The Virginia Department of Education is launching a pilot program to help support new and inexperienced principals at federally designated at-risk schools in an effort to address what officials call a “crucial need.”
“We are excited about it. Mentoring principals has been a long time coming to the commonwealth,” said Randy Barrack, CEO of the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, which along with the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals is partnering with VDOE, in an email to the Mercury.
Nationally, 80% of all public school principals remained at the same school in 2020-21 where they had been the year prior, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. The remaining 20% moved to a different school or left the principal role altogether.
In Virginia, according to reporting by WTOP, Fairfax County has lost dozens of principals since the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who spoke with the news station cited pandemic-related burnout and growing pressures to overcome learning loss as reasons for leaving the profession. Some also said their departures were due to a disconnect with and lack of transparency from administrative offices.
Virginia’s principal vacancy rate is less than 2% for each of the three school levels — elementary, middle and secondary, according to VDOE data from 2021 to 2023.
Under state law, new principals serve a three-year probationary period before acquiring continuing contract status.
Krista Arnold, executive director of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, said many principals accept leadership positions with limited years of experience because of the growing national shortage of educators. Mentors, she said, will be able to provide management and instructional tips.
“This is going to give new principals a highly skilled, experienced veteran who’s not within their division, who is a safe person for them to talk to, who could be a sounding board because the principalship is really lonely and can be isolating,” said Arnold, who spent 20 years as an elementary school principal.
Besides shaping instruction, Arnold said principals have a significant influence on student achievement, attendance, teacher retention and community involvement.
Virginia’s new mentorship program, she said, will hopefully end the outdated notion that principals should be left to “sink or swim” and instead offer essential aid and support, “providing a partner in what too often can often be an isolating role.”
The program’s focus on principals in at-risk schools, whose populations include students from low-income families with a higher than average probability of dropping out or failing school, will also help improve teacher performance and student learning, Barrack and Arnold said in a joint statement with the Department of Education.
The pilot program is expected to be rolled out before the start of the next school year.
“Principals are the leaders in their school buildings. They set the tone and are the ones looked 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 tough, on-the-job training. With this mentoring pilot project, we are focusing on supporting our new principals leading in some of our most challenged schools and equipping them with support that can help them and their schools be successful.”
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