I’m sending my daughter off to high school on Tuesday. Suffice to say, this is a big deal, and I have mixed emotions.

At the new parent orientation, I was pleased to hear some consoling words from a wise woman with decades of experience in education, who introduced herself as the interim principal of the school my daughter’s set to attend.

Christie Ritter on Schools

She gave us newbies some good advice:  let our children be responsible for their own schedules, urge them to get involved in clubs and make the most of the opportunities provided.

I visited 13 schools, both public and private, before selecting this public school for my daughter. We felt welcomed by the staff, who allowed parents to visit classrooms on three separate days throughout the school year. I visited more than a dozen classes and spoke with teachers and students. I felt sure that my daughter would find friends who would welcome her and teachers who could challenge and appreciate her. It seemed like the right place.

Over the late spring and early summer, my daughter’s school, along with 39 others in the San Diego Unified School District, lost its principal. Some retired, some got promotions. It’s a much-larger-than-average shuffle that the district has experienced.  More than 20 percent of the district’s schools have seen a change in leadership (excluding charter schools, which are run with greater independence from district control).

I heard stories about the reasons behind the shuffle. I spoke with one principal who said she was being forced to retire. I spoke to a parent who said her neighbors are having parties to celebrate the departure of despised principals.

And I sat in the audience when new Superintendent Cindy Marten told a theater full of parents and educators that quality schools start with quality principals.

Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis asked Marten in April whether she might have to fire some top leaders, Marten said, “I’m going to make the best decisions that I know how to make to make sure every school is a quality school.”

As a parent who has served on a School Site Council, on the board of a school foundation and as a volunteer for many school events, I know the role of a principal is critical. Principals are the heart of a school and it makes a difference to have a leader who knows children by name, who has good relationships with teachers and who is genuinely open to parent input.

My son’s school had an interim principal for part of this past school year. There were a few glitches. This is no fault of the interim principal, it’s just that change can cause disruption. Forty schools in San Diego have undergone this disruption. Thirty-six new principals will be there to open the school doors on Tuesday. But it will take a while to get to know the culture of the school, teachers, students and families.

Marten and her staff are still in the process of interviewing candidates for my daughter’s school and three others, which will start the year with interim principals. Marten has said that developing quality school leaders is a priority. It’s important that parents have a voice in this process.

It takes years for communities to build relationships with principals. The good ones come to understand the unique needs of their neighborhoods. Smart principals also build relationships with the residents who don’t have children at the school, with public service agencies such as libraries and police officers and with businesses in the neighborhood. This is what Marten did as principal of Central Elementary.

By the end of the new parent orientation, I felt reassured that I had made the right decision. The interim principal at my daughter’s school told us she had sent her own children to the school. There is no better endorsement.

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Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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