Introduction to the Project

Las Vegas Grammar School, 1911-1964.
The two story building was the first "permanent" school in Las Vegas. With the additional "wings," which housed the kindergarten and Manual Arts programs beginning in 1922, the structure served until 1964, at which time it was dismantled to make way for the present Foley Federal Building located on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Photos: Las Vegas Grammar School 1911-64—Harvey Dondero, History of the Clark County Schools, 1986. 

Oral History is defined as the preservation, normally through the use of audio recordings, of the recollections of those who have experienced important social occurrences or events. In a sense this technique is perhaps the oldest form of information transmission, dating to periods well before Man could write. Indeed, the oral tradition in cultural transmission has held a prominent place in virtually all known human groupings. For example Herodotus, the Greek chronicler of the Persian Wars of the Fifth Century, B.C., utilized oral history data collection techniques in preparing his research notes. This oral tradition continues to function in many parts of the modern world. Rather than qualifying as a "Johnny come lately" approach to data transmission and analysis, oral history deserves respect based upon its persistence and proven utility over an extended period of time. Oral history captures life information, the bits and pieces of data that might otherwise be lost to posterity. It serves to fill in the inevitable gaps in formal learning, often providing "the rest of the story," to quote a prominent radio personality of the '70s. Use of the oral/aural approach offers the opportunity to provide the listener with a sense of the respondent's personality, providing a greater understanding about "who this person really is," and offering hints concerning the respondent's inner thoughts and motivations. Intonation, voice timbre, and delivery can be surprisingly helpful in assembling a mental picture of an interview subject.

The project that generated this collection of transcripts began as a result of a happy pair of intellectual coincidences which occurred in 1986. The first was the exposure of the writer to the ongoing oral history project then being conducted at the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The writer had opportunity to serve at the facility for several weeks, gaining an appreciation for and understanding of this important collection effort. Soon after returning from this tour to his assignment with the Virginia Tech College of Education, the writer came in contact with Dr. Roland Barth of Harvard University, well-known at the time for his work on Principals' Centers. He suggested that there was need for more in-depth and less superficial research in professional education generally, and on the principalship in particular.  Barth's remarks raised questions concerning the utility of research which is "a mile wide and an inch deep"—like the Platte River in Michener's Centennial. The obvious conclusion was that research capable of being characterized as "a foot wide and a mile deep" would be more useful.

School principals, as is true with other busy public officials, are subject to constant pressures, inadequate time for decision-making, the requirements to be responsive to a constant parade of internally and externally-based individuals—all of whom lay claim to their attention—and a lack of time for reflection and contemplation. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that so few of these persons record their experiences, thoughts, and dreams in written form. In most instances the insights of these participant-observers in the great social and educational events of the 1950s through the present are in imminent danger of being lost as the ravages of time continue to take their toll within their graying ranks. Thus, immediate action designed to preserve the treasure trove of information possessed by these dedicated educators seemed to be indicated.

Having come to this conclusion, the writer determined that the most effective—if not the most efficient—way in which to collect such data was through in-depth interviews with those whose long-term experiences and wisdom rendered them capable of providing assistance to generations of educational administrators yet to come. Thus, the Oral History of the Public School Principalship was born at Virginia Tech, with data collection beginning in early 1986 and continuing to the year 2000.

From the outset, the purpose of the project was to gather the recollections and wisdom of veteran building principals, most of whom have never before been invited to contribute to the literature of educational administration. These dedicated men and women constitute a "national informational treasure" of immense proportions. It has been the aim of the project to capture, in an organized and scholarly manner, information on a wide variety of educational topics from those who experienced the events of the past forty to fifty years. The audiotaped interviews, conducted by the writer and by advanced graduate students in Educational Leadership, vary in length from one to three hours. Transcript length varies between 15 and 110+ pages.

The interviews are based upon a standard question set, or protocol, with modifications designed to suit the interests of the person interviewed as well as those of the interviewer. Thus, there is some variation in content, although a substantial degree of commonality in subject matter does pervade the collection. Some of the topics covered in the interviews deal with: decision-making in education; ethics in administration; the characteristics of effective schools and of effective principals; philosophy of education and of administration; teacher evaluation and discipline; instructional leadership; school-community relations; teacher dismissal; grievances; relations with the school board and the superintendent of schools; career ladders and merit pay; training of administrators; and views on testing and the curriculum. The standard interview protocol, which has evolved during the years of the project's life, is included elsewhere in this website.

Due to the modest level of funding available, collection was, during early years, limited almost exclusively to the four-state area around Washington, D.C. (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina), with a few from other parts of the United States. Since then, substantial collection has been conducted in Nevada, Colorado, and Ohio, with smaller numbers in other states.

Respondents were elementary, middle, and secondary school principals who retired during the decades extending from the 1950s through the present They vary in age from the mid-50s to the 90s. They are male and female, black, brown and white. Their academic training varies from the baccalaureate to the doctorate.

Participants also vary significantly in degree of articulateness, knowledge of current educational issues, responsiveness, and general attitude toward education and the principalship. While most respondents seem to have enjoyed and valued their administrative experiences, some are quite bitter about conditions under which they labored and are outspoken in their criticisms. The comments of some of the black principals who served before, during, and after desegregation in Virginia and Ohio are particularly impressive, filled with unusual insights into the "separate but unequal" school settings in which these men and women were forced to serve during the early years of their experience. The sense of hopefulness coupled with a recognition of and resignation to political realities of the day presented in these transcripts is noteworthy. Current and future generations of educators can learn important lessons in humility and steadfast dedication from these outstanding individuals.

The average American has a speaking vocabulary of only a few thousand words, far fewer than the average written vocabulary. Furthermore, most individuals do not speak in totally grammatical format, often to their embarrassment and chagrin when confronted with the recorded or transcribed results of their efforts. Consequently, the question of degree and type of editing during interview transcription is of salience in any project of this nature. In many projects, the interview subject is given the opportunity to review the final manuscript upon completion and to make any necessary emendations prior to the document's placement in the project archive. Due to the pressures of time under which this project's interviewers labored, it was not convenient to engage in this practice. Consequently, those adjustments or corrections that were made were handled by the project typists and interviewers themselves.

However, the reader can rest assured that those corrections that have been made do not detract from the meaning of the text, and are usually cosmetic in nature. Repetitions of words or phrases; false starts; grunts and groans; and "uhs," "ums," and "you-knows" were all considered fair game for editorial excision and have, in most instances, been so treated. Every effort has been made, however, to avoid any change that would alter the originally intended meaning of the text.

The project, in existence since 1986 and depending for its development upon traditional collection methods, achieved a heightened state of access via electronic means in 1995. At that time an internationally accessible website was created with the assistance and under the direction of Mr. Edward E. Schwartz, Co-Director of the Virginia Tech New Media Center. Mr. Schwartz and his dedicated assistants devoted many hours to the creation of this structure and deserve great credit for their commitment and professionalism.

In the year 2000, the writer accepted a new assignment with the Department of Educational Leadership, University of Nevada Las Vegas. In that capacity he continued working with advanced graduate students in the collection of oral history testimony of experienced former principals from Nevada and surrounding states. Construction of a UNLV-based website housing regionally collected interviews, along with copies of the original Virginia Tech based collection, was accomplished through the outstanding work of Mr. Jonathan Paver, former Instructional Design Specialist, University Teaching and Learning Center, with the able assistance of staff member Brett Campbell.

In 2007, UNLV's Lied Library agreed to assume custody of the collection, which had until that time been housed on another university server. At the direction of Dean Patricia Iannuzzi and Jason Vaughan, Mr. Kee Choi, Manager, Web Technical Support, undertook the redesign and transfer of the collection to the library, thus ensuring its maintenance and availability "in perpetuity." He was assisted in this effort by several library staff members.

This transfer of custody has great intuitive appeal, uniting as it does the web-based collection, the permanent paper copies, and the audiocassettes of all interviews. The latter materials have been housed in Lied Library's Special Collections under the supervision of Dr. Peter Michel, Director, since the year 2000.

Based on the foregoing discussion, it can be seen that the importance of historical documentation of this type cannot be overemphasized. The office of public school principal is among the most influential of local level public service positions. These unsung heroes come and go, but the position remains a symbol of administrative continuity and commitment to excellence in education, as well as to cultural continuity. The public schools have long served as a repository for American values, and have served to transmit these values to succeeding generations of young people. As guardian of this process—keeper of the flame, as it were—the public school principal has long been an extraordinary influential—if relatively unknown—actor in our society.

Today's principal is bound by the silver cord of tradition and duty to those who have gone before, serving the children of successive generations of Americans both honorably and well. These men and women deserve our respect and gratitude. To those who have patiently donated hundreds of hours to the process of creating these important historical records, we must express heartfelt thanks on behalf of this and generations yet to come. Such generosity and public-spiritedness is truly noteworthy.

Patrick W. Carlton, Ph.D.

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