A corps of principals is in training to learn how to manage their workday so they can spend more time in the classroom giving teachers feedback on student instruction.

At least nine principals in the Lafayette Parish School System have volunteered for the National SAM Innovation Project, which provides software tools and training to help principals move back into the role of instructional leader rather than school manager.

“It’s easy to get sucked into management issues — the trash wasn’t picked up; the air conditioning is out. As a principal, you’re there to lead instruction so your kids improve,” said Joe Craig, chief administrative officer for the school system.

Principals at nine schools — Paul Breaux Middle, Lafayette High, Lafayette Middle, Carencro Middle, Carencro High, David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy, Northside High, Ossun Elementary and Boucher Elementary — volunteered for the training. Staff with the National SAM Innovation Project were in Lafayette to track how the principals spend their time at school and to train them on the time management software and developing a productive SAM, or school administration management, team on campus.

The SAM team includes “first responders” — staff members to whom a principal can delegate responsibilities that would otherwise take the principal away from observations in the classroom.

Superintendent Donald Aguillard has challenged principals to increase their time in the classroom to help teachers improve instruction. Principals should spend at least 40 percent of their day in the classroom, he said.

The school system has invested about $110,000 into the training and program. Those costs, however, will decrease after the initial year schools are involved, Aguillard said. The initial startup cost for the training and software is $12,900 per school, but that cost decreases after the first year as much as 30 percent, he said. Because one of the principals participated last year, the cost is less at that school, bringing down the total cost, he said.

The school system is using several funding streams to pay for the expense, including federal funds from a GEAR UP grant to help prepare low-income students for college and careers.

“Ideally, we would expand the number of schools participating (in the training program), but we’d have to find a funding source,” Aguillard said.

Lafayette High Principal Donald Thornton began using the National SAM Innovation Project’s software during his first year as principal at Lafayette Middle School.

“Coming in as a principal, I wanted to make sure that I had a focus on instruction. I made a promise to parents that I’m going to have the best teachers in every classroom,” Thornton said.

The program’s software, he said, “is like a souped-up Google calendar but does so much more. It does data tracking for us. We can get in there and log how many minutes spent with each teacher and what was going on in the classroom.”

“It seems like a lot of times, teachers are used to not hearing from the principal unless it’s something bad,” Thornton added. The training program “changes the dynamic.”

Thornton is continuing to use the SAM model at Lafayette High, where he became principal this school year, replacing longtime administrator Patrick Leonard. Thornton’s SAM team includes one of his assistant principals and instructional strategists who act as “first responders” to management and classroom issues and his secretary, who will manage his calendar and hold him accountable to the schedule.

While classroom visits are part of a principal’s responsibilities, Thornton said, often that time gets split by other needs within the school.

“Principals may come up with a list of three teachers they want to observe, then something management-wise pops up,” Thornton said. “Someone calls and needs to talk to the principal right away or a teacher pops in and the AC is broken. The principal starts shuffling those visits to the back and doing those management things first.”

The process also helps the principal reflect on what’s working and whether goals are being met, said Nathan Roberts, interim dean of the college of education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Roberts has used the SAM model in educational leadership courses he previously taught. Roberts said the model has been successful in St. Mary Parish, where Aguillard previously served as superintendent. Roberts is also on the board of directors for the nonprofit National SAM Innovation Project.

“The great thing about it is it stacks up your data for a year,” Roberts said. “I could tell you how much time I spent with fourth-grade teachers, with first-year teachers, how much time I spend with a set of parents, and it helps the principal figure out where am I spending my time and where do I want to spend my time.”

That data helps a principal in making decisions at the school, he said.

“It shows you the teachers you spent the most time with and what were you doing: Was it lesson plan feedback? Was it feedback on observations? It’s a nice way to organize yourself — to use that data and say, ‘I see I’m spending too much time doing management task X. Who on campus is better qualified or just as qualified to do that so I can go in the classroom and spend time with the teacher and the student?’ ”

Last school year, Thornton set a goal of spending at least 38 percent of his day in the classroom. By the end of the school year, with the help of the program, he averaged 49.6 percent.

Though he only recently launched the SAM program at his new school, Thornton said he’s averaging about 40 percent of his day in the classroom.

“It’s all about making sure we have the best teachers in every classroom and that the teachers are meeting students’ needs,” Thornton said. “The best way to do that is to have the principals in the classrooms.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.