In 2014, the city commenced a high-stakes experiment: It would put one principal in charge of two schools.

Its test case was Michael Wiltshire, who would run a high-flying Brooklyn school along with one of the most troubled high schools in the state. When he announced this June that he was leaving the troubled school, Boys and Girls High School, just 19 months after taking on the dual role, some considered the experiment a failure.

But not the education department. Instead, officials announced this week that the head of a tiny Brooklyn school would also lead the school it shares a building with: Automotive High School, a floundering school whose struggles rival those of Boys and Girls.

In fact, beyond these prominent cases, the department has appointed at least a half-dozen other “master principals” to either run second schools or assist their principals, paying them extra for their efforts.

In one case, the head of an elite “specialized” high school was tapped to help a school with a graduation rate 40 points lower than hers. In another, the founder of a successful small school was brought in to stabilize John Dewey High School, a large Brooklyn school recently rocked by a grade-changing scandal.

“I thought it was time to spread the wealth,” said Dewey Principal Connie Hamilton, who continues to oversee Kingsborough Early College School, which boasts a 94-percent graduation rate.

By allowing veteran principals like Hamilton to take on new challenges without abandoning their longtime schools, the split role has drawn effective principals into schools that need them. Where those principals have simply become mentors to new leaders, that seems to have revitalized the weaker schools without impairing the stronger ones.

But experts remain wary of cases like Wiltshire’s, where one principal oversees two schools. The principals who are trying to make that arrangement work have generally handed off their original school to a deputy — but even then, playing double duty can be punishing.

“This is like running a city and running a village,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “I’m exhausted.”

Where did ‘master principals’ come from?

Seasoned, successful principals are a precious commodity. So New York, like other cities across the country, has long faced the question: How do you distribute them?

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to lure top principals to challenging schools with a $25,000 bonus and the title “executive principal.” In return, they agreed to leave their current schools and commit to three years at the new placement. However, several principals stumbled in their new assignments, and the program was mostly abandoned after two years.

When current Chancellor Carmen Fariña negotiated a new contract with the principals union in late 2014, she put her own spin on the program.

Now dubbed “master principals,” they would still earn $25,000 bonuses. (The salaries for the current crop of master principals range from roughly $171,000 to over $185,000, including the bonus.) But instead of switching schools, they would take on an additional assignment — either running a second school or mentoring a new principal. And, in contrast to Bloomberg’s program, they got an escape clause: After each year they had the option of returning to their original school if juggling two became unmanageable.

“We said to our members: You don’t get locked into this,” said principals union President Ernest Logan. “It’s a year-to-year assignment.”

Other districts have made similar efforts. Newberg, Oregon put one principal in charge of two schools to save money, while Gainesville, Florida did it to fill a staffing shortfall. And, in a slight variation, Denver assigned a high-performing principal to oversee two other principals.

Logan, the union president, said New York City should use its program to let experienced principals coach rookies — not to coax veterans to take on low-performing schools in addition to their current ones.

“I think it’s a mistake to use it as a way to turn around a struggling school,” he said. “When you try to do both of them, you’re splitting your effort.”

A daunting task

The master-principal role offers established leaders an enticing opportunity: Take a stab at revamping a troubled school without fully leaving their successful one.

That was the offer that convinced Wiltshire to take on Brooklyn’s long-struggling Boys and Girls High School while continuing to oversee Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a selective school he had spent more than a decade building into a powerhouse. As he told Chalkbeat in 2014, he expected to stay heavily involved in Medgar Evers, even as he tried to overhaul one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools.

“I will be there every day really,” he said about Medgar Evers. That school “is my heart.”

Wiltshire mostly followed through on his prediction, visiting Medgar Evers several times per week — sometimes for the entire day; other times stopping by in the morning and then returning in the afternoon, according to staffers. Both he and Fariña said he was able to run both simultaneously, but some Boys and Girls’ students and faculty questioned his loyalty to the struggling school and called for a full-time principal. Last month, he decided to return full-time to Medgar Evers.

Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.
Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters

Up in the Bronx, a veteran principal took on an even more grueling task: Trying to rebuild two floundering schools at once.

In early 2015, principal John Starkey was recruited to run Peace and Diversity Academy, which had an abysmal 33 percent graduation rate the previous year. (By contrast, the city average in 2014 was 68 percent). That summer, education department officials asked him to take over another school — the Bronx High School of Business — whose graduation rate was 45 percent. Both were part of the city’s “Renewal” program for its lowest-ranked schools.

“I was flattered,” said Starkey, who has since moved to Buffalo to open a new school. “But the idea of it was overwhelming — just one Renewal school was a lot.”

He agreed to be master principal of both schools, leaning heavily on an assistant principal at Peace and Diversity, who took on a larger leadership role. Still, the job required him to work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. most weekdays and to come in on Saturdays, he said. That summer, he took just one vacation day.

Last fall, he left for the Buffalo job. Not long after, the city decided to consolidate Peace and Diversity with a higher-performing school.

Gary L. Anderson, a New York University professor who has studied school leadership, said that employing veteran principals as coaches is a smart way to spread best practices without relying on outside consultants. But he said low-performing schools demand a dedicated leader.

Steve Tozer, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who is an expert on urban school-leader preparation, agreed. He called New York City’s two-school principal arrangement an “unfortunate compromise,” arguing that the city should instead focus on preparing more strong leaders.

“Why aren’t we hiring an equally good principal for that second school?” he said. “At best, it’s a stopgap measure.”

The education department’s senior deputy chancellor, Dorita Gibson, said in a statement that each master principal’s role is based on the two schools’ needs.

The program is “an innovative approach to foster leadership, strengthen instruction, and increase achievement,” she said, “and we’ll continue to use it strategically to do just that.”

Making it work

Despite the challenges, several master principals said they have found an effective formula for the dual role.

First, the two schools must be close enough to allow quick travel between them. Second, the principals must devote the bulk of their time to one school, and appoint a strong deputy to manage the other.

Dewey Principal Connie Hamilton put a longtime assistant principal in charge of her former school — though she still calls multiple times a day to check in. Maureen Guido, the founding principal of P.S./M.S. 278 in Manhattan, still spends one day a week there meeting with staffers and checking on students. But she has mainly stepped away from that school to focus on low-performing P.S. 5.

“That’s the greatest compliment of all,” she said, “when things can run well without you.”

Principal Bonds coaches the beginning principal of a nearby school while also running her own high-performing high school.
Principal Bonds coaches the beginning principal of a nearby school while also running her own high-performing high school.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall

Other master principals have been called on mainly to act as mentors.

Crystal Bonds is principal of Manhattan’s High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College, one of the city’s eight specialized high schools where admission is based on an entrance exam. She is coaching the new principal of the Academy for Social Action, which admits any applicants who show interest and has a much lower graduation rate.

Bonds spends one or two days each week with her mentee, helping her revamp the school’s writing curriculum, launch an “advisory” program where students learn life skills, and hire a staffer who boosted the school’s attendance rate. She also invites her mentee’s faculty to observe her teachers, and has her students tutor her mentees’ on the weekend.

Joan Indart-Etienne is principal of Restart Academy, a program for students in nontraditional settings, such as substance-abuse or mental-health clinics. She is now mentoring the new principal of East River Academy, a school for students who are incarcerated on Rikers Island.

Even though she already shuttles between the 32 sites that make up Restart Academy, she said it has not been too hard to spend a day or so per week at her mentee’s program. However, she said she could not imagine managing both schools herself.

“I wouldn’t take the responsibility of running two schools,” she said. “That’s impossible.”