Most people who leave a toxic environment don't talk about their reasons for fear of reprisals, or to avoid the accusations of sour grapes, or out of a genuine sense of disappointment. That helps no one, because the roots of the environment's toxicity remain unchecked.
By all accounts, this principal was a good one. Clearly, his principles were right. So, when a school leader like this one leaves because of conditions over which he has no control, what stops his successor from suffering the same conditions?
Bill Kerlina won a plum assignment when he was hired away from Montgomery County in July 2009 to become a principal in Northwest Washington. Phoebe Hearst Elementary was a small, high-performing school, right across the street from Sidwell Friends.
He grew to love its students, teachers and — for the most part — its parents. “If I could lift that school up and put it in a functional school system, it would be perfect,” he said. Instead, he said, the dysfunction he encountered in D.C. public schools led him to quit this month, fed up and burned out.
Principals in the District and other cities leave all the time, for a range of reasons. At least 20 of the District’s 123 public schools will have new leaders when classes begin in late August.The churn is especially heavy at low-performing schools. A 2010 study showed that nearly two-thirds of Chicago’s struggling schools had three or more principals in the past decade.
But Kerlina, a baby-faced 39, is leaving Hearst, not a struggling school in a poor neighborhood. He’s also leaving education altogether after 17 years — to go into the gourmet cupcake business.
Usually, resignations and firings unfold in silence, with officials citing privacy laws and educators reluctant to burn bridges. But a series of interviews with Kerlina offers a rare view of D.C. reform from an insider talking out of school.
He said he is quitting a system that evaluates teachers but doesn’t support their growth, that knuckles under to unreasonable demands from parents, and that focuses excessively on recruiting neighborhood families to a school where most students come from outside the attendance zone.
Kerlina said his two years left him with high blood pressure, extra pounds from a stress-induced diet of Armand’s and McDonald’s lunches, and a sense that life is too short. He is quick to acknowledge that he was far from the perfect principal and that his grievances may strike some as whiny or carping. He also acknowledges that money figured into his discontent: He said he was hired with the promise of making more than his $94,995 annual salary.
Other principals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating school system leadership, said they understand Kerlina’s frustrations.
“He’s a loss,” said one veteran principal. “Bill was a tremendously bright guy.” But, the principal added, the District can be a shock to administrators from smooth-running suburban systems.
Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that she was surprised by Kerlina’s resignation and that it was the first she’d heard of his unhappiness. She also said she was disappointed that he didn’t air his grievances more fully before he made his decision. Working in the District, she acknowledged, poses challenges.
“I guess that we all know everything ain’t for everybody,” Henderson said. “DCPS is a work in progress. Not everybody is willing to lead under the circumstances we ask them to lead under, in a developing urban school district. It is much different than a place where things are completed and fully successful.”
Hearst parents and teachers said they were disappointed. PTA President Jen Wilcox said Kerlina’s open-door policy, his efforts to upgrade classroom technology and his easy, energetic manner with kids made him “a breath of fresh air.”
“He cared about children, and he was a hard-working principal,” veteran teacher Bill Rope said. “He didn’t leave because he wanted to make cupcakes.”
There was no real tipping point, Kerlina said, just an accumulation of frustrations. He said his last goodbyes Monday afternoon, after the final half-day of classes. Around 4, he walked the halls one more time, turning off lights and shutting doors. As he drove away, he said later, he realized that he had heard nothing from any D.C. school official in two weeks. A minor slight, but telling, in his view.
Do you know anyone like this?