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To navigate pandemic’s impact, policymakers turn to principals

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  • “We might not always agree and we have different perspectives, but one thing we do agree on is that we want what's best for the students in North Carolina,” said one North Carolina Executive Principal Advisory Committee member.
  • It's a "godsend to the field," said Tabari Wallace, a special advisor to @CTruittNCDPI, about a group of principals who are advising on education policy.

In the months following onset of the pandemic, information was coming in slower than questions and challenges. As state legislators worked on responses in consultation with the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, the question that kept arising was: Will it work in schools?

That’s what was happening as the General Assembly crafted House Bill 82 — a law that required summer camps in every district and, initially, mandatory seat time (in-person learning) for every student in elementary through high school. But where do you turn when making decisions before the science around a novel virus has fully developed?

When it comes to education, perhaps one of the smartest places to turn is to a principal.

“The principal is the one that is fielding the concerns that parents express, they’re the ones that are hearing from the students and the teachers on a day-to-day basis,” said Melody Chalmers-McClain, who was the 2016 state principal of the year.

The state is acknowledging that vital role, eliciting guidance and taking advice from a specific group of principals assembled last summer.

“It’s so important that we understand their viewpoint and their perspective,” Chalmers-McClain said, “because they’re the ones who are having to implement these policies and these decisions, and be the ones that have to answer the questions and explain why certain decisions are made, how money is being spent, how resources are being used and allocated.”

Forming a group of principal experts

Tabari Wallace first harnessed the wealth of experience among North Carolina’s principals last summer. Wallace was the 2018 state principal of the year and last year State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt hired him as her principal advisor.

He gathered a group of current and former principals of the year and showed them the draft summer camp legislation. They talked about issues they see in their schools. Some of the members, former principals who now work in district leadership roles, leveraged their central office experience.

The legislators changed parts of the bill based on the group’s feedback — most notably by allowing flexibility for high school students who can’t spend an entire day during the summer in school because they hold jobs or care for siblings.

“And it was a godsend to the field,” Wallace said. “Now, after that was done I thought that was it. I was going to disband this group that had committed and Catherine Truitt said, ‘No, you’re not going to disband this. Tabari, that is a great initiative you’ve got going on. Let’s keep it going.’”

Now, the North Carolina Executive Principal Advisory Committee meets regularly to consider a host of policy issues — like proposed changes to principal licensure, a new system of licensure and compensation for teachers, and how the state can leverage learning loss data to inform schooling over the next several years.

The committee’s top issues, it says, are human capital, teacher licensure, the social emotional state of teachers and students, principle compensation, and — based on feedback from principals in the field — learning loss.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt addresses the principal advisory committee. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

“It’s just a powerful professional group of colleagues who, we might not always agree and we have different perspectives, but one thing we do agree on is that we want what’s best for the students in North Carolina,” Chalmers-McClain said. “We want our state to be the best and we want to make sure that we are providing sound guidance for our state.”

Why principals? Because they’re one-of-a-kind

If you’ve met Wallace or ever heard him speak, you know he is prone to passionate outbursts. But the passion he exudes when talking about principals registers high — even for him. He says the type of people who can be successful as principals combined with the experience amassed by serving in that role are critical influences that would benefit any education policy.

“Principals are the true illustration of servant-oriented leadership,” he said. “A lot of people think principals have to be these content specialists or this and that — the biggest trait that a principal can have is to be an expert manager of personalities and talents. And we are charged with multiplying those talents.”

Current Principal of the Year Elena Ashburn said it can be a lonely job — even for her, at a large high school with more than 2,000 students. She says her staff of 200 is dedicated and she speaks highly of the talents displayed by her nine administrators. But there’s only one principal.

It forces her, and all principals really, to find community with other principals. That’s part of the magic of the principal advisory committee, she says. While bringing diverse experiences to the table, there is an element of understanding one another that elicits respect and camaraderie, and helps them work collectively.

“The uniqueness in the principalship is you’re the only one of its kind in the building,” Ashburn said. “So if you don’t have colleagues that you can lean on for questions and support, it’s just really hard to navigate. … The principal advisory committee, it certainly is a community where you see exceptional talent across the state. And that is really comforting, because you see that your problems are not just isolated to your own districts. It’s similar across the state.” 

Becoming popular among policymakers

Given the caliber of the group assembled and the many principals they remain in contact with in the field, the principal advisory committee has become a coveted source of guidance.

Recently, they began tackling the principal licensure model. All of them were at one time principals and some now are tasked with hiring principals. They understand what’s important, including having strong internships that prepare candidates for taking over their own schools.

That input is going to the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission now, and Wallace will present it to the State Board this week.

In March, Wallace invited the group to meet in Raleigh to discuss other initiatives and hear presentation from policymakers. Requests for face time with the principals group rolled in furiously when word got out that they would be downtown. A three-hour agenda quickly bloated into a full day of meetings, including nearly two hours spent at the General Assembly.

Sen. Michael Lee visits with members of the principal advisory committee at the General Assembly. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, for example, waited almost an hour past his scheduled time to meet with the principals that day because the group was running behind given the number of additions to their schedule. Once he did meet with them, he spent far more than the 15 minutes allotted because, as co-chair of the senate education committee, he thought it was too important.

“This is one of the most important meetings I can ever take,” Lee told the group as they stood on the floor of the senate chamber. “I want to learn from you.”

In the year since the group has formed, they’ve met with Truitt, State Board members, and state legislators. They know their collective voice isn’t the only one these policymakers are hearing, but they do feel heard and valued. That’s important, they said, because they represent themselves as well as the many principals they speak to before committee discussions.

As the state continues to deal with fallout from unfinished learning, rise in mental health concerns, and a host of other challenges spurred and exacerbated by COVID-19, the committee takes comfort in having a direct line of input.

“I really feel like our opinion is valued and respected and seen almost like the gold standard of the feedback,” Ashburn said. “Because we’re the ones actually doing the work every day.”

Added Chalmers-McClain: “I do feel that our voices matter now more than ever because everyone — lawmakers, stakeholders, our community — they need to understand that schooling is different now. The profession is different now. We’ve got to be mindful of that.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.