Principal's role vital to academic success

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Julie Mootz starts her first day as principal at Brookwood Elementary Monday, Aug. 22, 2011.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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.

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