The Power of Principal Supervisors: How Two Districts Are Remaking an Old Role

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The Power of Principal Supervisors


Principal Elizabeth Namba (L) of Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and instructional coach Rachel Cerlen meet with Principal Supervisor Janice Harris after a classroom visit.

There were dark moments that first year. In 2014, Principal Elizabeth Namba inherited a school that faced multiple challenges, including a troubling achievement gap, drastically decreased enrollment and a growing suspension rate. But when she found herself awake at 3 a.m. desperately trying to figure out what to do next, she knew she could shoot off an email to her supervisor,Janice Harris, and find encouraging words in her inbox the next morning. During those difficult times, Harris was her mentor, her coach, her sounding board, her evaluator - her rock. "I can't imagine doing this without her," says Namba, who heads Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

More than 1,000 miles across the country in Tulsa, Okla., Katy Jimenez faced similar obstacles. On a crisp and sunny November day in 2015, the young principal of McClure Elementary School agonized over a decision she had made that morning to suspend a pre-K student for hitting and scratching a teacher twice in one week.

But she didn't need to wrestle with that difficult choice alone. Kayla Robinson, her supervisor, was there to offer guidance and support as Jimenez considered how best to help the boy, engage his mother and reassure a teacher who had been reduced to tears by the latest incident. "Many times when I have issues that are really wearing me down, things that make my heart heavy, having someone to talk to is really beneficial. Someone who's been there and someone who can offer solutions that maybe I can't see in the moment," says Jimenez of the support Robinson provides.

The job of principal has always been a lonely one. But do principals need to feel quite so alone? That is the question school districts across the country are grappling with during a time when the expectations on these school leaders to improve student performance have never been higher. Many districts have responded by taking a fresh look at how best to support principals and reduce principal turnover, particularly in the most troubled schools. For a small but growing number of school districts, one answer is to remake the job of the principal supervisor.


The principal supervisor job goes by many different names.

A Big Shift for School Districts

The idea - to shape a job focused squarely on helping principals improve teaching and learning in their schools - represents a dramatic break with convention. In the typical large school district today, principal supervisors oversee an average of 24 schools - and often more than 40 - and devote their time to handling regulatory compliance and fixing building problems.1 In districts such as Washington, D.C., and Tulsa, whose efforts are supported by The Wallace Foundation, that old approach has been turned on its head. Supervisors in both districts now concentrate on bolstering their principals' work to improve instruction. The number of schools that supervisors oversee has also been lowered, which allows them the time necessary to provide principals with the coaching and supervision they have often lacked in the past.

Under the old system, supervisors rarely visited schools more than once every few months and had little opportunity to work directly with principals beyond making their way through a compliance checklist. Since launching its redesigned Instructional Leadership Director program in 2013, Tulsa Public Schools has expanded the number of principal supervisors 2 from just two overseeing 44 schools each, to nine, supporting no more than 12 schools. The District of Columbia Public Schools, which began revamping its program during the 2010-11 school year, today enlists nine principal supervisors, each responsible for an average of 12 schools, down from as many as 28 schools in 2010 when the district had six principal supervisors.

The result is that Tulsa and D.C. principal supervisors now spend at least 70 percent of their time inside schools, scheduling formal visits in each building every few weeks, dropping by as needed, and staying in regular contact through calls, emails and text messages. The supervisors now play a critical role in everything from instruction to testing to personnel issues as they work hand in hand with their principals to determine the best path for each school.

Trailblazing a New Role

In Tulsa, principal supervisor Kayla Robinson drags her black, rolling briefcase across the long parking lot at Skelly Primary School, loaded down with new data and curriculum materials to share with each of three principals she will visit during a nearly 12-hour day. Robinson typically grabs a protein shake and piece of fruit for lunch on the road and clocks about 30 miles a day in her car before heading back to her office in the evening to write follow-up emails to principals and administrators in the central office.

As Robinson enters Skelly, a first grade teacher greets her with an exuberant, "Hi!" and compliments her on her taupe and white striped jacket. Another teacher, walking by with a parade of kindergarteners, stops to give Robinson a hug. "She's my guardian angel," the teacher says. Two years earlier, the then-first-year teacher was on the verge of losing her job at another school. "I thought she really had talent," says Robinson, but the school and principal were "not a good match." Ultimately, Robinson helped orchestrate the teacher's move to Skelly, preventing one more now "very successful teacher from exiting the profession within the first three years."

Robinson, who worked as an elementary school principal for 23 years, including 19 years at Marshall Elementary School in Tulsa, never had aspired to be a principal supervisor. The old compliance officer model "did not appeal to me at all," she says. But when Tulsa implemented its new Instructional Leadership Director program she was intrigued, and she has found that she loves the ever-changing challenges that come with the new job. "Every day is different, so I never know exactly what's going to happen," Robinson says. "But when I see the culture and the climate of a school begin to change, and I can see joy and engagement in both learning and teaching, there's nothing better than that." Under the district's old system, the two principal supervisors (then called "associate superintendents") provided virtually no instructional assistance. "You would see your superintendent at evaluation time or if there was any kind of fire to be put out," recalls Jennifer Gripado, a former Tulsa principal who was part of a team that helped create and manage the Instructional Leadership Director program before becoming a principal supervisor herself. As a result, the position was most often occupied by those looking for managerial jobs after years in the trenches as principals or teachers.

Today, in both Tulsa and D.C., the position typically attracts educators who are drawn to the instructional and coaching roles - and who have little interest in sitting behind a desk. Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist says the position demands people who "first and foremost know instruction really well, who understand teaching and learning, and know it well enough to guide and support the professional development of their principals." D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson believes the revamped role is central to the school system's strategy for improving education. "It is one of the most important positions in the district, sitting at the nexus between schools and our central strategy for educating young people," she says.

When I see the culture and the climate of a school begin to change, and I can see joy and engagement in both learning and teaching, there's nothing better than that. - Kayla Robinson, principal supervisor, Tulsa

A Focus on Instruction

D.C.'s ambitious goals for the position helped attract people like Janice Harris, a former New York City English and social studies teacher who gave up an 11-year tenure as principal of a Connecticut elementary school to uproot her family and sign on as a principal supervisor for a diverse cluster of 12 elementary schools. "I really wanted to challenge myself, but more importantly I was attracted to the mission and the work at D.C Public Schools," says Harris, who is responsible for some of the lowest and highest performing schools in the city. "There are excellent teachers and excellent leaders here, and our job is to coach them and grow them to really allow our system to excel. The system is not going to fire its way to excellence."


D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson


Elizabeth Namba observing 3rd graders with teacher Brian Gardner

The principal supervisor ‘is one of the most important positions in the district, sitting at the nexus between schools and our central strategy for educating young people.' - D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson

After just 18 months on the job, Harris already sees evidence that her presence makes a difference. Nowhere is that more apparent than at Hyde-Addison. Although the school is located in the affluent Georgetown area, 59 percent of its students come from other neighborhoods, having gained entry through a lottery system, and 19 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. The school is one of the most diverse in D.C., with a student body that is roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent black. It also faces a significant achievement gap between African-American students and their white peers, especially in reading. Both Harris and principal Namba are determined to close that gap.

When Harris enters the school, she and Namba immediately get down to business, discussing the three classrooms they'll visit that day and what they'll be looking for - specifically, consistency in reading instruction. They start with a visit to a third-grade class where small groups of students are discussing different books they read for their "book clubs." Harris sits down comfortably with a table of four children eager to show off their work. She asks about the book they're reading - My Name is Maria Isabel. Several talk at once, excited to provide details about the book, which tells the story of a Hispanic girl growing up in the United States who begins having problems at school when her teacher starts calling her Mary.

"How will you show what you know about this book?" Harris asks. The kids seem to think that if something strikes them as important they'll write it down on Postit notes or just talk about it quietly in their groups.

The children discuss other aspects of their reading experience, too. "If you don't finish the book, you can just take it home and then finish it there," says one girl. Adds another: "And we can take notes if we want!" Harris is curious about the note-taking. "So tell me a little bit more about that, that's sort of interesting to me," she says.

"So if we like find something important in the book, it's like we're summarizing," the girl explains. The boy across from her chimes in: "Yeah, we're just looking for character traits and we have to write it down on paper." "Thank you so much for sharing," she says to the kids, her face lit up by a warm smile. "Now get back to reading."

Outside the classroom, Harris can hardly contain her excitement. "I can't even begin to tell you the change I'm seeing here. At the beginning of the year, these students were off track and unengaged. Now they are enjoying and understanding what they're reading and learning. This is a huge change. It makes me so happy I want to cry." She also says she has detected hopeful signs that efforts to close the achievement gap for African-American students are headed in the right direction: "What I saw today was a lot of engaged AfricanAmerican students, particularly boys."

After each classroom visit, Harris, Namba and an instructional coach assigned to the school huddle in the hall to discuss what they've seen. Namba explains how she is encouraging teachers to carefully choose the books they're giving kids to read. "We surveyed kids about the books they liked, and I think we're seeing the result now," she says.

They discuss a few relatively minor red flags they observed in the classroom. Harris notes that the kids were not able to explain fully how they were going to share what they knew about the book. Namba suggests that the teacher should ask more "clarifying questions so the kids know why they're actually having a conversation about the book and not just reading."


Hyde-Addison students working with special education teacher Jilian Gundling as Janice Harris looks on

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  2. A note about terminology: In Tulsa principal supervisors are called "instructional leadership directors;" in D.C they are referred to as "instructional superintendents." For clarity, this report refers to all those in the position as "principal supervisors."