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What Makes Principals Stay In Challenged School Systems

Jos and Milagros Vizcarrondo are a couple who share a single profession: elementary school principal. Both work in Bridgeport, Conn., she presiding over the 1,000-student pre-K-8 Luis Munos Marin Elementary School, and he over the 950-student pre-K-6 Columbus Elementary School.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Vizcarrondo have master's degrees in education, graduate credits in administration, extensive teaching and administrative experience, and are bilingual. Given the current nationwide shortage of principals, "they could probably go to any of 60 cities and write their own ticket," says Ted Greenleaf, director of communications for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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So why do the Vizcarrondos stay in Bridgeport? Theirs is not such an unusual story, says Mr. Greenleaf. In working with principals, he's noted that a powerful bond often develops between talented principals and children in challenged school systems.

Sometimes, he says, it's because the principal comes from a similar background. But other times, he notes, it's because the principal comes from a more privileged background and feels a special need to give to kids who were born to less. Either way, he says, "a special sympathy" tends to exist between the best principals and kids in need.

In the case of the Vizcarrondos, it was 21 years ago that they made a conscious choice to build their careers in this gritty smokestack city, made notorious in recent years by both its high crime rates and its fiscal struggles. Educators here are afforded few luxuries. Bridgeport spends only about a quarter of its taxes on education, compared with a state average of better than 60 percent. Teachers' salaries in the city average only $30,200, compared with $40,105 in the immediate region.

But this couple says that their Puerto Rican backgrounds cause them to feel "a cultural tie" to this city of 144,000, where 80 percent of the students in their schools are Hispanic. (Both the Vizcarrondos grew up in New York, but Jos was born in Puerto Rico, as were Milagros's parents.) "I know these kids, these families," says Jos. "These are our people."

The Vizcarrondos deliberately sought out a city where their presence would have an impact. As a result, the notion of working for one of the affluent Connecticut school systems in surrounding towns holds no appeal for them. "It's no mystery that youngsters that are wealthy don't face the same challenges" as those that are not, says Jos.

For both the Vizcarrondos, the No. 1 item on their agendas has been to help the students in their care understand "the power and resources and the future education can provide them," says Milagros. "I like to think I bring them that awareness, not only by saying it but by living it."

Octavia Wilcox feels much the same way. Now in her 13th year as principal at Porter Magnet School of Technology and Career Exploration in Syracuse, N.Y., Mrs. Wilcox recently turned down a better-paying job as assistant superintendent in another school district. "I just felt I couldn't leave [the students] yet," she says.

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Under Wilcox's guidance, this urban elementary school has gone from classification as a failing school to being named as one of the nation's top 100 Title I schools. "We're proving it can be done," says Wilcox.

For Wilcox, dedication to this school is really part of a personal mission. "I love my country," she says. "I truly believe I am my brother's keeper and I feel a commitment to urban education." If the plight of American cities is not dealt with, she says, "Our country is at risk."

In his 10 years as principal of one of America's toughest urban high schools, Charles Mingo has won a fistful of awards, including recently being named Chicago's Principal of the Year. That high profile, he acknowledges, has caused other job offers to roll in.

But Mingo stays at DuSable High School in Homewood, Ill., just outside Chicago. The school succeeded in the 1996-97 year in boosting the percentage of students reading at the national level to 12.4 percent from 4.9 percent. "These kids matter to me," he says. "I'm fiercely loyal. I went through the Chicago public school system and I have a stake in making certain that as many African-Americans as possible progress and join the middle class and join my community." When it comes to a principal's job, says Mingo, "You've got to love it, because it's certainly not for the money."

It's not just urban areas that inspire such loyalty. Dick Spohr is principal of Carlinville High School in Carlinville, Ill., a rural town of 7,000 inhabitants. When Mr. Spohr first accepted the job, he and his wife agreed, due to the isolation of the town, that they wouldn't stay more than three years.

Now, 20 years later, he says he feels a deep sense of attachment to the community. "People told me this would happen but I didn't believe it," he says.

Especially after being appointed Illinois State Principal of the Year in 1987, Spohr has had other communities coming after him, often with more lucrative offers. "Sometimes I've been tempted," he says. "But it seems each time an offer came something exciting was going on here so I always stayed."

Of course, even these deeply committed principals have their low moments. Jos Vizcarrondo says both he and his wife have occasionally questioned their vocations. "The frustration that you can't do more, the occasions when you feel people don't appreciate the profession," are the things that Jos says are most apt to get to him.

But if once in a while Jos loses sight of his own value, others do not. "It's one thing to recruit a couple like that, it's another thing to hold onto them," says Greenleaf. "I think Bridgeport is a lucky place."

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