The weight of responsibility
Being a principal comes with a lot of responsibility. You have the education and safety of hundreds of kids on your shoulders, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. If anything goes wrong, you’re the one that’s held accountable.
Lisa Love was aware of that when she took on a principal job back in 2017. She was determined to do everything she could to make the school a success, but that involved suspending many of her students. When the parents fought back, Love was forced to justify her decision.
Always meant to be
Being a principal was always in the pipeline for Love. Before getting her new job, she’d already been working as a principal for 18 years, starting off with a middle school in Memphis. For the better part of two decades, she’d worked in the Shelby County district, building up a reputation as a competent and respectable educator.
It was her success in Tennessee that led to her receiving an offer up north in Pennsylvania. The job would be far from easy, but Love believed she was up to the challenge.
Time to make a change
She was hired to be the principal of Harrisburg High School, some 12 hours away from her old life in Memphis. The school had been struggling in recent years, with students not performing the way they were expected to.
It was hoped that Love would come in and put her foot down, bringing about the change that was needed to improve test scores and show that the high school wasn’t struggling. Although her students’ lack of accomplishments concerned Love, she wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
Walking away with nothing
Compared to the national average, Harrisburg High School wasn’t up to standard. In 2015, only half of the students set to graduate actually walked away with their diplomas. Given that in Pennsylvania, the average for that year was 84%, the school’s performance was a cause for great concern.
How was it possible that only half of the student body left the school as a graduate? The fact that this percentage was actually an increase from previous years made it clear just how desperately Love was needed to make a change.
Don’t know the answers
The reason that so few students had graduated was that their test scores were incredibly poor. While other kids in the state were getting good grades, those at Harrisburg High School were lucky if they got an answer right.
The students weren’t dumb; they just hadn’t prepared themselves for the exams. While the statewide percentage for passing a biology exam in 2016 was 64%, the rate at this school was just 7%. There was obviously an underlying problem that Love needed to address if that figure was going to improve.
Addressing the problem
The new principal thought long and hard about how she was going to enact change within the school. With such a poor performance record, Harrisburg High was in dire need of improvement, but that was only going to happen if she addressed the root of the problem.
Love took her time getting familiar with the school and learning what she could about the students. It quickly became apparent what was causing the issues, so she devised a way to cut off the source and hoped that would make a difference.
Cutting things down
When Love announced her plan, it took many people by surprise. She’d only been with the school for two months, but already she was planning to shake things up massively. Love declared that she was suspending around 500 students from the school, a move that certainly wouldn’t sit well with a lot of parents.
Given that the entire population of Harrisburg High was a little more than double that number, Love was effectively getting rid of half of her students. Surely she had a good reason for doing this.
Tackling the issue
Suspending the students was Love’s way of tackling the absentee problem that had become prevalent at the high school. Many of the kids had been skipping their classes which explained why so many of them performed poorly in their tests.
If they weren’t showing up to class, then they weren’t learning anything, meaning the exams they were taking proved to be fruitless. Love hoped that by suspending people, it would give them the push they needed to try harder in school and work towards graduating.
Excusing their absences
Of course, not every student who had been absent from school had been playing truant. Some had been off for genuine reasons, so to suspend them was extremely unfair. After Love sent out the notice declaring which students were included in the suspension list, parents were quick to respond.
Some of them provided alibis for their children, asserting that their reason for being out of class had been allowed. By the time the principal had sifted through the responses, many of the students had been removed from the suspension list.
Putting her foot down
However, while a lot of kids were given a pass, there were still around 100 of them that were expected to serve their punishment. That’s roughly one-tenth of Harrisburg High’s population which is a lot of students to lose all at once.
Love was firm in her decision to make the cull, declaring that truancy was a severe problem that needed to be addressed. Too many students had been avoiding classes, and the principal wasn’t going to allow it to continue anymore. Skipping school would incur serious punishments.
Reaching out to parents
To address the problem and make her intentions clear, Love decided to hold a press conference. This way parents would be able to see where she was coming from and voice any concerns where necessary.
She knew that her plans for the school were not what people had expected, but she needed them to understand that she knew what she was doing. After working as a principal for almost two decades, she was aware that certain actions would garner results. Love was sure that this was one of them.
Where are your kids?
In the press conference, Love made it clear just how serious the truancy problem was. She explained that parents were under the impression their kids were going to class when they sent them off to school, but that wasn’t the case.
Once they left home, they were spending their day doing whatever they wanted, instead of using the time to learn. Even if the students showed up to school, they still weren’t going to class, making them “disruptive” and a detriment to Harrisburg High in Love’s eyes.
Questioning her intentions
Naturally, Love’s view of their children upset some parents who refused to hear anything negative about their kids. One mother asked what the purpose of suspending students was because that was still stopping them from learning anything.
“What does that teach them?” she queried, although Love didn’t have to explain herself. She wasn’t the only one working at the school who supported the idea of suspension, and so her faculty quickly came to her aid. It was her assistant principal who pointed out one crucial detail about their strategy.
Focusing on repeat offenders
Keith Edmonds, Principal Love’s second-in-command, pointed out that they weren’t suspending students who had only missed one or two classes. They’d based their decisions on the children who had missed at least 35 classes over the course of the last 45 days. That equated to a week’s worth of school.
While the suspensions might not have seemed helpful to some of the parents, the children they were dishing them out to were the ones who were barely around anyway. They weren’t going to be sad about missing out on classes.
Hitting them where it hurt
The point of suspensions was to put students off from playing truant in the future, but that wasn’t going to work by itself. Love knew that if she wanted to drive the point home, she’d have to give the kids a good reason not to skip classes in the future.
The only things these students really enjoyed about school were special events like prom, so Love ensured that anyone who was absent too often wouldn’t be able to go to them. She set the cut-off point at 15 missed classes.
Establishing her priorities
Love made it clear that she hadn’t come to the decision lightly. As a principal, she cared about her students and wanted nothing but the best for them. However, she had a school to run and ensuring that everyone received an education was more important to her than anything else.
She knew that many people wouldn’t get behind her at first, but she was hopeful that her strong stance would start getting results. Harrisburg High was in trouble, and it needed a firm hand to get it back on track.
Doing it for the school
The principal emphasized that she was doing this for the sake of the school and those attending. The test scores that Harrisburg High had been producing in the past weren’t anything to be proud of, and it reflected poorly on everyone involved.
No parent should want their child to fail, but without intervention, the results from the high school would continue to sit well below the statewide average. “We want this to be a school that everyone is proud of,” Love said during the press conference. She meant every word.
The support she needed
Although a lot of the parents didn’t get behind Love’s plan at first, the people who did were the ones who mattered most. District Superintendent Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney supported the principal’s decision to suspend her truant students, praising Love’s decision to do something different.
She said that the school can’t expect to get better results without trying to make a change, and that Love’s vision is one that could have a significant impact on the lives of her students. Having the District Superintendent’s backing was undoubtedly something that Love appreciated.
Voicing their opinion
It wasn’t only her boss who gave Love support either. When news broke about her decision to suspend so many students, plenty of people had their say about the matter online. Many of them understood where the principal was coming from and agreed that enough was enough.
Students couldn’t keep playing truant and expect to get away with it without punishment. By skipping school, they were hindering their chances of a bright future, and they’d only have themselves to blame when that came back to bite them.
Opening up discussion
Whether people did or didn’t agree about Love’s stance on that matter, the fact that it was creating an open discussion online was still a good thing. Truancy wasn’t an issue that was restricted to just Harrisburg High.
Educational establishments all around the world have varying degrees of student absences, so finding a way to tackle them is a universal issue. If Love’s view on the matter led to an improvement in attendance and test scores, then other schools could follow in her footsteps and make a positive change.
The first step forward
It would take time to see whether or not Love’s influence had affected Harrisburg High for the better or not. After all, removing a significant number of students wouldn’t automatically make test scores rise.
There was still a lot of work required to improve attendance at the school and ensure that the students were getting the best education possible. It wasn’t only the truancy that had caused Harrisburg High to have such a bad reputation, but at least something was finally being done to make a difference.