The roles of school principals are changing and so are the principals

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:55

    SPARTA-Three eeks into the new school year, Michele Lind still can't wait to get outside each morning and greet the young students stepping off the buses, most smiling, others still getting used to carrying a backpack full of books again. As a first-year principal at Helen Morgan School in Sparta, she said it's what she should do, but — first and foremost — what she wants to do. "We haven't had too many criers," said Lind. "I like to be out and about. I try and get out there with the kids and get involved." But when Lind goes back inside the elementary school to what may be one of the most influential jobs in education, she is welcomed by a host of unpredictable tasks that are certainly new to her, but would have also been new to the principals who walked the halls years before her. There are, perhaps, hundreds of men and women like Lind in their first year as school principals across New Jersey. Jack Leonard, the new principal at Byram Intermediate School, didn't have to go far to experience his first two weeks in charge. "It's been enjoyable," said Leonard, who spent the past three years across the township border as an assistant principal at Sparta Middle School. "Working in Sparta has prepared me for this. Being in neighboring districts, you get to know the communities, how they interact." Today, even the most chiseled school principals are being challenged to stay one step ahead of the class. The job has changed considerably over the last decade. Principals must now be versed in everything from the nuances of safety, security, and parking, to special education and social and diversity issues. "We always prepare for the unexpected," said Leonard. "Traditionally, you would teach, teach, teach. But, that role has changed. Today, you're more of a manager. It's a multidimensional job." Principals are being held to greater accountability than ever before by new federal and state regulations and, perhaps, a much older group of faculty and staff that they share a lunch room with every day, said Leonard, who has spent eight of his 32 years working in education. Among the more than 2,200 principals in New Jersey, the average length of experience in education is 20 years, but one in 10 last year had less than a decade working in schools and was under the age of 40. "A lot of us saw the opportunities," said James Bevere, a new, 34-year-old assistant principal at Sparta High School. "We were told for years that the elder statesmen in the field are going to retire. With those retiring, you have to have someone to replace them." Women are filling many of those shoes. State numbers indicate there are just as many women principals as men, especially in elementary schools, where females are positioned atop the organizational charts. Lind, the former curriculum director for the Vernon Township School District, said the role of women in society has changed dramatically. She cited the equal distribution of males and females now finishing high school and attending college. "We can be great role models for young girls," said Lind. "And for the young boys, they can be challenged to know they are entering an equal playing field." Lind said principals are well aware of their evolving roles. She wants to be an educator, but understands the reality of managing as well. "Everyone wishes we could just do the nuts and bolts n reading, writing, arithmetic n but it's not that way," said Bevere, who spent the past six years facilitating an alternative educational program at Triton Senior High School in Runnemede. "We have to wear that management hat, too."