BY THE BEACON STAFF
This February, Wilson students and parents voted for parent members of the Principal Selection Committee, who will be part of the interview process for potential principals. We hope that the principal selection process will be as transparent as DCPS’ responses surrounding former principal Pete Cahall’s termination were secretive.
Since Wilson students have not been invited to offer input into the process, we have outlined here our ideas about the vital qualities of an effective principal.
The most important quality a Wilson principal can have is balance. Wilson is a study in contrasts, from racial divides to our many academies to the division between extracurriculars and academics. Cahall’s strengths often played to one side of the teacher-student division. He formed strong connections with students of all backgrounds – but sometimes at the cost of relationships with staff, as we found in our investigation of his termination. Wilson needs a principal who is there for students, but also understands and works closely with educators.
This type of principal-teacher relationship requires a principal who has an academic background as opposed to one that is solely administrative. Cahall was great with students because that was what he knew best – during his career he moved through the ranks of gym teacher to administrator without extensive time in a purely educational position. An ideal principal would have spent time studying education or teaching, thereby being equipped to forge productive relationships with teachers and understand their unique concerns.
Supporting Wilson’s diverse student body also requires an understanding of our culture. A good principal must respect the values and beliefs of students, which can be hard when those beliefs conflict with the official views of the school system.
Many students remember the 2012 Turkey Bowl, when the Wilson football team was disqualified because of the ineligibility of one player. Instead of going with the school system’s decision, Cahall fought for the students’ right to play. Though Wilson was banned from competing in that year’s championships, we gained something possibly more important: the feeling that we had a principal who was on our side.
Another important set of skills are transparency and communication. Both are qualities that DCPS and Wilson administration have lacked in recent history, from the school system’s refusal to disclose information about Cahall’s termination to the controversy surrounding this year’s Homecoming Court. A good principal must make decisions using such clear judgement that he or she is willing to share them with the entire Wilson community.
Future Wilson principals should also take a page from Cahall’s book on the issue of free speech. School administrations in the U.S. have the legal right to prior review – being able to preview a newspaper before publication – but Cahall never exercised it. He had no qualms with hauling Beacon staff into his office when we published things he disagreed with, but he also seemed to grasp the importance of student voices – the fact that we need somewhere to express our views without restriction from the administration. We hope that the Principal Selection Committee also understands the importance of a free student press.
No matter how qualified you are, being the principal of a large urban high school is a balancing act. It is crucial that our next principal caters to all of the needs of the Wilson community.•