School principals harder to find

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Young, dedicated and, by all accounts, talented.

In many ways, Tim Bishop embodies what quickly is becoming an endangered species in Routt County -- and the American public school system.

Bishop, just 35 years old and the father of two children, is a school principal. It's an increasingly demanding position that many young educators across the nation are steering clear of, education experts say.

And with many of the country's principals at or nearing retirement age, there looms a shortage of teachers and administrators willing to fill the vacancies.

"There are plenty of people who have the credentials to be a school principal," said Mike Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "They just choose not to do it."

A recent study of the state of principals in Colorado revealed that nearly 75 percent of superintendents report a shortage of qualified candidates to fill vacancies. The study, conducted by the bi-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures, also found an absence of statewide programs to attract potential school leaders and a dearth of support programs for administrators.

The significance of the principal shortage soon may be felt in Routt County, where all three school districts are dealing or preparing to deal with administrator replacement.

Pressure, responsibilities

A mix of factors has contributed to the decline in the number of educators willing to enter the domain of school administration, Carr said.

Education organizations trace the shortage primarily to the changing nature of the principal's job. The nationwide movement toward increased school accountability has greatly increased the responsibilities and pressure of being an administrator, said Jana Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents 2,000 of the state's public-school administrators.

Whereas principals once were looked at as building managers responsible for disciplinary issues and making sure the buses arrived and departed on time, today's principals also must be the instructional leaders of the school. They are expected to keep up with the latest in education research and implement new techniques and tools into their schools.

Those and other added responsibilities, combined with the growing threat of lawsuits, school violence and job insecurity, leave many qualified candidates content to remain in the classroom.

"The demands are just exponentially greater," Caldwell said. "A lot of people are no longer willing to be candidates for those reasons."

There are, of course, exceptions. In addition to Bishop, Routt County principals Troy Zabel and James Chamberlin are young educators who made the leap from the classroom to the main office.

For Zabel, being a principal better suits his strengths. He can handle the pressure and responsibilities of being an administrator.

"I love the job," said Zabel, who last week left his position as principal of South Routt Elementary School to become principal of Hayden High School. "I love working with kids. I feel I'm more effective as a principal than I was as a teacher."

Bishop was hired as an assistant principal with the Steamboat Springs School District in 1999, when he was 30.

"The toughest part is the time commitment," Bishop said. "That's what hit me over the head when I came here."

Bishop said most nights he could "stay forever" at his desk completing work -- and it still wouldn't get finished. He understands why the number of qualified principal candidates is declining.

"People look at what they're giving up -- time from their family -- and often decide to remain in teaching," he said. "It's very tough to find good teachers, but principals are evaporating."

The decline is particularly troublesome for smaller, rural school districts, Carr said. While many large, urban school systems have developed "grow your own" principal training programs for talented staff members, small districts usually lack the resources to do the same. When it comes time to find a replacement for a departing administrator, the applicant pool is often thin.

"It's harder to attract quality folks to rural areas," Carr said.

The challenge intensifies when a district is given short notice to find a replacement.

"Obviously, the closer to the beginning of the school year an opening occurs, the more frantic the search," Caldwell said. "It's always a challenge whenever you have those resignations at the eleventh hour."

Filling administrative positions with interim employees can be the best solution, Caldwell said. The interim employees often are longtime staff members familiar with the district and its employees, and having a short-term solution in place enables school boards to undertake a thorough search process for the long-term replacement.

The South Routt School Board took such an approach last week, when it offered its elementary school principal position to classroom teacher Kim Rabon on an interim basis.

South Routt School Board President Hank deGanahl said there just wasn't enough time to conduct a thorough search to find a permanent replacement for Zabel. The district will begin a full-blown search sometime this fall, when it also will begin looking for a replacement for retiring Superintendent Steve Jones.

Countywide changes

The school district in South Routt isn't the only one dealing with change. All three Routt County school districts are coping with significant changes in their leadership.

In Hayden, high school Principal Nick Schafer resigned in May, citing philosophical differences with district administration, particularly Superintendent Scott Mader.

Three weeks after Schafer's resignation, the Hayden School Board indefinitely suspended Mader, with pay, as it investigates matters related to his employment. The School Board has declined further comment, and it's unclear when a decision on Mader's future will be made.

Two weeks after Mader's suspension, Hayden Middle School Principal Colleen Poole resigned to become director of the North Routt Community Charter School in Clark. The 3-year-old charter school is part of the Steamboat Springs School District.

Hayden's search to replace Schafer attracted the attention of Zabel, a Hayden native who for the past four years guided South Routt Elementary School in Yampa to unprecedented success in student achievement. Zabel, intrigued by the opportunity to return to the town in which he lives and to help right a district suddenly gone awry, accepted Hayden's job offer last week.

The Steamboat Springs School District will lose two of its four principals next year when high school Principal Dave Schmid and Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis are scheduled to retire. Schmid and DeVincentis led their schools to "excellent" ratings on last year's state-issued School Accountability Reports.

But unlike the administrative positions that opened suddenly and unexpectedly in South Routt and Hayden, the Steamboat district has time to conduct a thorough search in replacing its popular and successful administrators.

Superintendent Donna Howell said the search process will begin early this fall, when she will meet with staff members at both schools to build a profile of the ideal candidates for each position.

Regardless of who replaces Schmid and DeVincentis, district staff and the community should expect and allow for a transition period, Carr said.

"Every time you change the leadership of the school, it takes awhile for the faculty and everyone else involved in that school community to get accustomed to the new leader," he said.

When people are used to a school being run a certain way it can be difficult to adjust to new leaders and their philosophies and ideas, Carr said. Patience and open-mindedness will help all district stakeholders with the transitions.

Of course, a little optimism, like that displayed by South Routt School Board member Kevin Gneiser last week, can't hurt.

"We'll get this ironed out," he said after news of Zabel's resignation. "We'll find a good principal."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.co

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