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Hunting for Talent- Part 2 in a series on recruiting

As the number of highly qualified administrators shrinks, school recruiters are changing how they do

Four years ago, when Larry Leverett was being recruited for superintendent at Greenwich Public Schools in Connecticut, members of the search committee did something he didn't expect. They invited him and his wife to dinner.

Committee members chatted with his wife, explaining why they believed her husband was the right person for the job, boasted about his accomplishments and described how he could benefit the district, Leverett recalls. Since the position required a relocation, they asked about the family's needs and promoted the community, which sits on Long Island Sound just 40 minutes from New York City.

"I've been a superintendent at three different districts and this has never happened before," says Leverett, a member of the national advisory board for the George Lucas Education Foundation. "Our conversation changed from one where I was reporting [about] my interviews and interactions [to my wife] to one where she became a participant."

The dinner was a carefully orchestrated sales pitch to persuade Leverett's wife to okay the new job. Gaining her support was a smart play. Chances were that the happier she was, the happier and more successful her husband would be in his new role.

Wining and dining can work. Although Leverett's wife didn't move, he accepted the position and took temporary residence locally during the school week. But after three years of commuting from his New Jersey home on weekends, he left his job last June and started his new position as executive director at Panasonic Foundation in Secaucus, N.J.

Just like their counterparts in the corporate world, human resource personnel at school districts nationwide are battling for top talent. Although evidence is anecdotal, many believe that quality administrators are growing scarce, pointing to reasons like high stakes testing, 70-hour work weeks and mounting pressures in part from the federal No Child Left Behind law to improve student performance. So districts are trying new techniques to grow talent and lure quality candidates.

Districts vary in their approach to finding quality administrators. Some rely on their own personnel and resources. Some use both their own tactics and outside sources, such as advertising in newspapers and Web sites and calling professional search firms.

Administrators in Boise Public Schools in Idaho recruit entirely on their own, with occasional help or guidance from a magazine story or other literature that a school supervisor finds. "It's probably the beauty of our district," says Gary Slee, Boise High area director, which means he oversees and supervises 18 schools and their staff.

By contrast, Greenwich Public Schools has advertised in newspapers and on educator Web sites, and has used professional search firms to help find past superintendents and a high school headmaster, which is similar to a principal.

The Letter Tactic

While Greenwich's plan to rally the support of a candidate's family is hardly new, educators rarely practice it. Recognizing that a spouse or children can heavily influence a candidate's employment decision, some education consultants recommend a traditional tactic with a new twist.

Richard Harding, principal and director of research at Kenexa, a global organization that offers human resources software and services to help organizations recruit and retain employees, says that writing a letter to candidates is part of strength-based recruiting. This hiring approach requires school recruiters to focus on a candidate's specific skills like leadership or financial management and how the candidate can enhance a district's overall performance. Then a high-ranking administrator at the district, like the superintendent or chief human resources officer, acknowledges these strengths in a letter to the candidate, explaining how they match the district's needs. Then-and here's the twist-the administrator mails a copy of the same letter to the candidate's spouse.

Many believe that quality administrators are growing scarce, pointing to reasons like high stakes testing, 70-hour work weeks and mounting pressures from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"Really lay it out, saying, 'Here are the kinds of things we saw in you that we think will make a difference in our district with our students, teachers and parents,'" Harding says. "Often times, we'll find that the spouse will read it and say, 'Gee, Mary, they know you already. Wouldn't that be a great place to work?'"

Anyone in the district-from a school board member to recruiter-can use this approach to write creative job advertisements for new administrators. Some ads could ask: Do people come to you for career advice? Do you see the uniqueness in people and work with them according to their strengths?

Since many sought-after administrators are employed by other districts, this might lure them away from their current position, Harding says. They often say they weren't looking for another job but that the ad described them and they felt compelled to explore this other option.

Keeping Up with Demand

Recruiting administrators can become especially problematic for districts in a rapid growth mode. Consider the Olathe School District in Olathe, Kan., which supports 25,000 students and 100 administrators. Over the past decade, it has opened at least one new school every year.

Stan Smith, retired executive director of human resources for the district, says his recruiting practices extend beyond traditional practices. "It's always been a tight market and continues to be, particularly for certain positions like superintendents and principals of high schools," says Smith, now an HR market leader at CBIZ Human Capital Services, a Kansas-based provider of HR services. "There's a fairly short supply of individuals out there willing to devote the time and energy that these positions take."

In the 1990s, Olathe started holding its own job fairs in its central office building twice a month, including one Saturday morning and weekday evening, during the January through March recruiting season. The fairs are promoted through local universities, chambers of commerce, newspaper ads and the district's Web site.

Smith explains that people can sign up online for the fair and, depending upon how many register, up to 40 Olathe administrators will interview candidates in their office or nearby conference rooms. Up to 400 educators attend, about 10 percent of whom are administrators, Smith says. The district hires up to 10 administrators every year from these fairs.

To get first dibs on future candidates, Benny Gooden, superintendent at Fort Smith Public Schools in Fort Smith, Ark., teaches graduate students at the University of Arkansas, or UA, in Fayetteville. Each semester, he teaches a course such as school finance or organizational behavior and looks out for students he believes would make a good administrative match for his district. The district's superintendent of personnel also teaches HR courses at nearby Arkansas Tech University, or ATU. Teaching is one way they can be proactive, help shape the future workforce and identify people who aspire to be administrators, Gooden says.

But Gooden views this strategy as more essential than creative. A quarter of the district's 80 administrators are eligible for retirement this year, which has been typical in his district over recent years, he says.

To help fill the administrative pipeline, the district offers skill-based internships whereby graduate level students - predominantly from ATU and UA - work side-by-side with district administrators, such as principals or directors of student services, on projects that help develop critical skills they wouldn't otherwise get on the job. Projects might focus on managing class loads, handling student assignments or improving parental involvement in school activities. But the district is not obligated to hire such interns after graduation. They are screened and interviewed like other candidates, but they have a better chance at getting the job, given the experience of the internship.

"We have tried to address what we see as a declining pool of highly qualified applicants," Gooden says, adding that 75 percent of his administrators are promoted from within the district. "Finding people who are the right fit for your school district is going to involve more than just fishing in the pool and seeing what you catch."

Quality Control

Many districts focus their recruitment efforts internally by developing in-house training programs. They provide potential administrators with leadership opportunities that reflect the district's unique challenges, like high dropout rates or uninvolved parents, and expose them to administrative careers they never considered before, such as director of school policy or business manager. Administrators hired outside the district may find it difficult adjusting to its cultural idiosyncrasies. For example, some administrators may do their best work solo, while those within the district would be accustomed to working with and relying on others for key tasks.

Five years ago, Boise Public Schools planted its seeds by developing an intern principalship program where any of the district's administrators could serve as an elementary school assistant principal for three years, Slee says. Those who perform well, or those who consistently discuss ways to improve their school or district operations and base their input on school or district data, get the job.

However, any teacher in the district interested in a job as a school principal or higher can enter the administrative induction program, which requires them to attend monthly after-school sessions on topics such as school finances and community relations taught by district staff members over nine months.

The induction program also targets assistant principals at junior high schools and high schools. During the school year, they must attend four in-depth sessions that cover data analysis, student discipline, and dealing with difficult parents.

"Growing your own is not a bad concept. However, sometimes you need new and fresh ideas. If you always grow in-house, you are not getting [as many] mixed experiences." -Gary Ray, president of Ray and Associates

Up to now, Slee says that about 67 of the district's 75 administrators have completed the principalship program while 70 of its estimated 500 teachers have completed the induction program.

"We kind of know what we have got when we grow our own," says Slee, adding that participants in both programs are evaluated by their principal in areas such as communication, parent feedback and effective teaching strategies.

But perhaps the biggest litmus test is the job interview. Some interview for an administrative position before they enter either the intern principalship or administrative induction and are turned down because a stronger candidate is offered the job. Regardless, they complete the program and reapply.

Slee and other directors compare their responses from interviews both before and after the program. Are they more articulate than before? How well do they address each topic? "Comparing their responses kind of gives us a better feel for how much they've grown," he says.

Grant Gives Boost

Springfield Public School District 186 in Springfield, Ill., applies a similar strategy. In 2001, district administrators received a $1 million grant called Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts (LEAD) through the Wallace Foundation, says Roberta Hendee, director of HR and development at Springfield. The district partnered with Illinois State University to revamp and jointly teach its graduate level educational administration program. So far, she says, 40 teachers have enrolled. While the teachers pay for books and other expenses, the grant covers their tuition. They must complete in two years 12 courses, such as special education and school law, and 270 hours of practical experience. The program also provides a one-week internship with a Springfield school principal and other shadowing opportunities with district administrators. Substitute teachers are called in during that time to take over the teachers' classes. Graduates of the program receive a state administrative certification. Out of the 40 teachers who enrolled, 12 are in administrative jobs, 20 are still completing their coursework and the remaining eight found leadership roles, including content area coaches, who are experts in a specific subject area.

"We have tried to address what we see as a declining pool of highly qualified applicants." -Benny Gooden, superintendent of schools, Fort Smith Public Schools, Fort Smith, Ark

Although the grant monies dry up this year, Hendee says the program can continue with some changes. Teachers will need to pay the tuition, and the internships with a principal will be eliminated because they are too costly given the need for substitute teachers.

While this approach may not be the ultimate panacea, she believes it's a strong first step. "We have a real necessity of growing our own if we're going to have a pool of future administrators that we believe have the leadership capacity that we need in our schools," Hendee says.

Administrators who have walked up the ladder in the system offer a skill set that isn't readily apparent in candidates from outside the district. Some skills include possessing a much deeper understanding of how to use the district's data or leading teachers through any school improvement process. "We believe," Hendee says, "that we have a stronger cadre and pool of administrators to draw from who are specialized in the needs of Springfield."

Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.