Shrinking budgets. Crowded classrooms. Low teacher morale. And unruly students.
It's not easy being a school principal these days.
And yet, how well a principal copes with these kinds of problems often determines how successful a school and its students are, educators say.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 5, 1993 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong Caption--A caption with a photograph on page B1 of the West Ventura County Edition on Tuesday incorrectly identified Deloris R. Carn, principal of E.O. Green junior high school in Oxnard.
"You can have a really good school, but you won't have a great school unless you have a great principal," said Susan Parks, assistant superintendent of the Simi Valley Unified School District. "It really makes a difference."
Robin Hunter, principal of Park View Elementary School in Simi Valley, and Deloris R. Carn, principal of E. O. Green junior high in Oxnard, are two people who are making a difference.
Both are similar in their unshakable belief in public education and in their passion for their jobs.
"It'll wear you out," Carn said. "But I love it. It's the most endearing profession, next to being a minister or a doctor."
To be sure, Park View and Green face many of the same problems as other schools. Both have a high percentage of students who come from low-income or disadvantaged families. Many classes have 30 or more students.
And, of course, there is always the need for more money--for new teachers as well as for supplies and equipment.
But to Hunter and Carn, these are challenges that must be overcome with creativity, an evolving curriculum and innovative teaching strategies.
"You play the cards you're dealt," Hunter said. "What we have is finite resources and unlimited demands. But that doesn't change what you have to do. We're an educational institution. Our job is to educate kids."
When he is not at work, Hunter may sometimes be found at a UCLA School of Medicine workshop, studying how the brain learns. Other times he may be teaching a class to demonstrate a new teaching strategy to one of his 22 instructors.
"The job obviously is to keep moving forward," Hunter said.
It is this philosophy that spurred Hunter and his staff this year to turn their ethnically diverse 670-student school into a laboratory for fresh educational approaches.
The school adopted an "open classroom" program, where students are no longer separated by age or by grade level but instead are grouped together in lower, middle and upper elementary classes.
Report cards have also changed. Letter grades A through F are no longer used to measure academic achievement. They feature short summaries of how each student is performing in different subjects.
And desks have been replaced by tables to allow students to teach and learn from each other.
For example, in one class recently a group of students who had just finished reading a chapter on early California history exchanged information on what they learned, while their teacher helped other pupils with a different assignment.
"Why did pioneers come to California?" Erin Bologna, 9, asked her classmates.
"To search for gold," said Justin Magee, 10.
"What else?" asked Erin.
"To trade," said Nathan McAllister, 9. "California was a big center of trade."
The students then wrote their answers down on a group work sheet to be turned in and discussed in class.
With Hunter's help, teachers have learned to engage students not only with the way they ask questions but the way they respond to answers, whether right or wrong.
For example, if a teacher asks a group of students for the answer to 5 plus 3, and a student answers 7, "the teacher does not say you're wrong and move on to the next student," Hunter said.
"Instead, the teacher stops and says, 'You're thinking of 5 plus 2.' Right there the teacher is helping the child who needs help. She's also providing positive reinforcement. It's those little things that make a difference."
Parks said Hunter, who also free-lances as a teaching consultant, keeps up with the latest research in education and uses that information to help teachers improve their classroom skills.
"He has credibility because he has so much knowledge and he practices that knowledge," Parks said. "This man knows what he's talking about."
Indeed, Hunter and his staff are reinventing their school to give teachers more control in planning their curriculum, to move beyond textbook learning and to raise the expectation levels of students.
"We're just breaking down barriers," said Hunter, who has a doctorate in education from USC.
Still, Park View is only one of a handful of schools in Ventura County to use the open classroom system, and some parents remain skeptical about its effectiveness. One couple even transferred their child to another school.
But Kathy Bruso, who has two children at Park View, said most parents believe in the program.
"They're still the same teachers, and I don't think they've forgotten what they've learned," said Bruso, who is also president of the PTA.
She credited Hunter with having the courage to try something new.
"We're stuck in the old ways of doing things," Bruso said. "I think parents need to be reminded that we can't just stay the way we've always been, that we have to change if we want to get better."