Urban Education Leader Avoids Modern Administrative Role

Anne Prendergast is a rising star within the ranks of the Chicago Public Schools system. Her ability to engage some of the toughest and most alienated kids in the whole of the U.S. has left Prendergast with the world at her feet. The option to become a principal and run a whole school with her singular vision is right at her fingertips.

But, Prendergast has sidestepped that option and instead chosen to become a Spanish teacher at Westinghouse High School on Chicago’s northwest side. Even though Westinghouse is a selective high school, many would argue that Prendergast, a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, should have gone for a bigger job.

Unfortunately, Prendergast saw the work lives of principals revolving around three very distinct spheres.

“Having to deal with low student attendance, things like students not coming to their school. Lack of parent involvement, trying to think constantly about how to get parents involved, and spending lots of time in the office dealing with budgetary issues.”

The time spent on site was also a concern for Prendergast, “Our school day is from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I think the principal is there from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If a regular job is nine-to-five, then it’s definitely longer than that.”

Being stuck inside the office dealing with financial headaches appeared to hold no allure for Prendergast. And why would it? Scrabbling around for donation dollars to make up for budgetary shortfalls is both time consuming and tiring, and within Chicago Public Schools, is left solely to the administration team.

And even then, when the money is in the coffers, mistakes are still made at an administrative level that end up putting the school in a bad position.

“Because there’s so much on a principal’s plate, they’re missing deadlines and time-sensitive grant money has run out and we haven’t spent it yet. That money then gets reabsorbed into some sort of general fund and it’s gone for the rest of the financial year,” said Prendergast.

“I think the other issue is that you have to be really clever about the way that you spend it. I remember Ms. Gurley at Michele Clark High School put teachers in administrative roles, but kept paying them as teachers, because you only get a certain amount of administrator funding. She would be like, ‘I’ll have one less security guard, and I’ll take that money and put it into a teacher fund, and then I’ll call that teacher an administrator,’ you know, you really have to be clever. So, it’s an issue of being smart on both sides. You have to be educationally clever, but you also do need to understand money to some extent.”

Often, this dual job role is beyond the ability of many of the nation’s principals who thought they were just progressing from their role as an educator. In Chicago things are no different.

“I’ve seen a lot of schools that are now shifting their funding to include a business manager, because their principal can’t do it. I think the principal’s realize that, so then they have to find the funds to pay for the business manager. It’s just become such a big part of the job,” said Prendergast.

Prendergast and her partner had even discussed the possibility of her going for an administrator’s license within Chicago Public Schools, but had eventually decided against it.

“All they do is manage angry parents and deal with budgets. Assistant principals are being made to do what principals used to do, and principals just spend every day in crisis-management mode.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

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