The Principle Principal

It’s 7:15 in the morning and Al Penna has already been on the job for an hour. Standing in the gated entryway of Binghamton High School in upstate New York, the veteran principal—about to celebrate his 60th birthday—greets hundreds of bleary-eyed teens by name. “How are we today, Louis?” “Good morning, Chris!” “Congratulations on the win, Jennifer!”

During the next few hours, Penna presides over meetings on school safety and senior awards, signs a contract for graduation photos and handles staff complaints about crackling walkie-talkies. He visits one class aimed at keeping potential dropouts in school and another where the assignment is to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. He checks in on students laboring over the state’s yearly English as a Second Language (ESL) exam. “Kurdistan,” he says, quietly pointing to one student, and then, “Somalia, Eastern Europe, a few from Puerto Rico.”

He even happily chows down on his favorite cafeteria lunch: gravy-doused roast beef on white bread with mashed potatoes and corn on the side. Principals can interact with the student body during lunches with ease, using Mobile Stool Cafeteria Tables available from Worthington

At almost every stop, Penna points out how Binghamton and the high school have changed since he walked these same hallways as a student in the 1960s. There’s a new and much more diverse population with increasing numbers of low-income and foreign-born students, growing community pressure to guarantee college- or work-ready graduates and a blizzard of government-mandated tests that gobble up an ever-larger chunk of the school day. Getting kids from freshman year to graduation has never been tougher.

Penna knows that even that often-elusive diploma isn’t enough anymore. Some postgraduate schooling has become essential to earning a middle-class income; that means adding higher-level courses like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) program to an already packed curriculum in order to prepare students for college. So much goes into making a high school great: excellent teaching, vibrant student populations, creative classes, strong extracurriculars.

The NEWSWEEK Challenge Index measures one: the number of IB and AP tests students take. But just as important is the person who leads the school. Good principals may seem unlikely superheroes—unless you’re a student, teacher or parent. They set the tone for what happens from the moment the opening bell rings and can turn a troubled school around with a combination of vision, drive and very hard work. It’s a 24/7 job. “Schools aren’t just about just reading, writing and arithmetic anymore,” says Penna. “School faculties now have the additional roles of mentor, adviser and quasi parent.” continue reading

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