Monday’s back-to-school was full of firsts for new Hmong International Academy Principal Jamil Payton, who wasted no time juggling his multiple job duties. He gave Superintendent Ed Graff a tour of the north Minneapolis school while enforcing building rules, such as telling a student in a hallway that he was not allowed to play on his phone.
Payton is one of just six new building principals throughout the Minneapolis Public Schools — compared with more than twice that number three years ago.
After a few years of turmoil with superintendent and leadership turnover, the low number of new principal assignments is a clear sign of stability under Graff, who is starting his second year in the School District’s top job.
Maintaining principals means that programs can be built at schools, said Dave Adney, who heads the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. He added that when leadership is set up districtwide, “people tend to be drawn there.”
“We all want principals to stay,” Adney said.
Urban districts nationally face principal turnovers that can stall efforts to change school culture and chip away at the stubborn achievement gap between white and minority kids — a gap Minneapolis schools have contended with for years.
Nationally, one-quarter of all principals leave their schools each year, according to a 2014 report from the School Leaders Network, a group that tries to boost school leadership.
It can take about five years to revamp school culture, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “An investment in leadership is an investment in learning,” said Bob Farrace, the group’s spokesman.
Another new principal, Mark Stauduhar of Lyndale Community School on the South Side, handed over the first-morning announcements to the school’s guest: the superintendent.
“I wanted to take a moment to just congratulate the principal, Mr. S., on his first day here as principal at Lyndale Community School,” Graff said over the loudspeaker. “I know it’s going to be an amazing school year.”
Unlike other principals who are completely new, Stauduhar spent time as the school’s assistant principal — giving him time to warm up to the top job.
“My position changed, but I can’t change,” Stauduhar said. “I stay the same and continue to do my best on a daily basis.”
Michael Thomas, the district’s chief of academics, leadership and learning, said some of the turnover in recent years is by choice, as principals change positions to find schools that fit their expertise.
“What you see in this past year is really very little movement, because we have taken time to make the moves necessary to stabilize leadership in our schools,” Thomas said.
The district appoints interim principals to fill immediate vacancies, he added, but uses community input to pick final school leaders.
Switching around a school’s top leadership can come with criticism. This summer, the district announced that Southwest High School’s longtime Principal Bill Smith would be retiring in December and that two assistant principals also were leaving.
Gwen Spurgat, a mother of two Southwest graduates and an incoming freshman there next school year, said the community was “reeling” after the announcement. She said she is hoping for a principal with experience in high school leadership, diversity and school budgets.
Back at Hmong International Academy, Payton said he wants to make a difference. He was beaming at the end of the school day.
“It’s been a good day from the moment I got here.”