Superintendent's Notebook: It's the principal of the thing

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

Arne Duncan, our nation’s education secretary, is stepping down later this year, but something he said stays with me: “There’s no such thing as a high-performing school without a great principal.”

Duncan said we “simply can’t overstate” the importance of principals in driving student achievement and attracting and retaining good teachers.

He made those comments a few years ago, but his words are particularly apt now because October is National Principals Month. It’s a time we honor principals for the critical role they play in the lives of students, teachers and other staff and parents.

I like to think of a principal as the conductor of an orchestra. A principal has to focus on various members of the orchestra – the freshman class, for example, or parents or teachers – but in the end it’s the principal’s job to bring the different elements of the school all together in a harmonious way.

Here at the Portland Public Schools, we are very fortunate to have outstanding principals. I want to commend them for all they do every day to ensure student success.

I don’t have room to name them all here, so I’ll mention just a few principals to give an idea of the wealth of experience our school leaders have.

One, Suellyn Santiago, is just in her second year as principal of Lincoln Middle School, but can draw on the knowledge she has gained in serving our district for some 16 years, in roles ranging from educational technician to assistant principal.

Another, Dawn Kenniston, formerly known as Dawn Carrigan, was principal of Longfellow Elementary School before spending last year leading a school in Taiwan. She became principal of Hall Elementary School this fall and brings to the job a broader perspective as a global leader equipped with skills to prepare students for global competency.

And Jeanne Malia, in her fifth year as principal of Riverton Elementary School, has had a long career literally spanning the nation. She has worked in Maine, Maryland and California, and was principal of a Los Angeles science magnet school before returning to Maine.

I asked these school leaders what inspired them.

Kenniston said she was inspired to lead by an experience in her first job in education.

“Just after I started my job as an educational technician, our principal called over the intercom to meet with teachers in the library. I eagerly went and sat in the front row,” Kenniston said. But the principal told her, “You are not a teacher.”

Kenniston continued, “I really believed I was a teacher, even though it was not my formal title. After this experience, I was determined to be in a position to ensure that everyone who worked in a school would believe and understand that they are teachers. As teachers we understand that every action that we take, every decision that we make, influences the actions and decisions of children watching us.”

Are principals teachers too?

“Absolutely,” she said. “Principals are teachers in every action and every interaction. I try to model all of the behaviors that I want students to demonstrate.”

Malia said her grandparents, immigrants from Ireland, instilled in her the importance of education and working hard.

“They inspired me to do my best and to never give up,” she said. “I have also been very fortunate to have worked for and with many leaders in Maine, Maryland and California who have modeled the initiative, flexibility, courage and empathy needed to be an effective leader.”

She added, “leadership also means building the capacity of everyone to take on the work of the school.”

Santiago’s parents were Portland Public Schools teachers and her mother also became a principal.

“I was drawn to the field of education and truly believe that I was born to do this work,” Santiago said. “I love kids and am passionate about helping them learn.”

Santiago said she chose to become a building administrator because “I wanted to have a larger impact on more students and help our school continue to grow.”

During this month, I’d like to thank all our great school leaders for the tremendous positive impact you have on our students, staff, parents and community.

Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. She can be reached at