You Can Have It Both Ways

Leaving a principalship for central administration doesn’t mean abandoning students by Barry J. Ricci

A brief and awkward pause followed my question to a team interviewing me for a central-office administrative job. The question was this: “What opportunities might I have to engage with students in this position?”

The question may have been an unusual one in this context, but I asked it out of serious concern that moving into an assistant superintendency would mean losing any meaningful contact with students—the part of being a principal that I treasured the most. I told the interview committee that opportunities to interact regularly with students would be crucial to my effectiveness in a position of district leadership.

In my 14th year as principal of a rural elementary school, I was ready for a professional change. I considered several options and decided that an assistant superintendency that focused on instruction probably would be the best match. I became intrigued by a vacancy in the Chariho Regional School District in Wood River Junction, R.I., a district located about 20 miles south of my current district. While the position focused on instruction, the important aspect for me was learning that the administration building was located in the midst of the high school, the career and technical center, and the middle school. The interview team sold me. I would have many opportunities to work with students.

Compelling Need

I accepted the position as Chariho’s first assistant superintendent and soon decided it would make the most sense for me to mentor students on the Chariho middle and high school campus. Some colleagues questioned how I would find the time to work with one or two students with a full and demanding load of administrative responsibilities, but I was convinced that contact with students was critical to my effectiveness. Fully supported by the superintendent, I met my first mentee quite by accident.

During my first days as assistant superintendent, I scheduled a meeting with summer school teachers. This meeting ran longer than expected and, as a result, students were present but teachers were not. Not surprisingly, George, a rather active 7 th-grader, found himself in the middle of a fight with another student and, more importantly, removed from summer school as a result of his third serious infraction. Overcome by guilt because his teacher was with me, I arranged for George to finish summer school in my office and complete 20 hours of volunteer work as a punishment for fighting before he would be promoted to the next grade. I’ve been meeting with and mentoring George ever since. George is now a freshman at our high school.

I’ve often wondered whether I was being effective as a mentor. Would my position in the central administration, in contrast to the principalship, be too intimidating to students? Would it be possible to develop positive, long-term relationships with middle and high school students? Encouraged to do so by a group of colleagues familiar with my work with students, I asked those very questions of students with whom I was working.

I met Michael in the summer of his junior year of high school. He had failed several courses in his junior year and was attempting to recoup credit during summer school. His senior year did not start smoothly, and he eventually left school early in the year. Having changed his mind, Michael sought my permission a short time later to re-enter high school to attempt to graduate with his class.

After some deliberation, we signed a contract that held Michael to some strict guidelines, and it was I who would hold Michael accountable. Michael and I met regularly for some time. Michael told me that our relationship helped him to become a better person and taught him lessons on life. “You helped me to make better decisions in tough situations,” he told me.

Unfortunately, Michael’s story did not have a happy ending. He walked out of final examinations and did not graduate. Stopping by my office to visit recently, Michael relayed, “I didn’t feel like doing any of the work in school. I just didn’t think school was where I wanted to be.”

Another one of my mentees, Eric, incredibly bright and full of potential, never had quite fulfilled the promise of his intellect. He spent the past two summers in our summer school. Eric’s mom agreed to my offer to intervene personally. Eric and I met weekly during his junior year and discussed various issues. I was disappointed when Eric announced he no longer wanted to meet because he was feeling too much pressure. He went on to fail two courses during his junior year.

Eric and I reconnected during his second stint in summer school and agreed to begin meeting again, but my role this time would be to hold him accountable for completing his work. I do this by asking his teachers for regular progress reports, and then keep Eric for period eight (after school) if any work is incomplete. As Eric put it, “I do my homework now because I don’t want to disappoint you.”

When I asked him about our mentoring relationship, Eric relayed that “you can see what potential I have to learn and to accomplish things in life, despite my academic performance. … Talking with you helps to give me some focus on the work I need to be doing in school. I’ve found that your keeping track of my progress is a good motivator.” Eric is scheduled to graduate this June.

Self-Assigned Tutor

I’ve probably learned the most from Sean. With baggy pants and an oversized top, Sean swaggered into my office last summer and asked if there was a way that he could recover credits lost because he had walked out of an out-of-district placement the previous April. I agreed that Sean could be tutored to recover those credits. However, for all of his verbal promises, Sean did not keep scheduled appointments with his tutors. He reappeared in front of me a month later with the same request.

This time, we agreed that I would be his English tutor. I decided not to authorize any additional tutoring until he proved that he was serious. He kept his first two appointments with me, so the additional tutoring was authorized. Then the problems started.

Sean began to skip appointments with me and the other two tutors. Engaging and intelligent, Sean always seemed to have an important reason to be absent. It would have been easy to give up on Sean at this point, as so many others probably did. I decided I would not do the same and would actually test some long-held beliefs about the fact that support should be unconditional and that we need to do whatever needs to be done to help a young person to be successful. Sean would put me to the test.

The day before the opening of the school year would be a turning point for Sean and me. After a summer of missing and rescheduling appointments, Sean was to arrive in my office at 9 a.m. to review all of his work and for me to make a determination about the awarding of credits. With everything, including graduation, on the line, Sean was nowhere to be found. After a conversation with his mother in which she informed me that Sean was sleeping, I requested her permission to go to their house to get him. It was a shock to Sean to see me standing at his bedroom door! In five minutes, we were on our way to my office.

That day Sean spent the next five hours finishing his summer work, and then two additional hours doing office work as a consequence for not keeping his appointment. He was awarded credit for two of the three courses for which he did work during the summer. With graduation a possibility, Sean would enter our alternative school as a senior. And I decided I would mentor Sean during his senior year.

“There’s a few things I don’t agree with,” Sean said, protesting some aspects of the arrangement. He was especially concerned about my intent to punish him when he is absent without a legitimate excuse and the fact I will hold him accountable for his conduct.

Sean now has fully transitioned to our high school. He is assigned a single class period of supervised study daily in my office. His conduct in his classes is good and for the first time Sean is doing some homework. We have met with a college admissions officer, and Sean is thoughtfully considering his future.

When I asked Sean if he has gained anything from our relationship, he reported, “I’ve gained a mentoring friend and (learned) I can also maintain good grades and behavior. … Being able to work one-on-one with you has helped me in more ways than just school.”

Personal Discoveries

So what have I learned from Sean and the other students? I’ve learned that support must be unconditional. It’s too easy to give up on a young person when he doesn’t keep an appointment, when his conduct is embarrassing or when he avoids schoolwork. While such a relationship can cause incredible frustration, it’s crucial the support not disappear when things get difficult.

I’ve learned that holding young people accountable is critical. To a large degree, Sean has been successful because he has been held accountable for his attendance, conduct and grades. He has received a fair, consistent, and predictable response when he does not meet expectations. The response is not personal or emotional, it’s just there.

I’ve learned that the relationship between Sean and me is the critical element. Sean’s mom once told me I am the only person for whom Sean shows respect. Sean has told me I’m one of only three persons he trusts. Interestingly, I am beginning to have trust in Sean. I’ve learned that as trust has grown between us, there has been a parallel improvement in Sean.

I’ve also learned how hard this work can be. My work with Sean has given me a new appreciation for the daily challenges faced by educators. There is no question that I consider these challenges when making district-level decisions. Educators work hard and the work is difficult. District leaders must always keep this in mind.

My work with Sean and the others has probably raised more questions than answers. Is it within the capacity of the public schools to provide the intensive support necessary to support the Seans of the world? Are there supports and interventions that are beyond reasonable? At what point do the supports and interventions become intrusive into the domain of the family? Or does anything go when it comes to supporting a student in need?

I don’t know how the stories of Eric and Sean will end. I know I have no regrets about my involvement with these young people. As they have grown, I have grown. My learning has been substantial, possibly the best learning of my career. It’s learning that will continue to serve my district and me well.

Post Script: Sean and Eric graduated from Chariho Regional High School last June.

Barry Ricci is assistant superintendent of Chariho Regional School District, 455A Switch Road, Wood River Junction, RI 02894. E-mail: barry.ricci@chariho.k12.ri.us