Boston public schools see wave of new leaders

Turnover for city’s principals high amid change in top administration

Rochelle Valdez, 27, recently completed a principal-training program at Boston College and will be the new principal of Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.
Rochelle Valdez, 27, recently completed a principal-training program at Boston College and will be the new principal of Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Nearly one in five Boston public schools will be led by new principals this fall, an unusually high turnover that is creating fresh challenges for the newcomers — as well as teachers, students, and parents — as they also adjust to a new administration under Superintendent Tommy Chang.

Two dozen principals are new to their schools this year; an additional 14 are returning for their second year, according to the district.

Some principals have left Boston in recent years to work for higher-paying suburban districts, teachers and parents said, while others took central office jobs, relocated, or left education altogether. Some observers also said principals left because they wanted to avoid changes by Chang, who started July 1.


Educators and parents say schools can suffer when there is a revolving door on the principal’s office.

“It turns the entire place upside down,” said Priya Tahiliani, an English teacher at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, who said the school has had six principals in the past 14 years.

“Every single person comes in with a new agenda,” she said. “It is really hard to manage and to figure out what their expectations are.”

Chang said he is providing new support for principals to help them cope with the myriad demands they face. The aim is to reduce upheaval.

This summer, Chang hired four administrators of operations — all former principals and central office administrators in the Boston Public Schools — to address operational issues, data collection, and paperwork that he said distracts principals from focusing on quality instruction.

He has also restructured the bureaucracy to give principals more support from their supervisors.

“Our hope . . . is that we don’t have the type of turnover that we’ve seen in Boston Public Schools, because we’re going to make sure that we support principals more intensely,” Chang said.


Pay for principals and headmasters is also rising, under a compensation system introduced in April by Interim Superintendent John McDonough.

New salaries being phased in during two years will start principals of small schools at $122,000 and of larger schools at $142,500. Previously, starting salaries ranged from $105,000 to $120,000.

Under the old system, officials said, teacher salaries rose faster than those of principals, so some classroom educators were paid more than school leaders, who work 31 days longer each year.

Boston has seen significant principal turnover for years, but the number probably grew this year because some were wary of a new administration, said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

“It’s natural to do that anytime there’s a megachange — and this was a megachange,” Stutman said.

The face of the profession has changed. In the past, principals were often longtime teachers who moved gradually into positions of authority. Today’s principals are often younger, and can be less experienced than many of the teachers they oversee, educators and parents said.

Many achieve qualification through principal training programs that require them to seek jobs in urban schools and remain for a few years. But they often leave when that period ends, some said.

“The principals are going to those [training programs], and then doing the required time in the urban district, but then once that . . . is up, they’re jumping ship,” said Kenny Jervis, a member of Boston’s Citywide Parent Council.

Rochelle Valdez, 27, recently completed the principal-training program at Boston College’s Lynch Leadership Academy and will be the new principal of Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.


As a graduate of the Boston school system and a former BPS teacher, Valdez said, she is committed to giving back to the people of her community, but she recognizes that the job will require sacrifice.

“The moment I found out I was going to be a principal . . . I needed to figure out work/life balance,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s the reason why some people have left or not, but I know it’s something I needed to start to prioritize in my life. . . . People have to look deep and decide, is this what I want to continue to do?”

Parents and educators say principals work under tremendous pressure to manage tight budgets and meet student achievement goals.

Traci Walker Griffith, principal of the Eliot K-8 Innovation School since 2007, said that in 11 years as a teacher at Trotter Elementary School, she saw five principals come and go.

“Part of being a principal is understanding that there are going to be challenging days — maybe every day for a week, or every day for a month,” she said. “However, the work is so important that you’ve got to hold to it.”

Chuck McAfee, who led Madison Park Technical Vocational High School for a dozen years before retiring in 2012, said he faced significant facilities issues and repeated budget cuts as he worked to turn around a school that saw frequent fights among students, fire alarms pulled, and some teachers so indifferent they did not learn students’ names.


“The toughest job in the world is headmaster or principal,” he said. “You just feel like you’re beat down.”

Concern about principals extends to City Hall, where Mayor Martin J. Walsh has met with nearly two dozen new principals in recent weeks, he said, to “just get a feel for them” and to let “the principals know that there’s a commitment from my office to the school district.”

Walsh said in an interview that the principals were energized in anticipation of the new school year, and that having new leaders with fresh ideas can be beneficial. He supports Chang’s efforts to provide support that could help retain principals.

“We need stability,” he said. “If there’s a system in place where the principals feel that they’re being heard . . . and there’s success in the school, you will see principals staying.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.