Virginia Implements Program to Mentor New Principals

The Virginia Department of Education is initiating a pilot initiative to assist new and inexperienced principals at federally designated at-risk schools in an effort to address what officials consider to be a “critical need.”

“We are enthusiastic about it. Providing mentorship to principals has been a long-awaited endeavor in the commonwealth,” said Randy Barrack, CEO of the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, which is partnering with VDOE along with the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, in an email to the Mercury.

Nationally, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 80% of all public school principals remained at the same school in the 2020-21 academic year where they had been the previous year. The remaining 20% either transferred to a different school or left the principalship entirely.

In Virginia, according to reporting by WTOP, Fairfax County has witnessed the departure of numerous principals since the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who spoke with the news station attributed their departures to pandemic-related burnout and increasing pressures to address learning loss. Some also mentioned a lack of connection and transparency from administrative offices as reasons for leaving the profession.

According to VDOE data from 2021 to 2023, Virginia’s principal vacancy rate is less than 2% for elementary, middle, and secondary schools.

Under state law, new principals serve a three-year probationary period before attaining continuing contract status.

Krista Arnold, executive director of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, stated that many principals assume leadership positions with limited years of experience due to the national shortage of educators. She added that mentors will be able to offer management and instructional advice.

“This will provide new principals with a highly skilled, experienced veteran who is not in their division, someone they can trust and confide in because being a principal can be lonely and isolating,” said Arnold, who served as an elementary school principal for 20 years.

Arnold also highlighted that besides shaping instruction, principals have significant influence on student achievement, attendance, teacher retention, and community engagement.

She hopes that Virginia’s new mentorship program will replace the outdated notion that principals should figure things out on their own and instead offer vital support, “providing a partner in what can often be an isolating role.”

Barrack and Arnold, in a joint statement with the Department of Education, emphasized that the program’s focus on principals in at-risk schools will also help improve teacher performance and student learning. At-risk schools serve populations that include students from low-income families who have a higher probability of dropping out or failing.

The pilot program is expected to be implemented before the start of the next school year.

“Principals are the leaders in their school buildings. They set the tone and are looked upon to establish a vision for high standards and success,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons in a statement. “For many new principals, it can be a challenging, on-the-job training. With this mentoring pilot project, we are focusing on supporting our new principals who are leading in some of our most challenging schools and equipping them with the support they need to be successful.”

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