The increasing load of the small-town school leader
Monday, January 28, 2019
Every year for the past several years, I have been asked to justify to the elected officials in my New Hampshire school community why with a declining enrollment I am not recommending a reduction in school administrator positions at my high school. It is hard to explain to someone not in the field that the amount of responsibility and workload of a school principal does not correlate directly with the size of a student population.
Some aspects of the job do — such as managing student discipline and evaluation of staff. Yet, other aspects of the job do not. It would take me just as long to develop my weekly newsletter whether I am sending it out to 100 families or 1,000 families.
The process of building my budget would take the same amount of time whether I was asking for $1 million or $10 million. Developing a safety plan takes me the same amount of time to develop whether I am building a plan for a 100,000-square-foot school or one that is five times that size.
The difference between the job responsibilities in my role versus a principal in a school twice my size is significant because I often have fewer staffing resources to share those responsibilities with than a principal in larger school. In that same fashion, I know that the principal next door to me who works in a school that is half my size has an even more demanding set of responsibilities.
In short, principals in small towns face a unique set of challenges in their profession — challenges that often go unnoticed. Yet, these principles represent a sizable percentage of school populations. According to this report released last year from the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education (CPE), rural schools account for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s student population.
In this recent Hechinger Report piece, senior editor Caroline Preston took readers on an in-depth look at the daily challenges and struggles of Matthew Snyder, who serves as both superintendent and principal in rural Cheraw, Colorado. Snyder serves in the capacity of principal of the town’s elementary, middle and high schools as well as superintendent.
He is also currently serving as the school’s maintenance director (while he continues to try to fill the position), he is a substitute teacher, a fill-in bus driver, a school safety officer, and he covers any other daily jobs as needed when he doesn’t have the staffing resources to cover them. In a typical day, he is tasked to solve problems at all levels of the school management and school leadership spectrum.
Preston noted that Snyder’s responsibilities have grown exponentially as the job of a school leader has evolved over the years. Preston noted, "Principals used to be essentially building managers, chief disciplinarians and the faces of their schools. But in the last few decades, state and federal education legislation began to hold them accountable for students’ academic successes and failures, turning principals and superintendents into ‘instructional leaders’ tasked with shaping curriculums, coaching teachers and refining pedagogy."
Snyder’s challenges, and those of rural school leaders like him, may sound typical of a school leader in any setting. Rural schools face many of the same challenges as urban ones but have to have a very different way to address those challenges. According to this TrustED K-12 Insight article, those challenges include:
- Poverty: Forty-seven percent of urban counties have high rates of child poverty compared with 64 percent of rural counties.
- Achievement gap: Similar to urban communities, an achievement gap exists among students from different ethnic backgrounds, with white students outperforming African-American and Latino students in reading and math in rural communities.
- Teacher recruitment and retention: With less access to university-level recruitment, technology, and quality programs for professional development, rural districts often struggle to attract and retain quality teachers.
As a profession, turnover is a big problem for school principals. According to this 2014 report, nearly 50 percent of all new school principals are not retained beyond their third year. It is estimated that it can cost a school an average of $75,000 to onboard a new principal to a school community. For a rural school, this can be a significant hit to the wallet.
How can rural school leaders be effective when faced with these challenges? The Center for Public Education suggests rural school leaders consider these strategies:
- Engage in specialized training: School leaders in rural communities need specialized training to dealing with the specific issues facing their community.
- Network with others: Rural school leaders must find ways to band together with their counterparts in neighboring districts to pool resources and knowledge.
- Develop mutually beneficial relationships with outside groups: Engage community organizations, businesses, and area universities to support district efforts and recruit qualified staff.
When all else fails, rural school leaders should know that they are not alone — and our profession needs to support them as they work for the same goal that we all share: providing the very best educational opportunities to each and every one of our students.
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