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How Do You Find and Hire Great Principals?

By Lucinda Blumenfeld | May 2009


“The best school leaders are created, not recruited,”
says Amy Holcombe, executive director of talent development, Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, North Carolina. “Principals practice educational triage each time they make a decision. School leaders who are strategic about their time, financial, and human resources rise to the top in our large urban school district. They are the principals clearly able to distinguish between high-impact and low-impact decisions.

“Our county’s ‘Grow Your Own’ administrator cohorts have also been successful in licensing dozens of principals, assistant principals, and central office employees from within our district. By promoting internally, we ensure that school leaders are already a part of our district culture and believe in our district priorities. Using a cohort model of preparation creates collaborative learning communities that continue providing support even after certification programs and graduation are over. Additionally, our school leadership academies are successful in continuing to build leadership skills on the job.”

“We try to match our best principals with our neediest students,”
says Kevin North, assistant superintendent of human resources for Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools. “We place principals from ‘comfortable schools’ into high-needs schools. Without financial incentive, we’ve turned schools around. Our principals don’t get the role because it’s the logical next step, but because it’s the way they can make a bigger difference with kids.”

“Districts have to be aggressive in recruiting,”
asserts Jerry Robicheau, a former superintendent and principal who is now chair of the department of educational leadership at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “It’s important to take personal, face-to-face meetings and especially to look internally ... [those] candidates are familiar with the politics. I want someone who has the ability to effect change, to work in a collaborative learning environment, and to create an environment where students are successful. Experience is also a very strong variable. If hiring in an urban setting, I want someone to understand multicultural dynamics.

“There’s not a great salary differential [between being a teacher and being a principal]. The greatest draw is the passion to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of students. A principal’s number-one priority is to ensure that every teacher and faculty member is performing at their highest level of competency. As a principal, personally speaking, getting engaged in the system and being able to see that partnership [was the most rewarding].”
We always emphasize assessment and interaction above all else,”
says Dr. Jim Casey, associate superintendent of human services for Iowa’s Johnston Community School District. “Principals are expected to build support. Each building is a separate ship going through the ocean, and driving the ship are three propellers: assessment, instruction, and curriculum. Each one must go in the same direction.

“We look for candidates who meet the criteria of the ‘21 Leadership Responsibilities’ from McREL’s School Leadership That Works. The time demands and flexibility principals need to exhibit is just tremendous.”

“Our website is our greatest recruitment tool,”
says Dr. Fred Nolan, superintendent of Foley Public Schools in central Minnesota. “The website is where candidates start. They can apply online and get a feel for our district. It puts everything at their fingertips, and avoids setting up potential barriers. On our end, we can easily see how candidates’ test scores and ratings compare to others in the district.”

“NYC has a school for principals,”
says Amy MacIntosh, chief talent officer of the NYC Department of Education. One third of the city’s principals are graduates of the NYC Leadership Academy, a selective program designed to create leaders for the city’s toughest schools. MacIntosh oversees principal and teacher recruitment/retention for all of the city’s 1,550 schools and says the district’s strategy is “to build a pipeline of aspiring principals, focusing on our key leadership competencies.”

MacIntosh also utilizes New Leaders for New Schools, an organization that identifies principal talent, among other goals. At NLNS, “the selection process is more rigorous,” she says, and involves writing a business proposal for the school.

“We try and pick principals who will be successful in a highly accountable environment. As a benefit, our principals gain a high degree of responsibility, authority, and accountability in one of the most aggressive school reform movements in the country. You don’t become a masterful principal overnight. You need to try, you need to fail, you need to reflect. This is how you learn.”

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