At Madison East High School, staff members are quickly becoming familiar with “Mike-isms,” those words and phrases Michael Hernandez leans on to run a school.
As the new principal there, he frequently refers to “noticings and wonderings.” It’s how he approaches any situation that could put an employee on the defensive.
“I notice things and then I wonder about them, and that leads to a discussion,” he said. “I do it that way so that it’s not accusatory.”
The principals at Madison’s three other main public high schools also have been looking at things with fresh eyes. All four leaders are either new this fall (East, La Follette) or beginning just their second year (West, Memorial).
It’s an unusual changing of the guard, one that brings with it opportunities and challenges. For the first time, all four high school principals bear the leadership stamp of Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, hired in 2013.
The four principals — and by extension Cheatham — will be judged at least in part on whether they can fix vexing problems. The glaring racial achievement gap is a big one, with graduation and college-readiness rates for black students far below those of their white peers.
Cheatham has charged the principals with making sure “every child is not just known but has a set of academic goals and a career plan,” she said.
Classes begin Tuesday for Madison elementary students, as well as sixth-graders and high school freshmen. All students return on Wednesday. The four high school principals together will oversee more than 7,350 students.
“If you’re a high school principal, you might as well be the mayor of a city,” Cheatham said. “It’s that complex of an organization.”
She hopes the four will turn into the kind of beloved, long-tenured leaders whose names become synonymous with their schools. Madison has had many of those over the years — people like Milt McPike at East and Bruce Dahmen at Memorial.
“We are really craving stability,” Cheatham said. “We’re trying to be much smarter about placing the right principal at the right school at the right time, and then creating a system of support for them so they can really thrive in their jobs and have longevity.”
Turnover can make or break a school, said Jim Hull, who has studied the role of principals as a senior policy analyst with the Center for Public Education, part of the National School Boards Association.
While fresh blood can jump-start a stagnant school, a revolving door of top leadership slows student achievement if teachers become bombarded with new initiatives that don’t go anywhere, he said.
Research shows it takes about five years to put a teaching staff in place and to fully implement practices that will improve a school’s performance. Yet the average length of a principal’s tenure nationally is just three to four years, Hull said.
“Certainly you’ll lose some principals after a couple of years for a variety of reasons, but you don’t want that kind of turnover to become a trend,” he said. “Teachers deserve stability, and so do students.”
West High School has had the most stable leadership of late. Ed Holmes served 10 years before retiring at the end of the 2013-14 academic year.
Memorial High School comes next. Pam Nash served seven years, followed by Dahmen, who was in his ninth year when he died in February of last year.
The schools on the city’s East Side have had a more difficult time of it.
La Follette High School is on its fifth principal in 10 years. Most recently, Chad Wiese served four years before taking an administrative position at the district’s central office.
East is on its fifth top leader in 14 years, although its last principal, Mary Kelley, stayed six years before retiring earlier this year.
The four new leaders are all internal hires with lengthy district work experience. Hernandez, most recently the well-regarded principal of Sherman Middle School, is the newest kid on the block, and he’s already entering his ninth year in the district.
“We’ve landed on people who have deep roots in their school communities, and I think that will have a steadying effect,” said Jay Affeldt, second-year principal of Memorial High School.
Both he and new La Follette principal Sean Storch are leading their alma maters. Beth Thompson, beginning her second year as principal at West, jokingly calls herself “the matriarch of the group.” She’s entering her 36th year as a district employee.
“We’re a collegial group,” Thompson said of the four, who try to gather monthly for breakfast. “We all look at things a little differently and try to help each other out.”
Hernandez remembers getting supportive phone calls from the others after being named East’s principal. “It was, ‘Hey, congratulations! Now here are the pitfalls.’ ”
Hernandez may have additional hopes pinned to his tenure. According to the district’s human resources department, he is the first Latino principal of one of the four main high schools.
“It’s a little emotional to me,” said Hernandez, who identifies as Mexican-American. “I’m proud of it. I’m keenly aware of it. I just want to do right. Mainly, I want to be a positive role model for all kids.”