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After 35 years as a teacher and principal in DC Public Schools, during which he managed to turn around two struggling schools, Patrick Pope resigned, becoming part of a wave of high turnover among DCPS principals in recent years. He’s now principal of a charter school. If DCPS administrators want to retain successful school leaders like Pope, they need to trust their judgment and allow them greater autonomy.

In 2013 and 2014, DCPS replaced about two dozen principals a year. Although there’s no official count yet for this year, the Washington Teachers Union estimates the figure will be at least as high. That means about 25% of DCPS schools have been changing principals every year, compared to a turnover rate in Montgomery County of between 5 and 7%.

As DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has recognized, it’s hard for reforms to take root in a school when there’s churn at the top. And a strong school leader is a crucial ingredient in any turnaround effort.

No doubt there are a variety of reasons DCPS principals have departed, but some of those who have gone—like Pope—have been highly regarded. And, like Pope, some of those have chosen to leave voluntarily. Pope is unusual in that he’s willing to discuss his reasons.

As principal of Hardy Middle School in upper Georgetown for many years, Pope brought in an arts focus and saw test scores rise. Ousted from Hardy under controversial circumstances by former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Pope later adopted a similar approach at Savoy Elementary in Ward 8 and won national acclaim.

But after a little over three years at Savoy, Pope said in an interview, he decided it was “time to move.” He resigned at the end of the 2013-14 school year. In January of this year, he accepted a position as principal of Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy Middle School, part of the Friendship charter school network.

While Pope is circumspect about the details of his decision to leave DCPS, he says he didn’t have “the autonomy to put staff and resources where they needed to be.” Over the course of his career at DCPS, he says he saw a decrease in principals’ autonomy and a movement towards greater centralized control.

"They will say the words autonomy,” he says of DCPS administrators, “but the model is, you can have autonomy when you get to a certain level of student performance measures.”

But principals need autonomy in order to increase those measures in the first place, Pope says. And he argues that teachers and administrators at the school level are often in the best position to figure out what students need to succeed.

The arts as a way to get kids engaged in school

Part of Pope’s own formula for success has been bringing the arts into the school curriculum. The arts, he says, “is an easy way to get kids engaged,” giving them “the opportunity to feel school is a positive, challenging place, where their particular talents will be tapped and grown.”

The narrow, basic-skills-focused curriculum that currently prevails in many schools, especially those serving disadvantaged populations, doesn’t serve that purpose, Pope says: “Kids don’t come to school to be told how poorly they read and how poorly they do in math.”

At Hardy, Pope was charged with creating a program that would help spur middle school enrollment—a problem DCPS is still grappling with. Not only did he ensure that all students were engaged in the arts, he says the school also developed “a terrific athletic program and great math and science. Our kids went to the best high schools and did well.”

But the school failed to draw students from the surrounding affluent area, instead attracting many from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Rhee decided that a change in school leadership was necessary, citing what she said was a confusing application process that gave neighborhood families the false impression that Hardy was a school they didn’t have a right to attend. In addition, some neighborhood residents didn’t care for Hardy’s arts focus and didn’t warm to Pope personally.

But there was no influx of neighborhood kids after his removal. Enrollment has declined from a peak of 521 in 2009-10, Pope’s last year at Hardy, to 386 in 2014-15. And while the school has apparently managed to draw more students from within its boundaries in recent years, they still make up only 15% of the student body, according to the DCPS website.

Pope says he tried to reach out to neighborhood residents, but he believed a lot of families in the area would send their children to private schools “no matter what we did.” For the school to grow, he realized, it “had to be attractive programmatically to families from all over the city.”

While the application to Hardy asked for a letter of recommendation and some evidence of experience or interest in the arts, Pope says it was more in the nature of a “handshake,” ensuring that families would see themselves as partners with the school in educating their children. Asked if he would have rejected an in-boundary family, he says he doesn’t know because “it never came to that.”

Transforming Savoy from the “saddest school” to a place of joy

At his next principal post at Savoy, Pope didn’t have the benefit of that handshake. As at other neighborhood schools, parents didn’t have to take any affirmative steps to get their kids admitted or commit to any engagement in their children’s education.

Pope told the Washington Post that when he arrived at Savoy in 2011, “it was the saddest school I’d ever been in.” Students were unruly, teachers were burnt-out, and test scores were abysmal. Still, Pope managed to turn things around.

With the help of a federal grant of about $450,000, Pope made sure all students in 1st through 5th grade took instrumental music and a daily movement or dance class. He also integrated the arts into other classes. Savoy became, according to the Post, a “vibrant, even joyful” place. As at Hardy, Pope won the respect and enthusiasm of parents, teachers, and students.

Savoy also became one of eight schools nationwide chosen to participate in the Turnaround Arts Initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Artists like Yo-Yo Ma visited, and Michelle Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the program.

And test scores, which had been falling, began to rise. By 2014, the proficiency rate was 26% in reading and 31% in math. That may not sound impressive, but two years before the rates had been 19% and 16%, respectively.

Now, as principal of Friendship’s Tech Prep Academy Middle School, Pope is preparing to work his magic again, turning its STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) into a “STEAM” program with the addition of the Arts.

At Friendship, as at Hardy, Pope will have the benefit of a parent body that has affirmatively chosen the school. But Pope has shown he’s one of those rare leaders who can accomplish the tougher job of turning around a school where parents haven’t given him that figurative handshake from the beginning. While Pope says he’s confident that Savoy will continue on its upward trajectory under new leadership, DCPS can’t afford to lose principals like him.

In an effort to reduce turnover, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently announced that some principals would be eligible for three-year rather than one-year contracts. That’s certainly a step in the right direction.

But as Pope’s experience shows, a longer contract may not be enough to retain visionary school leaders. It wasn’t that DCPS wanted to get rid of Pope. Pope wanted to leave DCPS, essentially because the bureaucracy didn’t allow him the freedom to do what he thought was necessary for his school’s success.

Inevitably, some principals in the system will need more top-down guidance, even control, than others. But if DCPS administrators want to turn around their lowest-performing schools, they need to figure out a way to distinguish between principals who need to be reined in and those who need the freedom to run.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.