How the hardest-working principals avoid burning themselves out

ByJay Mathews

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When Kristy Ochs became principal of the KIPP DC AIM Academy six years ago, she started at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave the Southeast Washington school until 8 p.m. Having taught at the public charter school since it began, she felt, as other staffers did, that her mostly low-income students’ impressive achievement levels — 30 percentage points above the city average in math and nearly 20 points above the average in reading — were worth the personal sacrifices.

When such KIPP results nationwide began to draw attention, critics predicted the network’s principals and teachers would burn out from pressure and fatigue. KIPP leaders had the same concern. Four years ago, a working group led by KIPP network co-founder Dave Levin, in partnership with organizational psychologist David Maxfield, began to overhaul how KIPP principals operated. This led school leaders such as Ochs to shorten their hours, take less work home and delegate some duties to new staff members.

Before Ochs became leader of the AIM middle school, only about half of KIPP principals nationally who started their schools at least four years earlier were still in those jobs. Levin’s group found that the ones who stayed were good at distributing leadership responsibility, setting priorities, calling on other experienced educators for advice and insisting on rest and family time. KIPP urged those habits on school leaders and the percentage of KIPP school founders still in their jobs after four years increased to 82 percent.

Both charter and traditional public school leaders are looking for ways to keep good principals happy and engaged. KIPP principals say reconciling their lives with their ambitions for their schools takes much planning and personal discipline.

The executive director of the 15 KIPP D.C. charter schools is Susan Schaeffler. She started the first KIPP DC school in 2001 and built the network while getting married and having three children. To ease workloads, she and her team have cut about an hour off what was a nine-hour school day. They have added backup help. Each principal has two vice principals rather than one. Teachers also benefit with shorter days and coaches to help them over rough spots.

Yet, Schaeffler noted: “This is still incredibly challenging work.” Like KIPP executive directors in other regions, she insists that staff make time for family and other healthy pursuits.

“I take time to renew myself through exercise and focusing on creating personal and positive memories,” said Philonda Johnson, in her sixth year as founding principal of the KIPP DC Discover Academy. “I have focused on setting fun yet challenging goals for myself, like, most recently, running my first half-marathon this past October.”

KIPP has 162 schools with 59,000 students in 20 states and the District. KIPP public affairs director Steve Mancini said KIPP President Richard Barth decided in 2010 to confine growth to areas in which KIPP schools already existed. New regional offices handled financial and logistic duties that once fell on school leaders. New talent could advance without moving to another city. Ochs said she once did much of the data analysis for her school but now focuses on key points, letting her regional office do the rest.

Ochs has two sons, ages 3 years and 3 months. She lives 45 minutes away, in Riva, Md. Except for one late day a week, she gets to school at 7:30 a.m. and leaves at 5:30. She handles calls in her car on the way home and usually manages to avoids work in the evenings. When she started the job, she would “be checking e-mail until I went to sleep,” she said, but she realizes “I was trying to do everything right away instead of choosing priorities.”

KIPP principals still have long days. But that extra time is one reason, they say, for their students learning more. Seeing so much academic growth, unusual for their schools’ neighborhoods, is more than enough to get them up and to work the next morning.