When the terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the principal at Lemon Road Elementary School, was out-of-town on family sick leave. The school, one of the smallest in the county had an intern assistant principal who had been at the school for three weeks and was ill-equipped to handle the emergency crisis that was unfolding.
"This safety crisis was of such magnitude that it required Dr. Robin Hooker, principal of Kent Gardens, to come to our school to work with distraught parents and help guide us through a harrowing experience," said Sally DeBarr, a learning disabilities teacher at Lemon Road, during the School Board's budget hearings in May. "She was able to do so because she was able to leave her school in the hands of her assistant principal."
In all, nearly 20 speakers addressed the School Board about the need for full-time permanent assistant principals for the elementary schools that are too small to qualify for one under current staffing formulas.
In response, the school system staff has suggested, during a School Board work session Monday, June 2, a change in the formula that would give most, but not all, the remaining schools the additional administrator, at a total cost of $443,688.
In a separate action, the state Board of Education is in the process of updating the Standards of Quality (SOQ), including providing more funding to school systems for assistant principals.
BASED ON FY 2004 approved membership projections, Bush Hill in the Alexandria area, Camelot in Annandale, Clermont in the Alexandria area, Clifton, Cunningham Park in Vienna, Lemon Road in Falls Church, Olde Creek in Fairfax, Stenwood in Vienna, Wakefield Forest in Fairfax, West Springfield, Westbriar in Vienna, Westgate in Falls Church, and Woodburn in Falls Church will not have the enrollment numbers to qualify for a full-time assistant principal. However, with the recently approved staffing formula change aimed at reducing class size, Camelot and Wakefield Forest would receive the additional administrator.
In place of the full-time assistant principals, the schools get an intern, funded by a leadership grant from Wallace-Reader's Digest, who has all the authority of an assistant except for the ability to suspend students and evaluate teachers. The interns stay at the school for a year, while learning to be effective leaders and finish the remaining credits to earn master's degrees.
Many of those who spoke at the public hearing, while showing appreciation for the interns, said the rotating basis of the internship and the lack of authority posed safety risks and instability at the schools.
"Each new intern who works in our school enters the situation with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Each year, the staff must adjust to the individual difference of the interns," said Jennifer Loyer, a reading specialist at Westgate during the hearings. "An administrator who is assigned to a school permanently would be much more effective as staff members would know what to expect and how to work with the administrator."
ANY MAJOR CHANGES to the school system's intern program could put the grant in jeopardy, which totaled $862,000 for the first year in 2002 and is renewed on an annual basis an additional four years and totaling more than $4 million. Instead, staff is proposing changing the assistant principal formula. Currently a school must have 38 instructional staff or 600 students to qualify for the assistant. Under the proposed change, the formula would be lowered to 35 instructional staff or 400 students. If approved, it would equate to six new assistant principal positions, at a cost of $443,688. The change would not be significant enough to allow Clermont, Clifton, Lemon Road, Westbriar or Westgate to receive an assistant principal, however, the remaining small elementary schools would qualify for the additional administrator.
"If you want to do something, this is one way to do it," said Brad Draeger, assistant superintendent of the Department of Human Resources.
Another idea being floated is to extend the internship to two years, which would not be able to go into effect until the 2004-05 school year, The school system has already advertised for the one-year internships for the upcoming 2003-04 school year.
School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock) asked why schools who already have more than one assistant principal, of which there are 10 currently, could not have one of those assistants be an intern and have the full-time assistant assigned to the smaller schools. Thus far, said Draeger, many principals, who hire their own staff, have been reluctant to give up their assistants.
Under the state's proposed SOQ change, the formula for funding an assistant principal would change to one full-time assistant for every 400 students in an school. Currently, the state provides funding for a half position for between 600 to 899 students and a full-time assistant for more than 900 students. The change, if approved, would mean $40.2 million in funding statewide, but is expected to leave Fairfax County $1.8 million short.
AS FOR THE SAFETY CONCERNS raised by the parents and school officials at the budget hearing, Draeger said the possibility of another incident like what happened at Lemon Road is unlikely. As a result of the terrorist attacks, the school system has begun holding "table tops" where key personnel from each school sits down and address possible emergency situations. So even if a principal is out of the building during an emergency, the assistant principal or intern, senior teachers and other concerned staff have been trained to handle the situation.
"From a safety concern, there is no information the principal is getting that the assistant principal and leader teachers are not getting," Draeger said.