SANDY — Christmas came early for Julie Mootz. It was on Aug. 22.
But she didn't get the normal kind of presents a person would expect on Christmas morning. Just before 9 a.m., Mootz, with her bright, short red hair, sunglasses and a big smile, greeted 570 excited and giggling children outside of Brookwood Elementary. It was her first day as principal.
"I didn't sleep last night," Mootz said on Monday morning. "I'm so excited. It's unreal. It's just like Christmas. I honestly believe that."
Mootz is becoming a principal at one of the hardest times in history. No longer are principals just expected to be the managers at schools; they now have to create a positive atmosphere, make sure the students are performing, get adequate resources for teachers, get to know each child personally, be the instructional leaders at the school, and so on, said Dick Flanary, with the National Association for Secondary School Principals.
Law and policy makers all over the country have scrutinized teachers for not preparing students enough for college and work experiences. But according to research, principals are the second most important figures at a school, next to teachers, in determining a child's academic success. And since principals are the ones in charge of hiring quality teachers and firing or remediating teachers who are not performing, their role may be even more important at a school than many have thought in the past.
"School leadership has often been overlooked as a vital and necessary ingredient in school improvement," said Lucas B. Held, spokesman for The Wallace Foundation, a non-profit based in New York City aimed at improving education for disadvantaged children. "More than a decade of research and experience has made it clear that our nation cannot create a world-class public education system without having an effective principal in every school."
It used to be that a principal was the person the students and even the teachers feared in the school, explained Rob Monson, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a principal in Parkston, South Dakota. He remembers his parents telling him to make sure he stayed out of the principal's office.
Today though, he said principals want students to stop by and say hi and ask questions. They are often out with the students during the day, in the classrooms and hallways. Principals were once considered firemen, who would resolve situations after the fact, Monson said, but now they are more like fire chiefs, trying to prevent bad situations from occurring.
Charlene Black, mother of four from Logan, experienced first-hand what an involved and caring principal can do for a school.
About four years ago, she said the new Hillcrest principal came and visited every student's house — getting to know each one by name. He also has a reward system for well-behaved students. They are entered into a drawing for an opportunity to compete against the principal in different activities like in an eating contest, race or a silly string fight.
"It is a really positive environment," Black said. "It has helped my girls enjoy school and has had a positive effect on teachers."
The Logan mom volunteers at the school and said the teachers respect the principal and are excited to implement changes he proposes.
Sidney Carpenter, who has taught for more than 25 years in seven states, said principals are key.
"With the support and encouragement of a principal, teachers can do anything," Carpenter said.
But principals can also have a negative effect on schools as well. Some schools will see a mass exodus of quality teachers when teachers feel the principal is not listening to them.
Others will see parents pick different schools for their children.
When Diane Kimball walked into her neighborhood school in Canyons School District for the first time many years ago, she said the principal had no time to talk to her about the school and neither did the kindergarten teacher.
"It seemed like the principal could care less and had the attitude of 'why would I need to get to know you?'" Kimball said of the experience, adding that the principal no longer is at the school. "It was disheartening."
She could tell she did not want to send her children to such a school.
But she had heard positive things about the Brookwood principal, who at that time was Michelle Clark, and decided to check the school out.
"When Mrs. Clark saw us come into the school, she came right out and gave us a tour," she said. "She knew everyone we passed in the hall. She told me something about each teacher and said hi to each child and knew them by name and they were excited to see her. I could tell she ran a happy and positive organization."
Kimball sent all four of her children to Brookwood, two of whom are still there In fact, almost 30 percent of the students at Brookwood this year are not in the school's boundaries.
The community at large has higher expectations for their principals than they used to, explained Mike Fraser, assistant superintendent of school accountability for the Granite School District. The community expects the schools to have the highest marks on state tests, the best extracurricular and athletic programs, the best resources and the best technology.
"We hold schools more and more responsible for things all the time," Fraser said, adding that the No Child Left Behind has added to that call. "A lot of people don't appreciate or understand the commitment this job requires."
For example, John Welburn, principal at Hunter High School, said during some seasons he will work 60 to 80 hour weeks.
On Tuesday, Welburn said he went around to every classroom in the high school to check up on things and make sure classes were not too full and that students and teachers were comfortable in spite of problems with the air conditioning.
Wellburn has been a principal at all three levels and been in administration for 16 years and said the job of a principal has gotten far more complicated over the last 10.
"We are in the age of accountability," Welburn said. "There are so many things pulling at your time. It is a tough job that is not for the faint of heart by any means. I figure you have to have tough skin to be in this business, but if you are working as hard as you can to help teachers help students you are doing what you need to do."
He also added that principals put so much time and effort into their work because they love what they do and they love kids — otherwise they won't be in the position for long.
Mootz, for one, can't wait for the rest of the school year to unfold. She already has created incentives for teachers to do the best they can, plans on having more collaboration and instructional time for teachers and will come in early and leave late so that she can spend the school day with the students and teachers.
"It's easy to get caught up in the minutia of the things you need to get done every day. But these aren't the most important things," she said pointing to various piles and folders on her desk of different things she will get done after the students are safely at home. "The important thing is the kids. It's all about students learning so they can progress and do well."