A Principal’s World

January 1992By Comments

Conventional wisdom about education holds that local control, a strong principal, and active, involved parents are crucial ingredients in the mix that makes a successful school. This wisdom is so pervasive that the Legislature has made local control, in the form of “site-based decision making,” a legal requirement in Texas schools. But this wisdom assumes that the principal, the site-based decisions, and the active parents will all operate in concert, that they will all finally agree on what is best for their school. Yet they don’t necessarily agree, and there isn’t any particular reason why they should. When they don’t agree, the results are more damaging than the weakness of a principal or the indifference of parents.

Ron Beauford was the principal of Austin’s L.C. Anderson High School until late last October. He is a stocky man with large blue eyes and more than his share of intelligence and charm. In June 1989 he took a trip to Canada, and in retrospect, that was the beginning of the end of his world. “It’s my fault,” he says today. “I created the situation where all of these problems blew up, and in reality all of them could have been resolved.” But his supporters refuse to believe that Beauford is to blame. They think that dark conspiracies by the powerful and well placed were the cause. And although Beauford’s candor is disarming, he also seems to think there is something more in his situation than appears on the surface. “What did I touch,” he wonders grimly, “that I didn’t know I touched?”

Beauford had been principal at Anderson for nine years. The school is in northwest Austin, a relatively new, semisuburban area. Although he was not immune from criticism, Beauford made the school work. Eighty-eight percent of the graduates from Anderson go on to college. One quarter score over 1,200 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. In a survey conducted by the Austin school district, every teacher on the Anderson faculty agreed with the statement “Our classrooms are characterized by students actively engaged in learning.” Parents were quite involved in the school. The Parent-Teacher-Student Association has a membership of about 630. Beauford ran the school the way any good principal does—as a benevolent dictatorship—although in his own mind his system was closer to a democracy. No one could have been happier than he was when the Legislature made site-based decision making official policy. Beauford had always considered himself more or less autonomous.

During the summer of 1990 Beauford decided to begin a superior but complicated new program. Although he had been vaguely aware of the International Baccalaureate degree, it was while he was in Edmonton, Canada, where site-based management has been in effect for several years, that he first conceived of bringing the I.B. program to Anderson High. In Texas, only nineteen high schools, including Bellaire High School and six others in Houston, participate. The program offers advanced courses in mathematics, history, literature, and science, and requires fluency in a foreign language. As juniors and seniors, students can take a series of six tests, given all around the world at participating schools on the same day. Those who pass receive an I.B. diploma, which is recognized by prestigious universities worldwide and is accepted as college credit in a variety of courses. In Florida, high school graduates with an I.B. diploma are given a four-year college scholarship by the state.

Beauford knew that only a small number of students at Anderson would earn a full I.B. diploma. But he thought that as many as half the juniors and seniors would take at least one I.B. course and that the greater demands and the international outlook of the I.B. curriculum would help raise the intellectual level of the whole school. And, Beauford thought, the I.B. courses wouldn’t be that much more demanding than Anderson’s already demanding honors courses.

He took teachers, a few parents, and Dr. David Hill, the assistant superintendent of secondary education for the Austin school district, to Bellaire in Houston to see how I.B. worked there. In the spring the program was explained to parents. The broader curriculum looked appealing to most, especially since they were told that the existing honors program largely met or exceeded the requirements for I.B. A few articles about I.B. appeared in the Parent-Teacher-Student Association newsletter, but little other information went to parents. School began.

The first shock, mild though it was, came on the first day of school when freshman students learned that two courses had been switched at the suggestion of the I.B. coordinator at Bellaire. Usually freshmen in honors courses took biology before taking physical science and a course called world geography before world history. Now at Anderson that pattern was reversed.

Then the courses proved to be very difficult. Students who had been used to making A’s were bringing home poor grades for the first time. They studied feverishly but couldn’t keep up as the teachers raced ahead in order to cover the material. All of this added to the normal stress of switching from junior to senior high. Parents began talking to one another, and soon complaints about the I.B. courses started coming to teachers, counselors, and the school administration offices.

On October 16 there was a long, emotional meeting at the school. About one hundred parents met with Beauford, Hill, other administrators, and teachers. Beauford had decided not to send a notice about the meeting for some reason, so news of it spread by word of mouth. Certain parents were enthusiastic about the program, but most who came were worried. Their kids were bringing home poor grades although they were working like dogs. They were under too much stress. Why did they have to take this foreign import? Why couldn’t the school have the same honors courses as before?

Beauford and the administrators promised something would be done but didn’t say what because they didn’t know. Beauford interpreted the controversy as an attack on the program that he believed was a special jewel for the school. He didn’t particularly want to dilute or change it. In his mind he had followed all the proper site-based management procedures and the decision was made. Kids always had a hard time freshman year. They would adjust in good time, and their grades would go up.

As Beauford continued to think about the problem, he saw what he believed was a solution—switch the two courses back. He sent a letter to David Hill proposing just that, and Hill concurred. Beauford sent the letter to the parents that afternoon, a Friday. But now, two months into the term, changing back and starting over wasn’t going to solve anything. A group of parents met with Hill that Monday night, still complaining. Hill had been having his doubts as well. On Tuesday, Hill says, he asked Beauford to hold off on switching the courses and to consider other options. Beauford said, “But this is a site-based decision. If we change it, we’ll look stupid.” He said he would resign. Hill didn’t really think Beauford would do that and held his ground. Beauford faxed his resignation to the superintendent.

There was a demonstration and a walkout in the days following the resignation, but since then, most of the teachers and students and most of the parents have simply gone about their business quietly. But a group of parents continues to carry the torch for Beauford. Several angry parents stayed at a school board meeting until three in the morning to make accusations to the board. These parents are convinced that the I.B. program was undermined by people whose conception of education is narrow and provincial. And they see conspiracies at work. The football coach had done some funny things with school money he controlled, and Beauford had had him audited. Didn’t that have something to do with all this? And various other outlandish plots were suggested to me in hushed voices and oblique remarks. The firing may become an issue in the race for president of the school board. Parental politics at the school have become complicated and bitter.

Beauford made a mistake when he resigned, as even he admits. He is a prideful man who bristles when he is told he must do something. But he was a good principal, and good principals tend to be prideful. He was also a visionary who saw a course of study that could elevate his school and its students into an international arena, where they will be competing for the rest of their lives. Yet he did not explain his vision often enough to enough people. Neither parents nor students fully understood what the vision was and why it would benefit them. When trouble arose, there was no residual goodwill and understanding to dampen the complaints.

Finally, what this little contretemps at a high school in Austin means is that local control, a strong principal, and parental involvement, though they are all good things, are not by themselves the answer to improving our schools. Even a good principal makes mistakes. Parents can become too involved, understandably unwilling to relent or compromise when their children’s education is at stake. And site-based management means that a principal’s job will be more difficult than ever. He or she will need the subtlety of a skilled diplomat to keep often-divided parents on the team. And if the principal fails, the school will fly apart, as Anderson High has done.

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