As principal role expands, assistant principals added to support students

Evaluating teachers, managing discipline issues, and ensuring a safe, welcoming and warm environment are just some of the roles that principals are responsible for in schools today, according to Karen Quanbeck, Jeffco chief of schools – elementary, and the number of roles a school principal is responsible for has expanded considerably in recent years.

“We’ve added layers to the job that didn’t used to exist in the past,” Quanbeck said.

Principals have always been in charge of working for academic success and learning experiences for students. But now their jobs have added complexities, and principals face demands they didn’t have a decade ago, she explained.

Student mental health needs have increased in huge ways, requiring principals to leverage resources to address those needs as they change from year to year.

Principals also recruit, hire and supervise teachers to ensure a quality teacher in every classroom.

In addition, principals are responsible for connecting with families, and that is increasingly difficult as parents today might work multiple jobs.

Budget planning was also added to principal job duties a few years ago as schools changed over to student based budgeting (SBB). Previously, principals had a smaller, discretionary budget that could be used to address instructional resources like the number of paraprofessionals working in a building, Quanbeck said.

Now, principals have more creativity in and options for how they spend the dollars in their building. That allows them more flexibility to address issues in their building, Quanbeck said. For example, if a school is serving more students who need mental health support, a principal can direct some budget dollars to purchase additional hours.

However, the process also is more time-consuming than budget planning before SBB — and is considerably more detailed and complex. As a result, each principal has a budget specialist who meets with them on a regular basis, and a principal secretary who also assists with planning and monitoring.

If all that weren’t enough, principals are also the main problem-solvers in a building. Roof leaking? Ask the principal. Water main break? That goes to the principal’s desk too, Quanbeck said.

Sound like too much to fit in a day? Often it is, and as a result, the numbers of administrators working in schools has also increased.

Principals spend more time evaluating educators

One change results from state legislation passed in 2010. SB-191, known as the Educator Effectiveness law, requires schools to conduct a more rigorous evaluation of teachers, principals, and “specialized service professionals” (SSPs) every year. SSPs include audiologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, counselors, school nurses, social workers and psychologists.

Half of an educator’s annual evaluation is based on the evaluation done by the principal or assistant principal. The other half is based on student learning — for teachers and principals — or student outcomes for SSPs.

One factor is a longer evaluation form that takes more time to complete. However, it has also resulted in a push for principals and assistant principals to spend more time observing educators as they work with students.

The number one biggest impact on kids is the teacher, Quanbeck explained. And the best way to evaluate the teacher? To spend as much time as possible in classrooms to observe and give feedback.

“Our mindset is about giving teachers great feedback,” she said.

It’s the conversations and feedback the principals and assistant principals are having with teachers in September, October that are important, because they help teachers improve their approach and improves the learning environment for students earlier.

“I don’t want to wait until the end of the year,” Quanbeck said. “I want to give feedback now.”

Quanbeck added that Jeffco is working to make big instructional shifts now, by asking if students are engaged in interesting learning experiences, or bored. If students are bored, principals now ask what can be done to change that so students are engaged and learning?

In elementary school, ideally a principal will be in classrooms about one-third of each week, she said. Some principals block out time on their calendar in 15-20 minute segments to ensure they’re able to regularly observe teachers.

Others follow a “breakthrough coach” approach that puts a principal in a classroom all day long — even if they’re just in the back of the classroom checking their email for part of the day. The idea behind the approach is to allow principals to be more effective and efficient with time — and principals are constantly looking for ways to be more efficient, Quanbeck said.

Assistant Principals focus on proactive student support

Assistant Principals (APs) also work in school buildings, typically providing “proactive student supports,” she explained.

Although APs frequently address discipline issues, they also work to put systems and structures in place that keep students in the classroom.

For example, North Arvada Middle School Assistant Principal Amanda Summers won a Jeffco Innovation Acceleration Grant to boost student engagement, Quanbeck said.

Summers’ proposal plans to keep more students engaged in the classroom through staff and student training about self-regulation and social thinking. North Arvada also provides items to help students focus, such as noise-canceling headphones, therapy balls and fidgets. In addition, the school established a Wellness Room for students who may need a few minutes to refocus before returning to the classroom.

APs also might help teachers with planning in cooperation with an instructional coach, Quanbeck said.

In general, APs are “boots on the ground in terms of everything we can do to make students successful,” she added.

APs are most common in middle schools and high schools because most elementary schools don’t have a large enough budget for an AP, Quanbeck said.

Middle and high schools frequently have more than one because they have much larger student populations. In those situations, APs often divide responsibilities. All will deal with discipline, but one might also function as the athletic director. A second AP might be in charge of activities and scheduling. In addition, a third AP might be in charge of evaluating teachers and students, she said.

Alternately, APs might divide evaluation responsibilities by department. In that case, one AP might be responsible for evaluating English and history teachers, and another for other departments.

In addition, APs frequently are in charge of supervising evening events like games, school dances and other activities.

Why are the numbers of principals and assistant principals increasing?

The number of principals and assistant principals has increased in recent years for three main reasons:

  • Schools cut many AP positions during the recession, and are now replacing those positions
  • The addition of new schools, requiring new administrative teams
  • Increased numbers of middle school students as most schools moved sixth graders to middle school

In 2009, Jeffco Schools had 281 principals and assistant principals. That number dropped considerably in the intervening years as schools found ways to absorb severe budget cuts. Jeffco’s number of principals and assistant principals didn’t reach 2008 levels again until the 2017-18 school year.

In addition, new positions were added when Three Creeks K-8 opened in 2017-18.

Two “additional” 2018-19 administrative positions — accounting for 15 percent of this year’s increase — are not actually an addition. Those two positions are merely the result of Free Horizon Montessori making the change from being a charter school to an option school. Free Horizon’s administrative positions were not counted as part of Jeffco’s numbers when it was a charter school.

Schools decide to add an assistant principal at the local school level during the student-based budget planning process. The process includes annual feedback about the best ways to address student needs from each school’s School Accountability Committee, as well as from the school’s staff.

In 2018-19, the number of APs working in middle schools also increased as sixth graders moved to middle school. In most cases, middle school populations grew by about 50%, requiring more administrative oversight. Four of Jeffco’s 17 neighborhood high schools also chose to spend their SBB dollars on additional administrators, each adding one new AP.

There is always plenty of work for principals and assistant principals in Jeffco, Quanbeck said. For example, schools now have extra data about what students need. That data adds another layer of complexity because “when you know more, you have to do more,” she said.

“The work has become more complex,” Quanbeck said.

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, musicologist and Jeffco resident since 1999 with two children attending Jeffco Schools. Lisa earned a BA from Valparaiso University, a Masters in Music from Colorado State University, and her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not working, she can be found running (ideally on mountain trails) with Midnight, her miniature poodle. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Lisa and our other writers.