A few weeks back, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson sent out a tweet noting that with the end of the academic year, Minneapolis Public Schools was saying goodbye to a number of fabulous retiring principals. I wrote back asking if there were any she cared to nominate for an exit interview.
I was mystified when she named Craig Vana, who is about to retire as executive director of MPS’ Department of Emergency Management and Safety & Security. The superintendent sometimes works in mysterious ways, so I made the date.
Over the 43-year course of his career, Vana has been a teacher, a coach, an athletic director, an assistant principal, an associate superintendent, a director of curriculum and instruction, the strategist for a high-school redesign and an educator of educators.
You know what rings Vana’s bell? Talking about his time as a principal, and the pivotal role of the building-level CEO on everything from student morale to teacher performance.
Simply put, he’s a principal’s principal.
After a stint as principal of a high school in Eau Claire, Wis., Vana was hired by MPS. It was 1986 and Richard Green was superintendent. Vana’s first job was as assistant principal at Southwest High School. He went on to be principal of Folwell Middle School and then Edison High School.
“I loved being a principal,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to have an impact not just on kids but also on the adults who work with them. To sit in a principal’s chair is a very unique opportunity.”
I tried out one of my pet theories on Vana, that you can usually tell within moments of entering a school building what the principal is like. Is he or she engaging? The kind of leader who’s thrilled to take a turn in the carnival dunk tank? A disciplinarian? Punitive? Overwhelmed?
“You’ll instantly know from the climate,” he agreed. “I look at the principalship as the servant leader role. How do I provide the resources for my teachers so they can reach their kids? Those teachers, they touch the lives of a child every day.”
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that Principal Rhetoric 101?
Sure, but Vana’s just getting started on the difference between the aforementioned punitive atmosphere and the empowering school.
“You must always keep in mind that children are in the process of forming themselves, so you have to help them pick themselves back up and get back to work.” Teachers, he added, are hard-pressed to respond to their pupils in this way if they are not given similar consideration by their principal.
“You have to be a good listener,” he continued. “You have to be able to digest what people are saying and to listen to their feelings and what they are angry about. … We have to be prepared to deal with people who are under a lot of stress, who are frightened.”
That includes those on the front line. “A good principal must be able to identify good teachers and bring them with,” said Vana. “And they have to know how to develop those teachers.”
A good principal needs to give them freedom to devise their own strategies for reaching every student, rather than insisting they stick to a script or a top-down instructional plan. The best need to be designated master teachers and encouraged to coach their colleagues.
Research shows that a child who has three underperforming teachers over the course of three years is unlikely to catch up. “Another challenge is to identify those teachers who are not engaging and reaching these kids and gently and respectfully help them move out of the profession,” he said.
Former Superintendent Carol Johnson lured him to the central office in part by convincing him that he would still in essence be a principal, just one with more influence.
So how does a principal at heart become the head of emergency preparedness?
“I know how to work with principals,” Vana laughed. “I know how to provide them with an environment where they can get their work done.”
In fact, in July of 1997, before emergency preparedness was a household phrase, a huge storm did $20 million in damage to Edison, where Vana was principal. Hydrostatic pressure built up underneath the building, finally blowing a 30-foot hole in the concrete foundation.
“We had the Colorado River going down the hall,” he said. “If school had been in session that day we could have had hundreds dead.”
Instead, he had to figure out how to reopen a school whose entire basement had been wiped away in a matter of weeks.
Vana’s was just named the top emergency management department in the country by the Council of Great City Schools. “It’s a pretty good legacy to leave,” he conceded.
Vana is leaving with one big regret.
“I really want to see us close the achievement gap,” he said. “What’s the ultimate prize for each of these students? The ultimate prize is to graduate from high school a better person both academically and as a citizen of this society. If we don’t do that we will lose the democracy.”