CSA President Celebrates Assistant Principals
Assistant Principals: The Backbone of Our Schools
By Mark Cannizzaro
“We gotcha this year,” were the welcoming words of one of my three assistant principals at our first cabinet meeting of my rookie year as principal. She was speaking for every AP in the room at I.S. 75 in Staten Island. I’d been an AP for 8 years at I.S. 34. But moving into a principal’s seat was overwhelming. The buck suddenly stopped with me in a school with 1,600 students, in a heavy-traffic neighborhood. I had a lot to learn. My APs anticipated most of the things I’d need to know about the school and, beyond that, about issues the community wanted me to address. They were true to their word. They led me before I could lead them.
Thinking about this now, I travel back to my own years as an AP. These thoughts are with me not just because we celebrate Assistant Principals Week this month but because over the course of my career APs have made an indelible impression on me. These thoughts are also with me due to the tense atmosphere in all our schools since the slaughter in Parkland, Fla. Considering the frequency and closeness of the AP’s interaction with students, they’re bound to play a major role in restoring their students’ shattered sense of safety. They are often the students’ most trusted ears.
This was true years ago when I was an AP, helping to manage curricular and extracurricular activities for my students. We were also student safety coordinators, organizers of school-wide data, parent engagement specialists, and we dealt with many of the compliance-related tasks that principals designated to us — everything from conducting fire and shelter drills to checking little heads for lice. At the same time, we were confidantes and sounding boards to our principals. It was a big job and it turned us into experts on human nature.
Over the last 15 years, as the role of principals has gotten increasingly more complex, our expectations for APs have expanded and now include a greater focus on teaching and learning. Today, our APs work with teachers on their professional development and in shaping instructional focus. They provide teacher observations and targeted evaluations. Their role as educational leader was expanding even when I took the principal’s reins at I.S. 75. It was my APs who made me look good by bringing and ensuring the success of the NEST Program and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Program. Nowadays, APs are expected to have an ever deeper understanding of pedagogy.
Without assistant principals, our school system would collapse like a skeleton without a backbone. We need APs to enter the Principals Pool and become the next generation of great principals. But we also need many of them to serve as career assistant principals. They are the DNA of our schools carrying all the stuff that gives our schools substance. Good principals know how true this is. The DOE? Well, sometimes I wonder.
In an effort to save money, the bureaucrats sometimes suggest that certain schools are top-heavy with APs while they ignore the many schools that are alarmingly underserved by them. The notoriously unfair “Fair Student Funding Formula” shortchanges many schools in this way. That’s why we have been insisting on a total overhaul of that formula and the creation of minimum staffing requirements. We also have been urging our principals to beware when the DOE suggests they choose between their APs and other resources and let them know that holding onto the support and expertise of their assistant principals is non-negotiable.
Being an assistant principal, I never doubted how essential we APs were to the lives of our children, the success of our principal and the advancement of our teachers. I was part of that club that worked 8 periods a day and untold hours after school, often late into the evening, and on weekends. We ran from one thing to another, sometimes forgetting to eat lunch. I would never again be as personally involved with students. I had a one-on-one relationship with every one of them. I went through 9/11 with them; I went through a bus accident and a fire with them. By the time each kid walked across the stage at graduation, I was as choked up as the members of their family. Later, when I was principal of a successful school, I thought, “We principals get the credit, but the APs do the heavy lifting.” So, it’s not just in this commemorative period but the whole year round that I salute our assistant principals and thank them for a hard job well done.