MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After Red Lake High School was labeled one of Minnesota's worst schools, its board moved quickly to dismiss the principal. It didn't take long for Ev Arnold to land on his feet, though: The same district now pays him the identical salary to oversee the school's turnaround.
Arnold's situation is typical for principals in several states who were removed last summer under the federal School Improvement Grant program, intended to reform the nation's worst schools. The most popular way for schools to qualify for a slice of the $3 billion available was pick a reform plan that called for replacing what was considered failed leadership — but many of those principals are still running schools.
"The musical chairs game is being played," said Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "School districts, because they want the money, are finding creative ways to meet the requirements of the law."
Tirozzi's group had predicted that urban districts would simply shuffle their principals while rural districts would struggle to find replacements.
A review by The Associated Press of 19 Minnesota schools in 12 districts that were awarded more than $24 million found that only a handful of principals have left education administration. The AP interviewed nearly a dozen school leaders, reviewed school board minutes and media reports and sought out displaced principals by phone and through web searches.
In West Virginia, where 15 schools applied for the grants, eight principals got waivers to stay, two were hired to oversee the turnaround of their former schools, four were reassigned to other jobs in the district and one retired, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. Similarly, four of the seven Nebraska principals affected were hired as turnaround officers for their former schools, said Randy McIntyre of the Nebraska Department of Education.
When asked about the principal shuffle, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said hiring decisions were "best handled at the local level."
The federal government had radically increased the amount of money for the SIG program last year. To qualify, districts had to choose one of four options: close the school, convert it to a charter, replace the principal and at least half the teachers, or replace just the principal and change the curriculum. It also required districts to use the grant money to hire a turnaround manager and a manager with duties similar to an assistant principal, freeing the principal to focus on academics.
More than 730 chronically low-scoring schools in 44 states received money, and more than 90 percent chose an option that required removing their principal — although the Department of Education let many principals stay if they were hired in the past three years as part of previous turnaround plans.
Leaders of Minnesota schools who got money from the program say it has helped. They say they spent it on more training for teachers, more classroom time for students and on assistant principals who handle discipline. While some said blaming the principals wasn't fair, all the school leaders who spoke to the AP agreed that pushing them out made it clear to the students that things had to change.
Ogilvie Public Schools Superintendent Dave Endicott said he could already see the change in the high school brought about by the first installment of $1.22 million in grant money. Teachers are more organized, he said, and the new assistant principal has made sure there's less cutting up in the hallways. "I think there's a lack of chaos," Endicott said.
Many rural districts worried that the replace-the-principal approach wouldn't work for them, and education officials in 13 farm states wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last spring expressing concern about finding new administrators.
Lee Warne, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said rural superintendents have had trouble for years recruiting principals, let alone for the toughest schools. Urban and suburban districts pay better. Rural areas often don't provide a second job for two-career couples. The rural lifestyle often doesn't appeal to urbanites. And with the housing market downturn, top candidates often don't want to sell at a loss and buy new homes in small towns.
One Arizona district overcame that by using grant money to make their positions among the top-paying principal jobs in the state. The Whiteriver schools on the White Mountain Apache Reservation removed two principals and a third resigned. Superintendent Jeffrey Fuller said the new blood has meant "a whole new academic atmosphere," particularly in the high school.
In Minnesota, only four principals removed by schools entering the program couldn't be found in other school administration jobs by January. Four others were permitted to stay in their schools because they were recent enough hires.
So 11 moved but were back in education by January. Many were principals again, some were assistant principals and one, Arnold, was hired to oversee the turnaround of his old school. Two who were principals/superintendents stayed on as just superintendents.
The churn is evident at the Red Lake and Cass Lake-Bena districts in northwest Minnesota. Principal John Klinke was ushered out by Ponemah Elementary in Red Lake — a school that got grant money — and landed as principal at Cass Lake-Bena High School, which also got money after easing out its own principal — who moved on to become principal at the district's middle school.
Arnold, 62, came out of retirement to run Red Lake High School after a 2005 shooting attack by a student traumatized the school, which lies on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. He said he "got the short end of the stick" in being dismissed, and yet he generally agrees with the idea. "Good principals run good schools," he said.
Cass Lake-Bena got $1.06 million, while Red Lake got $2.32 million — money Arnold said is making a difference.
"There is a culture shift as you walk in the building," Arnold said. "The students understand that everyone is busting their butt to boost their academic performance."