After Red Lake High School was labeled one of Minnesota’s worst schools, its board moved quickly to dismiss the principal. It didn’t take long for Ev Arnold to land on his feet, though: The same district now pays him the identical salary to oversee the school’s turnaround.
Arnold’s situation is typical for principals in several states who were removed last summer under the federal School Improvement Grant program (SIG), intended to reform the nation’s worst schools. The most popular way for schools to qualify for a slice of the $3 billion available was pick a reform plan that called for replacing what was considered failed leadership–but many of those principals are still running schools.
“The musical chairs game is being played,” said Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). “School districts, because they want the money, are finding creative ways to meet the requirements of the law.”
Tirozzi’s group had predicted that urban districts would simply shuffle their principals while rural districts would struggle to find replacements.
A review by The Associated Press of 19 Minnesota schools in 12 districts that were awarded more than $24 million found that only a handful of principals have left education administration. The AP interviewed nearly a dozen school leaders, reviewed school board minutes and media reports and sought out displaced principals by phone and through web searches.
In West Virginia, where 15 schools applied for the grants, eight principals got waivers to stay, two were hired to oversee the turnaround of their former schools, four were reassigned to other jobs in the district and one retired, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. Similarly, four of the seven Nebraska principals affected were hired as turnaround officers for their former schools, said Randy McIntyre of the Nebraska Department of Education.
When asked about the principal shuffle, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said hiring decisions were “best handled at the local level.”
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The federal government had radically increased the amount of money for the SIG program last year. To qualify, districts had to choose one of four options: close the school, convert it to a charter, replace the principal and at least half the teachers, or replace just the principal and change the curriculum. It also required districts to use the grant money to hire a turnaround manager and a manager with duties similar to an assistant principal, freeing the principal to focus on academics.
More than 730 chronically low-scoring schools in 44 states received money, and more than 90 percent chose an option that required removing their principal–although the Department of Education let many principals stay if they were hired in the past three years as part of previous turnaround plans.