A System of Building Franchises

In decentralized Edmonton, principals call all the shots from budgets to bathroom tissue by JoAnne Young

Loran Radchenko has been educating kids for 29 years, the past six of them as a principal. But after just one year in the Edmonton, Alberta, Public Schools, he knew he had landed a job unlike any other he'd experienced. And he loved it.

"Being a principal in Edmonton Public Schools means something," Radchenko said.

Like most building administrators, Radchenko is an instructional leader, accountable for the learning that takes place at Edmonton's T.D. Baker Junior High. He's responsible for deciding what programs the school will offer, how it will go about ensuring student achievement and accomplishing good relationships with parents.

But in this school system, which takes site-based management to a higher level, he is also responsible for the school's budget, deciding when and how much to spend for maintenance, hiring teachers, purchasing supplies, paying utilities and contracting with curriculum, technology or marketing consultants.

He must know his students' and his community's needs and then go about meeting those needs. With open boundaries, he has to figure out how to attract students and parents who shop each spring for schools. More than 50 percent of Edmonton's students do not attend the school nearest their home.

"I'm responsible for the operation, the whole picture of what goes on," Radchenko said. "I've always been a person who likes to do that, to run my own show. I'm just fitting right in here."

Other Edmonton building administrators say they, too, are satisfied and excited to be part of a system that allows the principals, in effect, to run their schools much as a business franchise owner. While most school districts' central operations are administration-driven, Edmonton's Centre for Education is service driven, focused on satisfying the needs of its principals, the school faculties and students.

Wide Choices

The combination of site-based management and school choice has worked for Edmonton. The district gained international recognition with public schools that allow students and parents to choose from a wide variety of programs. They include fine arts, technology, language immersion, bilingual studies, Christian education, hockey training or home schooling. From school to school, grades are combined in unique ways and students-from developmentally disabled to high achievers to aboriginal-are offered learning that meets individual needs.

Principals like Bob Maskell believe the system works.

Sixteen years ago, he had a vision for Victoria School, located in the heart of the city. He wanted to turn the distressed high school-a "war zone" as he described it- into the grandest of schools with emphases on fine arts and academics. He also wanted to expand the school's mission to serve children of all ages, from preschool to graduation and beyond.

To do it, he needed to become more than the school's instructional leader. He became its budget administrator, chief fund raiser, business manager, purchasing agent, promotions director and resident dreamer of huge dreams.

With help from teachers and other staff, the "Let's Make a Deal" principal, as Maskell's been called by others in the system, handles everything from procurement of light bulbs and bathroom tissue to professional development. He draws on previous experience in the business world, as a bakery manager and an administrative assistant for a railway company.

"When times get tough I have to barter," he said. Maskell once found an empty building near the school for an Edmonton Opera performance of Aida, in trade for student access to rehearsals, performances and master classes. And he raised nearly a half million dollars for the school by selling surplus equipment.

When there's a budget crunch, he and his business manager figure out a way to make dollars go further. When there's a surplus, it goes right back into the school.

Maskell, 61, is close to realizing his dreams with a school ranked as one of the top-performing arts programs in North America and an International Baccalaureate curriculum that serves 1,900 kindergartners through grade 12 students and 1,000 more in after-school music enrichment classes. Preschoolers have a place at the school and the principal envisions post-secondary students will be the next to walk the halls of Victoria.

"When you empower people with an entrepreneurial spirit, people who can share your vision and excitement, when you get the right people on board, it happens. It's still happening," Maskell said.

A Flat Structure

Edmonton Public Schools has practiced a form of site-based management for at least 20 years, ever since former superintendent Michael Strembitsky opened boundaries and introduced school-based budgeting. But when Emery Dosdall took over the district's reins six years ago, he stoked it up several notches, eliminating nine associate superintendents in the central office and bringing more than 200 principals directly under his watch.

"He removed all the layers that used to exist between him and the principals," Maskell said. "People like me who push to the edge all the time, it allows us to be creative."

Bruce Coggles, principal at Jasper Place High School, understands the system from both sides. He was one of Edmonton's middle managers, an associate superintendent when Dosdall took over. As a tenured employee, he moved to a job as the principal of an 1,800-student school, which has since grown to 2,200 with a full range of offerings from strong academics to special needs.

"This is a great model. I don't think anyone would consider going back to a centrally run system," Coggles said. "This changes how people view their jobs. It gives them a lot more ownership and increases accountability."

Since it is impossible for one superintendent to have as much presence at the schools as nine associate superintendents, he said, principals have to step up and make a lot more decisions on their own.

Where the CEO Fits

Dosdall's role is clear. He is the superintendent of schools, not the superintendent of central services, he says. He does not mandate the process; he mandates the results.

"I've given them the budgets and the opportunities to get the results I ask them for. … I don't care how they get there, as long as they don't break the law," he said with a grin.

But they can break the rules and have done so. Another of Dosdall's first tasks when he took over was to eliminate many of those rules, the roadblocks that keep the district's professionals from being effective.

A committee of secretaries, principals, teachers, custodians and others were asked to identify what he called "dumb rules." The group came up with 369 of them, most of which weren't actually written down. They were a bureaucracy of the mind, Dosdall said, passed along from school to school, limiting what people could do only in their own heads. A year later, more than three dozen additional rules were eliminated.

With unneeded rules and middle managers out of the way, Dosdall was able to work directly with the principals. He now visits a couple of his 209 schools each morning, sometimes armed with information he has obtained from surveys of students, parents and teachers.

He evaluates one-third of the principals each year, sitting down with them, looking at academic achievement, at how the staff works together to achieve the principal's goals, at whether the school's budget registers a surplus or deficit or breaks even.

Principals receives a one-page statement of confidence in their work. The principals give to Dosdall a statement of their goals for the year, and he approves it or sends it back for revision or more detail.

If a principal appears not to be performing as expected, Dosdall delves into the reasons. It could be the principal does not fit with the school's program, community, personality or size, he said.

Trusting Relationships

Scott Millar, principal at the Ellerslie Campus, was evaluated by Dosdall earlier this year. Ellerslie is the result of a merger of two schools in close proximity: Ellerslie North for grades 5-9 and Ellerslie South for grades K-4.

The 12-year principal has been at the campus for one year and is one of six school administrators who manage a twinned project, running each day between two facilities.

Late in the first semester, he spent 2½ hours with the superintendent. Dosdall had three questions prepared: What was Millar doing to predict which students would need extra help? What expertise did he have on his staff and how was he working with them? What would he do to address teachers' low confidence in district leadership?

The staff, Millar believed, had felt a bit "put upon" when the two campuses were twinned and their input was not sought. Some long-term staff had taught at the school before it was annexed by the district in 1984 and may have longed for the good old days, he said.

"As principal I have the responsibility to move us forward as a school and staff," Millar said.

At the conclusion of Millar's evaluation, he said he was confident Dosdall left with a general feel for the school under his leadership and an assurance the principal had things under control.

"I appreciate the trust shown in me by my superintendent," Millar said. "As a principal and senior management in this outfit, I am motivated by the amount of direct influence I have on my professional growth."

The principals say Dosdall is good at matching schools and principals. If he sees a need at a school, he doesn't hesitate to move in a new principal who can meet that need. Two years ago, he saw such a need at M.E. LaZerte, a 30-year-old, ethnically diverse high school with an enrollment of about 1,000 and a perceived safety problem.

He picked Rosalind Smith, an administrator for nine years, who has moved to a new school about every three years.

Over the last two years, Smith has increased the enrollment of the school by about 400 students, introducing high-energy changes.

"One of the things I really thrive on is change," Smith said. "Every time I go somewhere I learn something new and I bring something new. … I get pumped about a new place. I like to push people to perform and I'm willing to take risks."

Central Services

No system is completely decentralized, and that is true of Edmonton.

The district centrally screens all prospective teachers to ensure they meet the district's eligibility standards. It also handles payroll, although schools "purchase" teachers from the central office for $61,000 apiece, whether they are rookies or hold doctorates. That ensures schools will not favor new teachers for their lower salaries.

Dosdall, who answers to a nine-member school board, establishes the priorities for the district. Then principals, teachers and others work together to accomplish those goals.

For some decisions, Dosdall turns to his Superintendent's Council, comprised of 13 principals with membership that changes each year. The council attends all school board meetings and meets twice a month with the superintendent and two central-services department heads to talk about district issues and policies and provide feedback on pending decisions.

"They know they can question the decision. But once the decision is made, everyone's on board," Dosdall said.

Jennifer Lawley, principal at Ross Sheppard High School, served on the council in 1999-2000. That year, the group focused discussions on how schools could better advocate for public education in light of government funding cuts and the fact only
30 percent of Edmonton's residents had school-age children. The council also addressed school safety in the aftermath of Columbine and other violent incidents in schools.

"He was listening to the schools through the 13 of us," she said.

When Dosdall reorganized the district's management structure, he also instituted a number of initiatives, including a strong focus on student achievement. Every meeting agenda has student achievement penciled in.

Angus McBeath, department head of school and district services in Edmonton, said site-based management alone isn't the answer to higher student achievement unless it is made the primary mission.

"If student achievement is your No. 1 objective, site-based management is the best way to go at it," McBeath said. "But if you don't have good monitoring in the system for results, it's not wise. You have to monitor results and they have to be public."

When Dosdall took over, the district was ranked fourth in student achievement among Alberta's four metropolitan areas. Since then, achievement has gone up each year, with more students in grades 3, 6 and 9 meeting the acceptable standard and the excellence standard. Grade 12 students in the International Baccalaureate program continue to do better than world averages.

Collaborative Solutions

The principals work together to analyze achievement results, set targets for improvement and share best practices.

Lawley said the real push this year was mathematics. "In past years we have not been doing as well as we wanted to," she said. "We've had terrific improvement this year at all levels."

The central office has been a strong partner in that effort.

A year ago, Susan Burghardt-MacNeill was principal of successful Centre High in downtown Edmonton, which offers 18- to 20-year-old students the opportunity to finish high school in a college-like setting. Today, she is in the central office managing a two-year project for the district's high schools with $9 million provided by the Alberta Incentive for School Improvement.

One major project is working with teachers in implementing a new math curriculum and developing district mathematics exams for grades 10 and 11.

"We're looking harder at expected outcomes and finding out so much more needs to be addressed in classroom time," she said.

The school improvement project brings teachers and administrators together across the district to learn from each other about ways to accomplish better student achievement.

Burghardt feels the central office assignment has given her a way to see the bigger picture of how shared leadership can work in the district, not just one high school. Being in the district office and mentored by the superintendent is a terrific professional development opportunity for principals, she said.

"When I go back to the schools, I will be a lot better," she said.

Projects that bring school leaders and teachers together districtwide are important, even in a site-based system, she said.

"Being given ownership does not in any way disenfranchise you from being a district player," she said. "We're bringing principals together on a collaborative mission. Then we do go back to our sites and move it along uniquely with a sense that we are not going it alone."

Attracting Quality

While many U.S. school districts are beginning to struggle with finding enough qualified principals to fill vacancies left by retirements and people leaving the profession, Edmonton appears to have not only quality, but quantity.

In a 1998 study conducted by the Educational Research Service, half of 403 districts surveyed reported difficulty finding qualified candidates for principal openings. But when Edmonton found it needed to fill 25 vacancies for 2000-2001, it had nearly four times more candidates than openings. Fifty-five people from outside the district applied for the Edmonton principal jobs in addition to 60 internal candidates.

Edmonton officials credit a system that provides autonomy and tools to succeed, including both support and ongoing training.

While some principals might shy away from managing the business side of schools, many believe it is less frustrating to have more control. Principals say it boosts morale to know that the district trusts its school managers. It saves big money, too, because principals are more careful about accounting for every dollar when they have an incentive.

"People tend to rise to the challenge," said Coggles, the Jasper Place principal. "Given the opportunity, they are responding well, they are taking on the challenge and meeting it."

Many of the principals hire business managers to handle financial details and work closely with them on the schools' budgets, purchasing and spending.

The district prepares future administrators with 20 weeks of leadership training. Sessions totaling 200 hours are scheduled after school and on weekends. These cover budgeting, leadership, student achievement and interpersonal, parent and community relations.

Once on the job, first-year principals meet as a group once a month to go over procedures and get questions answered. Principals also meet monthly in "vertical" groups of elementary, junior high and senior high schools and in support teams. Retreats are scheduled to get them away from the district and allow time to focus on a topic in depth.

And everyone is assigned a mentor.

While principals at Edmonton Public Schools get more responsibility, they don't necessarily receive more pay. Salaries are typical of those paid throughout the Alberta province-a range of $78,265 to $88,425 in Canadian dollars.

"The truth of the matter is this is a much more satisfying work environment," Coggles said. "Nothing is more frustrating than being held accountable for things when you do not have the resources to achieve them. … Yes it's more work. But in other ways it's less work."

Re-energized Feelings

While Millar, leader of the Ellerslie twinned schools, said he can't think of another environment he'd rather work in as a principal, all the autonomy sometimes feels kind of lonely, especially in the middle of an uncompromising situation.

"You can't call someone and say … will you do this? The decision is always back on you," he said.

On the other hand, it has been exhilarating to be in charge of planning and executing a program that will help ensure that the small community on the edge of Edmonton that Ellerslie is a part of remains vital. While the area is growing, it still has a semi-rural feel. To meet the community's needs, Millar is emphasizing academic excellence and environmental studies, with an outdoor science classroom second to none.

"We have our own little Shangri-La," he said.

The area also has a predominant low-income population with needs for family support, parent training and social services.

While the work can be draining, Millar feels he can reenergize by talking and meeting with colleagues who face the same kinds of challenges he does. He meets regularly with both large groups and a smaller group, comprised of 10 principals in the same geographic area.

The larger group discusses the bigger issues of student achievement and strengthening the profession: how to provide leadership with courage. The smaller group gets down to the nitty-gritty of how those issues apply to their schools.

While the school district may seem to be principal focused, the principals raise up the students and community as the priority.

"Everybody is here to support students, down to the custodians," Smith said. "This is a district of choice. Students vote with their feet."

JoAnne Young is an education writer with the Lincoln Journal Star, P.O. Box 81609, Lincoln, Neb. 68501. E-mail: jyoung@journalstar.com