Between 2014 and 2016, almost half the principals in Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS), located outside Richmond, Virginia, either retired or left the district at a time when schools were growing more diverse and student performance was starting to slip.
“We had this huge group of folks retire that were pillars of the community,” Thomas Taylor, the district’s chief academic officer, said in an interview. “They were very strong principals, but in an older way of doing business. And our bench was not deep.”
On top of that, CCPS was paying principals less than they could earn in surrounding districts, which limited the system’s ability to attract “top candidates,” Taylor said.
So, when officials learned of the opportunity to participate in the George W. Bush Institute’s School Leadership Initiative, they didn’t hesitate. “We needed a lot of help, and we needed a toolkit that we didn’t already have,” Taylor said.
CCPS was one of just four applicants chosen from a pool of 70 districts across the country the institute considered for what Anne Wicks, the institute’s education reform director, describes as the “unsexy work” of improving the way districts recruit, train, support, pay and evaluate principals.
The other three are the Granite School District in Utah and the Austin and Fort Worth districts in Texas. All roughly the same size, the districts make “reasonable learning partners for each other,” Wicks said, adding that she was also looking for districts that had already started working on these issues “because they knew principals mattered.”
It's become a familiar refrain in recent years to say school leaders make up the second-most important factor, after teachers, in student achievement. But as was the case in CCPS, many districts are replacing large numbers of principals at a time when the role is changing from that of a manager to a master educator who must also mentor emerging leaders in the building who could be future principals.
“The modern-day principal is more junior in their career,” Wicks said in an interview. “They’re in classrooms way more than they are in their office.”
Transforming supervisor-principal interactions
The Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) was in a position similar to that of CCPS: Principal turnover was high, and Superintendent Kent Paredes Scribner took over the district in 2015 with plans to focus on leadership.
“We knew almost immediately that our organization was getting ready to change,” Karen Molinar, chief of staff for the district, said in an interview.
The district, she said, didn’t necessarily have a shortage of assistant principals, but the people in that position weren’t ready to become principals. The central office, she added, had fallen into a practice of “throwing FTEs” at struggling schools instead of focusing on improving principals’ abilities to lead their schools. The school board was intervening in the principal hiring process and the supervision of principals was “all over the place,” Molinar said.
“We should not have principals requesting certain principal supervisors because maybe they are easier,” she said. “You can’t build the capacity of the principal until the people supervising the principal have the capacity to do that as well.”
The Bush Institute hired Ann Clark — who spent 34 years with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina and retired last year after two and a half years as superintendent — to advise two of the four districts. In addition to weekly phone calls with district leaders, she’s made monthly on-site visits to look at the talent management processes they have in place and help them determine what adjustments are needed.
One of the first changes CCPS made was to differentiate professional development for principals. “A first-year principal does not need the same type of professional learning as a seasoned principal,” Taylor said.
The district also worked in partnership with the University of Virginia to select a group of master’s-level students to work on principal recruitment and selection issues. With many of them already working as teachers and entry-level administrators, the district will have a cohort of future principals already versed in a new approach to preparing and supporting leaders, Taylor said.
In FWISD, the board no longer votes on principal assignments, now trusting the process developed by the superintendent and other district leaders. Clark said she has also seen improvement in supervisors’ visits to schools, in part because the district is focusing not only on who is supervising principals, but also how many schools are part of each supervisor’s caseload. “They’ve really transformed the kind of interactions they have,” she said.
Focusing on the future
To measure the initiative's progress, Wicks said her team is looking at outcomes such as principal satisfaction ratings and whether turnover declines. Over time, they expect more stable leadership will contribute to improvements in school and student performance. They have also released the first of what will be a series of guidebooks to help districts implement the same practices related to recruiting, supporting and retaining effective school leaders.
In CCPS, Gayle Hines, principal of Matoaca Middle School, is helping to keep other middle-level administrators informed regarding some of the fast-moving changes to processes, such as how principal candidates are interviewed, and how she and other school leaders will be evaluated.
“I feel like principals appreciate that we bring everything to them before a decision is made,” she said in an interview.
Participating in the initiative, she added, has led her to think more about how she’s preparing other leaders in her school and helping them make “decisions about where they see themselves in their future.”