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Denton County principals have average two decades of experience, which TEA says matters

Between them, Kathleen Carmona and Vernon Reeves have spent nearly a quarter-century as the principals of their respective campuses. 

According to new data being tracked by the Texas Education Agency, that matters.

Kathleen CarmonaDenton ISD
Kathleen Carmona
Denton ISD

For years, the agency has included the average number of years teachers spend in the classroom in its yearly performance reports. This year, officials are adding the years of experience campus principals average in hopes the data will underscore the impact of longevity on school success.

Carmona and Reeves already have seen the impact of their tenure as the makeup of the district and their campuses morphs. Carmona has been the head of Strickland Middle School for 11 years, while Reeves has led Ryan High School for 13.

"There's an advantage to longevity," Reeves said. "To be efficient, you have to build strong relationships. Over time, that allows you to affect change quickly. It helps turn the boat quicker when it needs to be turned."

"The community, the teachers, the parents and the students — you have to earn their trust," Carmona added. "They get to know you and you can get some momentum going."

That momentum is crucial for principals as their roles continue to expand. Most days, they wear several hats: a campus cheerleader, a guide for teachers, a face for parents to talk to, a curriculum expert and an occasional disciplinarian. 

"Principals are like the head coach," Texas Association of Secondary Schools Principals executive director Archie McAfee told The Dallas Morning News. "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."

Denton ISD principals sit somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to experience in Denton County. Principals at school districts around the county have an average 21 years of experience, with roughly 10 at their current campuses. 

Statewide, the TEA data shows larger, urban districts have the most experienced principals, but that doesn't always hold true for Denton County. 

Though Lewisville ISD (which enrolls 53,000 students) has principals with an average 16 years of tenure leading campuses, Ponder ISD (1,300 students) follows close behind with principals spending an average 15 years as the head administrator. Ponder also has campus leaders with the most overall experience — an average 28 years serving as a principal at any given campus.

In Denton ISD, longtime principals have had to grapple with a growing district and changing demographics. For Carmona, her role has shifted to finding and providing more resources for families who were impacted by an economic downturn.

"[Strickland's] percentage of economically disadvantaged kids has doubled since I started," said Carmona, who has 60 percent of her student population on the free or reduced lunch program. "Poverty has had a big impact and we try to meet as many needs as we can."

At Ryan, the staff and students have been rather fluid as the district shuffles people to new schools. When Braswell High School opened in 2016, a portion of Ryan's student body went with it.

"We're in constant influx," Reeves said. "We've had to struggle with full classes and hire more staff, then downsize and move staff. We've had to be very flexible."

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In addition to managing campus capacity and student needs, principals have to lead a school full of teachers. The consistency of principals on a campus might play a large role in teacher longevity as well. According to teacher turnover rates, the school district with the longest-serving principals (Ponder ISD) also has the lowest teacher turnover rate in the county with only 6 percent of teachers moving to a new district each year.

Reeves said although experience in the principal role is helpful, it's also important for school boards to recognize the need for professional development. In other words, every principal should strive for improvement, no matter where they are in their career.

"I've grown every year that I've been a principal," Reeves said. "I think when someone leaves, you don't get the return on that investment. Denton ISD invests a lot into building its campus leaders."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

FEATURED PHOTO: Ryan High School Principal Vernon Reeves, shown during commencement exercises in June at the University of North Texas Coliseum, has served in his role for 13 years. DRC file photo