The Principal's Role

The Principal Story - Principal Kerry Purcell leading an assembly at Harvard Park Elementary School Principal Kerry Purcell leading an assembly at Harvard Park Elementary School

A principal is the chief administrator of a school and is responsible for directing the entire staff in alignment with the school's educational mission. This includes hiring and training teachers and other educational workers and ensuring that their work is consistent with the appropriate curriculum. A principal is called upon to motivate teachers and students to work together toward the school's educational goals. A principal also plays a key role in maintaining basic order in the school, including the enforcement of rules. Principals meet with parents and community figures who are involved in their schools' activities, acting as ambassadors and intermediaries on behalf of their schools. A principal in a public school typically reports to a superintendent of schools. The superintendent often reports to a school board, which is generally composed of local community members who are elected (or appointed by elected officials) and which is charged with setting the agenda for the schools, making decisions about curriculum and handling other administrative tasks. While these are the general responsibilities of principals, it is difficult to outline a principal's specific duties, given that each state, and in many cases each district, has different criteria for the position.

»Public Schools of North Carolina. State Board of Education. (PDF)
»National School Boards Association.

Harvard Park Elementary School and Henry H. Nash Elementary School

Exterior shot of Harvard Park Elementary School in Chicago

Built a century ago in Springfield, Ill., the neighborhood of Harvard Park was intended to serve the city's growing working class of factory workers, providing a small-town feel within the state's capital city. As manufacturing and industrial activity declined in the latter 20th century, the area's population declined, and the local school was closed in 1979. The school reopened as Harvard Park Elementary School in 1987, serving kindergarteners through fifth graders. The school enrolls just under 400 students; 87 percent of students come from low-income families. Harvard Park serves roughly equal proportions of black and white students, who together account for over 85 percent of the school's demographics.

Located several miles west of downtown Chicago in the city's Austin neighborhood, Henry H. Nash Elementary School serves students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Nearly all of its 800 students, or 98 percent, are from low-income households, and almost all of the students are black. As part of the nation's third-largest public school system, Nash narrowly escaped closure in 2006, when Chicago closed 19 low-performing public schools. The school has been plagued in recent years by rapidly changing leadership, going through six principals in one five-year period.

»The Wallace Foundation: The Principal Story: Principal Kerry Purcell
»The Wallace Foundation: The Principal Story: Principal Tresa D. Dunbar
»"100 Years of Harvard Park." Chris Detro. State Journal-Register. Sept. 8, 2008.
» Harvard Park Elementary School
» Nash Elementary School

The No Child Left Behind Act

Principal Tresa Dunbar visits a classroom to assess a teacher at Nash Elementary School Principal Tresa Dunbar visits a classroom to assess a teacher at Nash Elementary School

Signed into law in early 2002 by President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set standards for reading and math proficiency and to have all students meet those standards by 2014. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states are required to conduct annual testing in grades three through eight to confirm that students' abilities have improved. The law has been criticized for its focus on testing -- some teachers argue that the time dedicated to preparing for the tests could be used more effectively. Additionally, schools that fail to make what the law calls "adequate yearly progress" face penalties and can be forced to close. The law was reauthorized by Congress in 2007. President Barack Obama has praised the law's aims, but has voiced some criticism of the law as well. It is expected that the law will be changed in 2009 to address some of its shortcomings.

»Times Topics: No Child Left Behind Act. The New York Times. April 29, 2009.