Abigail Akano was not sure she wanted to be principal. For 10 years she had been a teacher, then assistant principal at Sacred Heart, a pre-K through eighth grade parochial school in the Highbridge section of the Bronx.
The building was beautiful: a four-story, Gothic-style schoolhouse built in 1926 with separate arched entrances for boys and girls. But the neighborhood—part of the poorest congressional district in the United States—was struggling. The median household income was $28,042; more than 40 percent of families with kids under 18 lived in poverty.
Yet it was not the poverty that made Ms. Akano think twice about the job; it was the paperwork. Shortly into her first year as principal, her fears were confirmed. “I spent a lot of time learning to do tasks that, quite frankly, I was not educated for,” she recalled.
There were budgets to make, payrolls to process, teacher contracts to negotiate, candy-bar fundraisers to run, and that bathroom on the first floor was not going to fix itself. When she met with her supervisor, the parish pastor, they focused on whatever was urgent (like that bathroom) and seldom on what they cared about most: ensuring that every student at Sacred Heart was getting a character-shaping, life-changing education rooted in the Catholic faith. Plus, Ms. Akano felt disconnected from her teachers and students. She rarely visited classrooms except to tally up data points for various forms she needed to complete.
She knew it was not an efficient way to run a school, but there was no time to think of a better system. In a crisis, she could call the diocesan superintendent or make a “mayday” call to a nearby principal, but for the most part, “the expectation was that you would figure stuff out on your own.”