In two stories this month, we talk to principals who’ve moved between district and charter schools in Cleveland. Their journeys show how ideas from the two different types of schools can foster “cross-pollination” of practices.
Perry principal traded fast lane for a life of connection
by Justin Glanville Photos by Julia Van Wagenen
Not long ago, Anne Priemer’s life was fancy.
She traveled the world working for a global health-consulting firm and lived in a nice apartment in Manhattan.
It was the fast-paced life she’d always dreamed about as a kid growing up in suburban Cleveland.
Trouble was, she found her work itself deeply unsatisfying.
“I was flying first-class to Africa, pushing anti-malaria pills,” she remembers. “That didn’t feel right.”
One day she visited a friend who was teaching at a school in the South Bronx. It was a tough neighborhood, and the kids struggled with poverty and behavior problems.
But Priemer was floored by their spirit and what she saw as their innate desire to learn and grow. A month later, she applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows program.
That was in 2009. Today, she’s back in Cleveland, where she’s principal of Oliver H. Perry, a Cleveland Metropolitan School District K-8 in the North Collinwood neighborhood.
It’s an elegant if time-worn tank of a building, 90 years old next year, with scuffed clay-tile floors and wood trim around the classroom doors.
On a recent morning, Priemer is everywhere at once -- in her office, at the reception desk stapling a piece of student artwork to the wall, in the hallway tending to a girl who got kicked out of class because she wasn’t paying attention.
After talking to the girl quietly for a few minutes, Priemer takes her chin in one hand, looks her in the eye.
“I want to see you again at the end of the day so I can give you a big hug,” she tells the girl. “But not before then, OK?”
She still looks the part of the big-city consultant: tailored navy suit, matching necklace. The impression of unflappable corporate executive is belied only by a tangled section at the back of her stylish bob haircut -- the result, no doubt, of her constant movement.
Priemer’s diverse background is becoming more common in Cleveland schools, says Gerard Leslie, president of the Council of Administrators and Supervisors for CMSD.
“Our commitment is to pick the person who can lead schools and help scholars,” Leslie says. “We’re working with some principals who don’t have much school experience at all, just a lot of leadership qualities.”
Charter and district lessons
Priemer has already worked in both a charter and a district school since her return to Cleveland in 2011. Her first job was at Citizens Leadership Academy (CLA), part of the Breakthrough Schools network of charter schools.
She moved to Perry at the start of the 2015-16 school year, after graduating from CMSD’s Aspiring Principals Academy. The Academy prepares principals to be autonomous school leaders, one of the goals of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools.
When asked what practices she imported from CLA to Perry, she cites her “growth mindset” -- a willingness to admit mistakes and struggles.
For example, one morning Priemer and the school’s 300 students were congregating for a breakfast meeting. Three teachers were late, and the kids were acting out.
“I said to everyone, ‘I’m frustrated today and I’m angry and a part of me wants to go in my office and close the door, but instead I’m going to take three deep breaths.’”
Everyone watched with rapt attention as she took those breaths -- and calmed down. She hopes the kids will remember the image the next time they feel their own anger welling up.
She also started an artist-in-residence program, inspired by CLA’s emphasis on mentorship. A digital photographer is now working with middle-school students to stage an exhibit of their work.
But she also says she’s learning lessons in autonomy at Perry that she would take with her were she ever to return to a charter school.
“At a charter, you have more support,” she says. “Here, there’s no padding. I’m not only in charge of academics but also human resources, discipline, operations. I’m learning all those skills.”
It’s all a long way from first-class flights and Chelsea. But Priemer says it’s the life she wants: One where she’s working with dedicated colleagues to improve kids’ lives.
“We’re all learning to learn from each other more, instead of each principal being an island,” she says. “You need that support if you’re going to grow.”