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Article courtesy of Our Town

Junior Ivy League

Room at the Top
Educators aren’t clamoring to become administrators

Weston, Conn., is a leafy suburb that attracts world-weary New York families seeking expansive yards, strong community and wonderful schools. Weston, and other towns like it, have lately experienced an explosive growth in families, straining even their considerable resources and spurring debate over who gets what – and how much. In Weston, a group of parents of children with special needs has been particularly vocal. One school day a few weeks ago, the town woke up to the news that the superintendent of schools had hung herself. Now the finger pointing is being played out in the local press and at anguished public meetings. Was she overwhelmed by personal problems, or did she collapse under the unbearable pressure of trying to please this demanding community? No one knows. But the buck stops at the superintendent, and in this case at least, she couldn’t take it anymore.

This tragedy reverberates beyond the leafy hamlet of Weston. All school administrators now operate in a “Gotcha” culture. The threat of litigation looms ever larger. Parents want results and they want them NOW! One would think Manhattan would be a mecca for ambitious educators eager to make their mark. Quite the opposite. It is increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates to fill leadership posts; especially in New York City.

For the past decade, plum jobs have gone wanting. It took over two years to find a qualified candidate to lead the Hunter College Campus Schools – Hunter Elementary and Hunter High – schools with an international reputation for excellence. It helped when they raised the salary, but candidates were not banging down the doors. The same goes for other public and private schools. P.S. 6, on the Upper East Side, an outstanding elementary school – great staff, great kids and diverse and supportive families – is in the midst of a principal search. Ten years ago you would have had 80 candidates; today, you’re lucky if you get 20. Has the well really gone dry, or is it that nobody wants the responsibility anymore?

Today’s parents, many of whom are high-level professionals, have high expectations and feel obliged to engineer their school’s success. Park Avenue Christian Church Day School, a toney East Side nursery school of about 180 families, is still reeling from the news that their director, Mitten Wainwright, is retiring. Parents expected Nancy Vascellaro, co-director and “steward for the school’s philosophy,” to be the clear successor. But Church officials said it was not to be. Tossing aside decorum, these parents are not leaving the selection of a new director up to chance … or the Church. They’ve hired a national search firm, Educator’s Collaborative, and brought in the big guns: Evelyn Halpert, former head of the Brearley School, and Joan McMenamin, former head of Nightingale-Bamford School, were dragged out of retirement to step into the breach. All this for a sweet little nursery school that still has a “parlor.” Thirty years ago, when the last head of the nursery school retired, many of the staff departed, but Mitten, who was then a classroom teacher, stayed on and humbly accepted the mantle of leadership. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

To build a reservoir of leaders, you have to have enough good teachers in the pipeline; and the teacher shortage is old news. “People will do a lot for fame – but to work in a low-paying job and not get any respect?” says Ellen Myers of Teacher’s Network, a non-profit organization that supports professional development and grooms teachers as leaders. According to Ellen, “When educators are respected, encouraged and empowered as the professionals they truly are, the difference in their lives – and the lives of their students – is remarkable.” Teacher’s Network supports the people we rely on every day to nurture our children’s love of learning through IMPACT II, a grants and networking program, and the National Teacher Policy Institute (NTPI), which grooms teacher leaders. Parents have to learn to nurture their administrators in return.
Everyone works best in a caring, supportive community. It can be as simple as donating spare theater tickets to your school or dropping your principal or teacher a note of appreciation. There’s a limit to all the things a school can do and be. The Rolling Stones have it right: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”

“Junior Ivy League” is a weekly column written by the authors of
“The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools.”
Please mail questions to “Junior Ivy League,”
c/o Our Town, 242 W. 30th St., 5th Fl., N.Y., N.Y. 10001
or fax to (212) 268-0614 s
or e-mail to juniorivyleague@aol.com



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