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Outlook on administration: Leaders launch new roles

Superintendents and school CEOs become fundraisers, collaborators and tweeters
Three quarters of respondents to a DA survey said funding for their district would increase or stay the same in 2015. (Click to enlarge graphic)
Three quarters of respondents to a DA survey said funding for their district would increase or stay the same in 2015. (Click to enlarge graphic)

Navigating turbulent waters of uncertain budgets, district leaders have a great challenge: Answer the growing push for accountability and heightened community expectations in 2015.

“The overall trend is that more and more administrators must become professional problem solvers,” says David Miceli, superintendent of New Providence School District in New Jersey. “We are going to be asked to do more, often with less, and that requires deft leadership.”

In New Jersey, for example, Miceli is stepping into the role of fundraiser, working closely with the district’s nonprofit New Providence Ed Foundation to apply for grants to supplement the district’s budget.

He predicts that in 2015, district leaders around the nation must do the same, lending their leadership to fundraising efforts as budgets fluctuate and districts roll out new assessment tests.

“Districts will be relying more on public fundraising, and we aren’t talking about extra money for field trips,” says Miceli. At New Providence, the money raised will buy tablets required for students to take the newly implemented PARCC assessment tests.

Principal autonomy

Experts also anticipate a shift in administrative hierarchies. The relationship between principals and superintendents will continue to evolve heading into 2015, says Ellen Goldring, the Patricia and Rodes Hart professor and chair of education policy at Vanderbilt University.

Goldring predicts that principals will seek out more autonomy to deploy resources, hire staff and make curriculum decisions.

“In the past, the relationship between superintendents and principals has been formula-driven, meaning it’s not really open to negotiation or change,” says Goldring. “Looking toward 2015, I expect this one-size-fits all model to be rethought.”

Social media grows

Another trend is that district leaders are now embracing social media to communicate directly with parents, students and the community.

Standards and assessments top list of leaders’ 2015 priorities

Improving student outcomes and implementing new learning standards and assessments will be among the highest priorities for school superintendents this year, according to a DA survey of K12 leaders.

Some 80 percent of respondents said improving student outcomes was a top priority, while more than half of the respondents said improving their faculty’s instructional practice and implementing new learning standards and assessments were major goals.

Controlling health care costs was not as important, with only 22 percent of respondents saying it was a primary concern.

And two-thirds of respondents, 66 percent, said community support of their schools has been strong and will continue to be robust this year.

Another 42 percent said support for public education in the country is stronger than the media portrays it to be. However, 43 percent believe that support is declining now.

The DA administration and management outlook survey was part of a broader set of trend surveys deployed to readers in late 2014. A total of 537 district leaders participated in the surveys.

“We’ve already seen many leaders take to Twitter and Facebook, and we’re likely to see that grow,” says Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center, a nonprofit that specializes in school system management. “Students are even tweeting directly with their superintendents. It’s a great avenue for leaders to be in touch,” she says.

Talent management

Bracy Knight also predicts a shift in how administrators strategize staffing decisions, as nearly 85 percent of budgets is spent on staff. “The trend looking ahead is that administrators will need to get as much as they can out of human capital,” she says.

That means pivoting away from a traditional HR model that was generally viewed as more of a low-level priority, and toward a “talent-management,” model where the recruitment, retention and training of staff becomes a top district priority. Skilled HR managers will be in high demand this year, says Bracy Knight, and district leaders will work closer with HR staff in long-term planning and resource deployment.

Goldring agrees, adding, “Talent management, which hasn’t yet been in high demand in the educational space, will become a more sought-after asset.”

Reduce bullying

As politicians make anti-bullying a public policy priority, district leaders are increasingly being called upon to be more involved in individual discipline decisions. In New Jersey, starting this year, Superintendent Miceli is required by law to personally investigate bullying accusations in the four schools in his district. “Bottom line—this will take a lot of time for district leaders in the coming year,” he says.

Another upcoming trend in discipline is the decline of zero-tolerance and other punitive policies, says Bracy Knight. “In Broward County in Florida, for example, we’ve seen district leaders move away from the juvenile justice system and instead bring on more counseling resources,” she says.

Charters, schools collaborate

Experts also predict an easing of tensions between charters and traditional public schools, as administrators from both realms are called upon to work together. A model for this is the SKY Partnership—a Gates Foundation-funded collaboration between Spring Branch ISD, KIPP Houston Public Schools and YES Prep Public Schools in Texas, Bracy Knight says. The three systems allow students to take classes at multiple campuses.

A similar collaboration is underway at Achievement First’s Residency Program for School Leadership in Connecticut, where leaders from charter and traditional schools share strategies to close achievement gaps. It follows a medical school rotation model and includes workshops and individualized coaching.

Juggling demands

Effective administration will continue to be a juggling act. “Morale in the education space is not the highest right now, and administrators are called upon to generate enthusiasm, improve student outcomes and cope with limited resources at the same time,” Miceli says.

Bracy Knight predicts successful leaders will excel. “Striking the balance between using what you have well and still advocating for your district,” she says, “that’s what really will distinguish managers who are change agents.”

Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance writer in California.