Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Dean of Students or Assistant Principal?

A public school district near and dear to my heart is trying to decide whether to eliminate the Dean of Students positions at all levels and replace them with Assistant Principals. This is not the case of making a simple title change due to the differences in minimal credentials required. In addition, the district has employed a dedicated, loyal individual as the secondary Dean of Students who has steadfastly remained responsible for discipline and attendance the past three decades. He has also taken on a larger district-wide role regarding attendance as well as safety and security. His responsibilities are by no means “narrow” as some might think, and he would like to remain employed with the district at least two more years before retiring on his own initiative.

The current Dean is well-liked by students, staff, and parents. Former students have claimed publicly that his ability to administer discipline, all while caring about them as individuals, was helpful to them and one of the main reasons they successfully got through school. At a recent regular board meeting where this issue was suddenly sprung on the community, so many people showed up to voice support for him that the meeting had to be moved to a larger venue.

The district is median-sized (1800 students) situated in a one-square-mile, working-class community consisting of a majority Hispanic and English-language-learner population. In the past eight years, the high school has had three different principals and the district has had four different superintendents, one of which served two stints as interim superintendent while the school board worked to fill the vacant position. Prior to that time, I had the pleasure of serving six years as secondary principal followed by nine years as superintendent before retiring.

As in most decisions, there are advantages and disadvantages. When a school district considers restructuring its administrative roles, it's essential to weigh these carefully. Here are some considerations that hopefully the school board and district leaders will take into account. I’m sure there are more and members of the staff and community, including current and former students, will likely see fit to air them at an upcoming community forum. This short list should be considered as a holistic grouping as some advantages also create disadvantages.

Advantages of Assistant Principals over Deans of Students:

Broader Scope of Responsibilities: Assistant principals typically have a wider range of responsibilities, including curriculum development, staff management, and student discipline, which can offer a more holistic approach to school leadership.

Leadership Continuity: Assistant principals are often seen as second-in-command and can provide continuity in leadership when the principal is unavailable. This might make transitions smoother during times of principal turnover or absence.

Professional Development: The role of assistant principal can be seen as a stepping stone to becoming a principal, offering a clear path for professional advancement. This could attract candidates with ambitious career goals and a strong dedication to educational leadership.

Disadvantages of Replacing Deans of Students with Assistant Principals:

Specialized Focus on Student Affairs: Deans of Students often specialize in student behavior, discipline, and support services. Eliminating this role might dilute the focus on student well-being and behavior management, which could impact the school's climate and student success.

Potential Overburdening of Assistant Principals: Expanding the role of assistant principals to cover duties traditionally handled by Deans of Students could overburden these administrators, potentially leading to burnout and reduced effectiveness in their broader duties.

Cost Considerations: Depending on the district's pay scale, hiring additional assistant principals instead of Deans of Students might lead to increased salary costs. This financial aspect must be considered, especially in districts facing budget constraints.

Other Considerations:

Community Impact: A changing administration can create an unstable environment for both teachers and students. This instability can affect morale and lead to increased stress and anxiety among the school community. It's important to listen to and communicate the reasons for such changes and how they will benefit the students.

Difficulty in Building Relationships: Effective administration relies on strong relationships with staff, students, and the community. Regular changes make it difficult to build these relationships, which are crucial for creating a supportive and productive school environment.

Staff and Student Adjustment: Any change in administrative structure requires an adjustment period for staff and students. The impact of these changes on school culture and morale should be carefully managed. Changes in administration can disrupt the continuity of policies, initiatives, and programs. Frequent changes can lead to reform fatigue among teachers and staff, making them resistant to new initiatives. Long-term projects might be halted or redirected, which can lead to wasted resources and opportunities. An unstable administrative environment can contribute to higher teacher turnover. Teachers may feel undervalued or uncertain about their future at the school, leading them to seek employment elsewhere.

Loss of Institutional Knowledge: With each administrative change, valuable institutional knowledge can be lost. New administrators may not be aware of past challenges, successes, or the specific needs of the school community, leading to repeated mistakes or overlooked opportunities.

Impact on School Culture: Consistent leadership helps to build a strong, positive school culture. Frequent changes can undermine this culture, leading to a lack of shared values and vision among students and staff.

Ultimately, the decision should be based on the specific needs and goals of the school district, considering both the immediate impact and the long-term implications of such a restructuring. Consulting with educational leaders, reviewing case studies of similar decisions in other districts, and engaging with the school community for feedback can also provide valuable insights into making the most appropriate choice.

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