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State sharing stats on principals

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Eva-Marie Ayala, The Dallas Morning News

For first time, TEA requires districts to provide experience data on school leaders

Principals at public schools average nearly 20 years of experience in Texas and have been on the job in their current districts for about 12 years.

Urban schools, such as Dallas and Fort Worth, tended to have the most experienced leaders, while charter schools had the most inexperienced.

That's according to a new annual report from the Texas Education Agency, which for the first time is requiring administrators to report that data to state officials to give parents — and the public — better insight into who's running their public schools.

Studies have long suggested that principals play one of the biggest roles in student success because they drive so many decisions at schools. Advocates say consistent campus leadership is key. Principals can significantly impact the overall environment of a school, which could either attract good teachers or drive them away.

But few studies have been able to take a deep look into just how much impact principal longevity has on an school because such tenure data wasn't routinely tracked.

"Principals are like the head coach," said Archie McAfee, executive director for the Texas Association of Secondary Schools Principals. "If they get enough Ws, they are celebrated and get credit for the wins. But if they don't, they get booted. ... Now we'll be able to look at principal tenure alongside test scores to see what trends there are with principals and school improvement."

Texas' big-city schools tend to have the most experienced principals

New data collected by the state shows just how long campus leaders have been at their jobs. Those in large, urban areas are among the most experienced.

District Average experience Average tenure
Ysleta 23.1 19.3
Northside 21.7 17.8
El Paso 21.5 16.9
Austin 20.9 15.8
San Antonio 20.8 14.2
North East 20.3 13.9
Socorro 20 15.5
Fort Worth 19.6 17.5
Houston 19.1 15.7
Arlington 17.9 12.8
Dallas 17.7 14.3

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

Eva-Marie / DMN

McAfee, who was a longtime principal in Plano, pointed to one study out of South Carolina that suggested the longer a principal was in place, the better the academic outcome.

Principals often are replaced at schools that fail to meet academic standards.

Recently, more efforts have focused on improving campus leadership. Just this week the George W. Bush Institute selected four districts nationwide — including Fort Worth and Austin — to work with over the next three years to recruit, develop and support quality principals.

North Texas districts

While the statewide average years of experience was nearly two decades, the numbers ranged dramatically depending on where a principal was.

Of the 11 districts classified as major urban districts by the state, Dallas ISD had the lowest average experience at 17.7 years. Ysleta ISD in El Paso had the highest average of those districts at 23.1 years.

Many of the urban and rural districts had principals with four decades or more of experience in schools. Dallas had two — Rosalinda Pratt of Jill Stone Elementary and Sharon Stauss at Gaston Middle School.

"The principal's job is not easy," said Stephanie Elizalde, Dallas ISD's chief of school leadership. "Being able to have individuals who stay for that long is very telling of their talent and ability to adapt to a system that changes so much."

And the job itself is a juggling act — principals can be teachers, diplomats, custodians, bureaucrats and jacks of all trades.

How experienced are Dallas area principals?

Most North Texas districts have principals with an average experience of at least 15 years. Here's a look at new state data on campus leaders.

District Average experience Average tenure in district
Dallas 17.7 14.3
Fort Worth 19.6 17.5
Arlington 17.9 12.8
Garland 21.2 14.6
Plano 22.5 18
Lewisville 22.1 16.1
Frisco 19.2 10.4
Mesquite 21.2 19.9
Richardson 18.9 15.6
Irving 16.8 10
Grand Prairie 17.4 10.3
Denton 19.5 11.7
Carrollton-Farmers Branch 21.1 16
McKinney 22.6 12.7
Duncanville 16.9 8.1
Coppell 22.9 12.9
DeSoto 15.6 6.4
Highland Park 24.4 9.3

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

Eva-Marie Ayala / DMN

Take Dallas' Pratt, a longtime educator who's learned that her job is not only to focus on academics, but also to help any way she can. Recently, for example, she visited shop owners near her Jill Stone Elementary campus to get rain boots donated for all her kids, many of whom come from families that struggle financially.

"When you become a principal, that's when you really can make a difference in the lives of every single student," Pratt said. "It's not just about testing and instruction. It's taking care of the whole school."

Dallas officials are already poring over the new data to analyze not only how the district is staffed but also to get a peek at nearby districts that are the biggest competition for talent.

Dallas was near the middle of the pack in tenure in North Texas with an average tenure in the district at 14.3 years. Mesquite topped that list with an average of nearly 20 years. Plano and Fort Worth were close behind at about 18 years each, while Denton came in at 11.7 years.

Aimee Lewis of McKenzie Elementary is one of the two longest serving principals in Mesquite, having been a campus leader for 16 years. She's in her 28th year with the district.

Lewis' father was also a longtime principal in the district, and her grandfather was a principal in the Panhandle. Now, her daughter, a teacher in another district, is on the principal track.

But Lewis says it takes more than genetics to be a good principal. It takes hard work. Having a lot of experience has taught her to be flexible when handling everything from changing school accountability standards to rescuing a stray dog trying to seek shelter in her school.

"Experience is only part of it," she said. "If you're not invested in what you're doing, it doesn't matter if you've been doing this one year or 20 years. You have to care about your kids and your community."

Charter schools

Each year the Texas Education Agency collects school information ranging from state test results to staff makeup.

It was Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath who decided that for the 2016-17 report, released this fall, districts should begin reporting the experience on both principals and assistant principals. Morath, a former Dallas ISD trustee, is known for his focus on better data.

But the first year of reporting was not without its problems. Districts were to report how many years a campus leader had experience as a principal, but some reported overall experience, including as a teacher.

Across the state, charter schools reported the most inexperienced principals, with the median of the average experience in such districts at 12.5 years. However, officials from some local charter operators noted that software or coding issues caused them to submit data incorrectly.

Principal experience in Texas schools

This is the first year the Texas Education Agency released data on how experienced campus leaders are in public schools. Here's a look at how many years principals have been in their posts.

District type Median experience Median tenure in district
Major urban 20.3 15.7
Other central city 20.7 13.3
Major suburban 20 10.7
Independent town 19.2 11.8
Non metro districts 19.2 9
Rural 18.4 5.7
Charters* 12.5 4

Other central-city ISDs are non-metro areas. Independent towns are in counties with 25,000 to 99,999 residents. Some charters had reporting issues.

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

Eva-Marie Ayala / DMN

For example, Uplift Education reported that all of their campuses last school year had campus leaders with no experience. But their principal experience actually ranged from zero to five years. The International Leadership of Texas had reported all but three principals as new though the median experience was actually 14 years.

Charters are public schools that operate free from many state regulations, but they also receive funding at different levels than traditional districts. Charter advocates say that makes it difficult for them to remain competitive in salaries.

IL Texas founder Eddie Conger said he wasn't surprised to see less experience among charter school principals because of that pay gap. But he noted that some principals leave traditional districts because they want more freedom and flexibility, which charters can provide. He added that his charter district has a campus administrator who was once principal of the year in Dallas ISD.

Sara Ortega, a spokeswoman for Uplift, said that as the charter operator has grown and added new campuses, officials sought to promote from within as much as possible, which is why many of their principals are new.

"We've found that our experienced teachers and assistant principals have been a really good fit because they know our students already and know our school culture," she said.

FEATURED PHOTO: Second-grader Carla Puente, 7, gets a hug Tuesday from principal Aimee Lewis at McKenzie Elementary School in Mesquite. Lewis has been a principal in the Mesquite school district for the past 16 years. Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News