Principals preach, avow accountability

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 6, 2002


LAPLACE – A telephone rings. John L. Ory Magnet School Principal Teri Noel, pauses, then excuses herself. A few minutes later she returns.

“The bus drivers are coded into the phones,” Noel explained. “It is an easy way to radio the school. They can let us know if they are running late or if a child was left at school.”

For Noel, the day begins long before the bell summons students to class at 8:30 a.m. Sometimes school bus drivers call her in the early morning hours to discuss problems with buses or schedules. Generally there is a list of “must-dos” waiting for her when she arrives on the LaPlace campus.

“Most of the morning is spent being visible,” Noel said, “greeting students, getting substitutes in classrooms, making sure parent and teacher concerns are addressed.”

The rest of the day is a whirlwind of meetings, paperwork and, yes, even disciplinary work.

“I met with several students today about discipline problems in the classroom,” Noel said.

It is not always easy to be the one to dole out punishment. But Noel is more than just a disciplinarian for the 362 students attending the LaPlace school, she is also a mentor and head of the school’s academic focus.

“Right now we are looking at the D’s and F’s (for the first nine weeks) and discussing what we can do to make the next nine weeks successful,” Noel said. “The responsibility is on our shoulders to see that they are prepared.”

This year the state and local educators are emphasizing accountability in schools and no group is feeling the heat quite like St. John Parish principals. Principals’ responsibilities are increasing, along with the repercussions for administrators and teachers at “failing” schools.

Proponents of an “accountability” policy in school districts believe that holding school administrators responsible for the success and failure of schools will bring Louisiana schools up to standards.

In St. John Parish, the accountability policy is being used to bring up test scores, increase student enrollment and decrease the number of students leaving the public school system.

Schools are expected to come up to standards and surpass them – or else.

“Absolutely,” Noel said when asked if being principal is more stressful now that the accountability policy is in place.

“There have been added stresses. It (accountability policy) increases the amount of paperwork we do. Principals also have to be in the classrooms more to see that the level of academics is where it should be.”

Local principals are “crunching more numbers” and “collecting more data” than before, Noel said.

“But our philosophy is, ‘What gets monitored more improves,'”she said.

What are added stresses worth? At a St. John the Baptist Parish School Board meeting in October, Superintendent Michael Coburn introduced a plan to increase principals’ salaries. The School Board is expected to vote this month on the proposal.

“Principals are accountable to the students, parents, teachers, myself, the school board,” Coburn said. “They are the CEOs of their schools. If they are not producing, something must be wrong.”

St. John Parish students are being tested by state standards. Now the federal government is becoming more involved. With the “No Child Left Behind” campaign coming in, school administrators are likely to see even more “strict and stressed” working conditions.

“Everybody is attacking principals,” Coburn said. “Believe me, it is not an easy job.”

A raise in pay would compensate principals for increases in work and stress. It is also targeted at attracting and retaining high quality school administrators to the parish.

“The salary has to be there to attract good leaders,” Coburn said. “I am fighting for people I know are fighting for me.”

Noel is one of a number of local principals who supports the increase in salary. But no matter how large the increase, Noel said, the job would continue to be about more than money for most principals.

“I have never been about the money,” Noel said. “I took a cut in pay to come here. This is where I felt like I could do the most good.”

Whether or not she sees an increase in her check, Noel said she will continue to answer ringing phones, meet with parents and teachers, monitor class projects and presentations, and send home sick children.