Assistant Principals are Indispensable* to a School’s Success

(In 2000 when I arrived to take over the helm of CSD 29 Queens NY; I found a couple of schools with not one AP in the building. In one school the principal told me that on a rare “good day”, he could “steal time” and do some informal observations. I said to myself: This is planed educational underdevelopment; and immediately adjusted the budget to add an AP to each of those schools. When I informed one principal that I was giving him an AP he actual got emotional; because, he said: “I have been asking for an AP for years; and I knew that not having an AP in the building was hurting my kids”….In all of these schools with the addition of an AP, the quality and quantity of classroom observations increased dramatically, student “incidents” dropped, and student academic achievement would consistently improve each year!)

There is perhaps no greater misunderstood, underappreciated and unacknowledged important position in education than that of the Assistant Principal (AP). Although the principal is often the schools “headliner”; in every situation I have experienced as a principal (and if we are to be honest) the AP worked just as hard, just as long hours, and was as necessary, as the principal. Further, a great deal of what can go wrong, or right in a school is based on the expertise and quality of the AP(s). I have visited many schools over the years; and it is probably safe to say that the best schools of course have a principal with a vision and a strong strategic plan to make that vision operational; but behind every great principal I have observed; there stood a great AP(s).
As a result of our latest “pendulum swing” into (and hopefully one day out of) the era of: “professional pedagogical knowledge and experience doesn’t matter”. The important role of various members of a schools team, and how they impact a schools success has been lost. There is just no way that a school districts leadership team that lacks the critical input of experienced school based administrators, can fully understand what is truly needed to make a school work. The simplistic notion that the skills of a “fast-food” or grocery store manager was easily transferable to a school leadership position (with a few fly-by-night workshops), says a great deal about how we feel about the kind of people we want to lead our schools; but more importantly, the kind leadership we believe our children deserve. Perhaps no position has suffered more from this era of ignorance then the AP. As school budgets became challenged, or as in the case of one school, to enhance its varsity sports program; AP positions were eliminated; without a single strategic thought as to how the task performed by that AP would get done. In places like Philadelphia, schools have been forced to cut positions like that of the AP, and school guidance counselors, simply to be able to have enough teachers to barely cover overcrowded classes. This can happen because the public is not aware of the critical role of these non-teaching positions; and of course the least aware communities, are the ones whose children will see the greatest eliminations and harm done to their schools. Many of the struggling schools I now visit, in truth need more, not less school based administrative support; as the children who attend these schools, bring a plethora of challenges with them into the school building; even the most talented and gifted principal can’t be in two places at once; and so we are watching the devolution of the principal’s ability to be effective because of the absence of an AP colleague in the building.
The physical and emotional support that students need is obviously (to the trained observer) missing as that necessary AP is missing. But there is another short, and long-term loss to a school when there is a shortage of school based leadership. The AP (at least in all of my schools) serves as a critical instructional leader/staff developer in the school building; this role is essentially indispensable for teachers in the first to third years of their practice; but it is also necessary for “veteran” teachers, so that they can continue to improve in their teaching methodology. The same schools that suffer the most financially; will more than likely be the schools with either high teacher turn over, and/or a constant influx of 1-3 year teachers; thus these children suffer a triple “penalty” of: having a principal who is now devoting less time to students and instruction in order to do the work of a missing AP (just because a position is eliminated that does not mean that the essential work of that position is eliminated); the “building-calming”/management of the AP, the socio-psychological student support of an AP; and the diminished attention being given to the improvement of the quality of instruction, created by the shortage of an AP.
A further problem that is caused by the absence of understanding of how a school operates; is the long-term harmful effects this lack of attention to the AP position will cause in the future. It is the AP position (and not the fast-food restaurant manager’s position) that is the best, most efficient and most effective training ground for future principal’s. A school system essentially receives free principalship training as the AP, over time is professionally prepared by the principal by performing: manageable “principal duties” (i.e. the budget, crisis management, personal support, etc.) Over time the AP grows in knowledge, success and confidence. This “on the job training” perfectly complements the course work of the principal’s graduate school study programs that lead to certification.
I understand that a lot of principal’s (who like their colleagues in Philadelphia) are between a rock and a budget hard place; they are often forced to choose between two bad choices for children. And so the decision that would give them the ability to properly, and effectively staff their buildings is “above their pay grade”. There will probably not be a public “ground swell” for AP’s, as there is little general understanding of their important role in the academic success of children. But a start would be for those of us who do know, to explain why these school based leaders are necessary for a school to even function properly, let alone improve.

*Absolutely necessary, essential, incapable of being: disregarded, neglected, disrespected; and should be well compensated!