinds of issues have you discussed with him?

Kennedy: Secretary Riley is indeed a great listener. He also lets you know in numerous ways that you are a valued member of his team. We have discussed the issues of teacher quality and the shortage of principals, and I have sat in on budget discussions. I have a voice at the table, not a chair in the back. In addition to being an excellent listener, the secretary is a tireless worker for the improvement of our schools. He introduces me to the audience when we're at activities, he includes me in important meetings, and he never fails to tell people from my home state how proud they should be of me!

EW: Did you have input into the speech Secretary Riley gave on February 22? How did you contribute?

Kennedy: I did have input into the State of Education speech. Three of us met with the secretary in December to suggest a topic for the speech, and then I was invited to a small group meeting to seek information about issues that he would include. It's not unusual for several of us to read and react to ideas and issues during the process of writing the speech. Lots of hard work goes into that speech. It isn't just something off the top of his head. I have an opportunity for input in [many] of his speeches and am honored when I hear him talk about something I have suggested.

EW: In your opinion, what is the most universal issue that school principals face, whether their schools are small or large, their districts are wealthy or not so well off, or their schools are public or private?

Kennedy: Principals face many important issues now. Picking just one would be difficult. We all struggle with time -- time for adult learning in the school that is so important to increase student learning. We don't have enough time for our own families. We struggle with the changing nature of our jobs. We're to be school-based managers yet we have no control over the budget; we're to be instructional leaders yet we have little opportunity to be in the classroom. We're held accountable for the achievement of our students yet some of us don't even get to select our staff. The complexities of the job of the principal can be overwhelming. Many of my colleagues retire as soon as possible, and there is a critical shortage of qualified people to replace them. And yet, the rewards of the job are tremendous. Where else can I touch the future by helping the present as I can as a principal!

EW: You've involved yourself in community service activities relating to race. How have those activities changed the way you view education?

Kennedy: The suburban community where I lived was experiencing a rapidly changing population. As more people from minority groups moved to our area, we felt we needed to develop a program that would build positive relationships among adults while helping children be successful in school. This community effort began with a committee representing all facets of community life. Working with that group and with students and parents at school convinced me that we had much to learn from one another and that all of us are responsible for all of us! I am much more cognizant of the need to be culturally aware always but especially when working to involve parents. For some, an invitation to come to school written on paper didn't mean them. We must be willing to accept that in some ways we are different and work to take advantage of the differences. All of us, however, want our children to have the best opportunities we can provide, allowing them to take full advantage of their potential.

EW: You've also been involved in community-service activities relating to violence. How can school administrators and staff help make a school safe?

Kennedy: First, there's an important message the public is not getting -- our schools are the safest place for our kids to be. They are safer in school than at home. They are also much safer on a school bus than in their parents' car. What can we do to make schools even safer? We can make them smaller. We know small schools are safer; however, we can't afford to build hundreds of new buildings. We can look at ways to restructure what we have. Many large high schools now have schools-within-schools. Groups of kids stay together throughout their high school years. We can ensure that every student -- elementary and secondary -- has at least one caring adult who checks with him or her every day. We can help students and staff build relationships so that everyone feels valued. We can work to make sure that students are academically successful and that those who struggle get assistance. We can give students many opportunities to be involved -- in extra-curricular activities and clubs and as tutors of young children and volunteers in the community. We can learn what the warning signs of possible problems are and be good listeners and observers so that we are proactive, not reactive. We can create within our schools a climate in which students and staff feel safe.

EW: Do you get to travel the country and visit many schools? What distinguishes a "great" school from other schools?

Kennedy: I have traveled some and will be doing much more. Next week, I will be in Oregon, visiting a number of schools. A "great" school is a place where students and staff want to be. Everyone feels valued, mutual respect is evident, and exciting learning and problem solving take place. Parents are welcome, not as visitors but as true partners in their children's educational experience, and the community shares in the excitement of learning.

EW: You helped develop a PEP program that involved parents in their children's education by treating them as true partners in the educational process. What are the most important first steps any school principal can take to lay a foundation for truly involving parents as partners? In what role did you work on this program?

Kennedy: While I was with the Grandview School District in Kansas City, Missouri, I helped develop the PEP program and was responsible for initiating it in our school. The most important first steps toward a foundation for a true school and family partnership is to believe that parents can and will play a meaningful role, to make involvement a priority, and to be willing to take the actions that build trust and thus build bridges from home to school. The principal must take the lead. I made home visits and I found that extremely valuable. We always expect parents to come to school when we want them. When we're on their turf, however, they see us in a much different light. They know we care about their children. All parents want their children to do well in school -- although they don't always show it. Too many times, parents don't know how to access the people or assistance they need and because of their own bad experiences with school, they just don't try. We can't let that happen.

EW: Technology is a big issue for educators. I think you would agree that school principals play an important role in leading the way when it comes to technology. What are some ways in which school principals can successfully lead schools to meet technology goals?

Kennedy: Technology goals are changing so fast that few principals, or anyone else, can keep up with them. About the time you have that computer lab you so badly needed and some extras in the classroom, they are all out-of-date. The greatest issue with technology is getting staff trained in its use and having someone on board who can assist with the problems that arise. A critical issue is how to select quality software when there's so much from which to choose. We know technology is a great tool; we just don't yet know how best to use it. Principals have to be informed about the potential for technology. It's going to change schools, perhaps in significant ways.

EW: According to the report "Programs for Aspiring Principals: Which Principals Participated?" nearly half of new principals participated in a school or district aspiring principal's program in 1994. What are some elements of those programs that have had the greatest impact on developing the next generation of school leaders?

Kennedy: Aspiring principals programs will be of greatest benefit if they are focused on those things that good principals do. If programs provide an internship with a successful principal, if they give students an opportunity for solving real-school problems, if they are based on theory and process, and if they provide follow-up assistance when that aspiring principal gets the first job, then the programs will serve a very useful purpose.

EW: The middle school movement has profoundly affected education, but recently in some parts of the country, there appears to be a return to the K through 8 school configuration. Do you think this trend will continue, or is it limited to a few school districts? In your opinion, is there a perfect configuration for schools?

Kennedy: I don't know what will happen to middle schools. I certainly hope they don't disappear. There is no perfect configuration of schools. The local community should look at its goals for its young people and its resources and make the decision. Too often the true concept of middle school was not initiated within the new school. Middle schools became junior junior highs. Some critics say the curriculum isn't rigorous enough when that generalization of all middle schools isn't fair. I was a principal of a sixth and seventh grade middle school, and although I nearly worked myself into the nursing home, I loved those kids. Too many of us are quick to say the middle schoolers are just bundles of hormones and they'll grow out of it in high school. I contend we need to bundle that energy, give them opportunities to volunteer, to work with elementary children, and to challenge them to achieve in academics and extra-curricular activities. They may surprise you with what they can and will do!

EW: What would you like to have accomplished when you finish your term as principal-in-residence?

Kennedy: I came to the Department of Education hoping that I could draw attention to the wonderful work being done by dedicated educators in districts across the nation. Unfortunately, we focus so much on what's wrong, we forget to look at all the things that are right! I want to represent not just principals but students, parents, and teachers as well. When I leave the Department of Education in two years, I intend for every employee here to recognize that there is a growing crisis -- too few good people want to be teachers and principals. We must change that, but to do it is going to require more and better partnerships among the players than we have now. We must value our children more than our actions show we do now.

EW: How can a person reading this interview become the principal-in-residence when your term expires?

Kennedy: There will be a change in administration six months before I leave the position. If no changes are made in the process, a principal who wishes to be considered as the next principal-in-residence will need to submit a written application. Most national principal organizations will have applications, as will we here in the Department of Education. A screening process ends with three candidates coming to Washington for a day of interviews and activities at the department.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
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