Please go to the principal’s office: Schools’ hiring struggles reach all the way to the top

  • Chelsea Public School Principal Mark Blount greets students and teacher Christina Depoian in the combined 3-4 classroom in Chelsea, Vt., on Jan. 21, 2022. The First Branch Unified District is planning to merge student populations in Chelsea and Tunbridge the next school year, with the Chelsea building becoming a middle school. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

  • Chelsea Public School Principal Mark Blount prepares for an online meeting in his office in Chelsea, Vt., on Jan. 21, 2022. As principal at the school for the past decade, Blount felt it was time to step aside for a new leader as the district plans to merge student populations with Chelsea and Tunbridge the next school year. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chelsea Public School Principal Mark Blount greets students trickling into school on a subzero morning in Chelsea, Vt., on Jan. 21, 2022. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of students get rides from family instead of taking the school's lone bus route. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2022 6:27:26 AM
Modified: 1/23/2022 6:26:09 AM

Of the many jobs listed on SchoolSpring.com, a popular education recruiting website, there are nearly a dozen advertisements for school leadership positions in the Upper Valley.

Some degree of turnover in school leadership positions is expected even in normal times, said Page Tompkins, president of the Lebanon-based Upper Valley Educators Institute. The average tenure of a school principal is between three and five years, he said.

But in the middle of the third academic year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, even communities such as Hanover — often perceived as a coveted landing spot for educators — are feeling the leadership pinch, he said.

The churn of administrators affects some communities more than others and is particularly acute in smaller districts, Tompkins said.

“For rural communities this is old news,” he said. “Finding, attracting (and) retaining principals is hard.”

In the Upper Valley, White River Valley High School in Royalton is searching for a new principal, as is the First Branch Unified District, which includes schools in Tunbridge and Chelsea, and is also seeking an assistant principal.

Claremont is looking for a principal and assistant principal for Stevens High School; as well as principals for two elementary schools. Lebanon is looking for a permanent principal for the Mount Lebanon Elementary School, and Hanover High is seeking a permanent leader, too. Hartford is advertising for an assistant director of the career and technology center and an assistant middle school principal. Woodsville High School also is looking for a new principal, and the Springfield (Vt.) School District is looking for assistant principals for both the high school and middle school.

While the pandemic is a factor making the job of school principal more challenging, each school and community has its own issues.

“Every single opening in every single district has its own kind of dynamics, challenges and limitations,” Tompkins said.

Third search in Hanover

Hanover High School, which enrolls about 740 students, has been on the hunt for a permanent principal since former principal Justin Campbell left after a roughly eight-year tenure in June 2020. In the meantime, the role is being filled on an interim basis by Julie Stevenson, who served as dean of students during Campbell’s tenure.

Thus far, the Dresden School District has conducted two unsuccessful searches for a permanent principal, SAU 70 Superintendent Jay Badams said. This year, the district is conducting a third search, but so far has had similar results.

“Again, we’re seeing pretty small turnout in terms of the candidate pool,” he said.

The district, among the highest-paying in the state, would typically receive 20 applicants for a principal job pre-pandemic. Now, they’ve gotten about half that.

Badams, who was in his first day back at work following his own isolation period, said he thought that amid the pandemic, some principals have left the field or retired. Others may be less likely to make a change amid the ongoing uncertainty.

In normal times, being a principal is “one of the hardest jobs you could have, certainly in education,” he said.

Leading a school through a pandemic isn’t something principals are trained for, Badams said. Doing so has required reassuring families and informing them about COVID-19 cases, and trying to maintain a normal academic calendar even while staffing is tight. It’s been difficult for schools to find substitutes and bus drivers, paraeducators and special educators this year, and schools are limited in their ability to switch from in-person to remote learning.

“It’s really, really challenging work,” he said.

Perhaps the thing that has changed the most for principals during the pandemic is the continual demand for them to communicate with families as “sort of comforter-in-chief,” Badams said, adding that it’s “almost like prolonged crisis communication.”

“That’s a lot to shoulder,” he said.

In Lebanon, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said school officials are reviewing applications for the preK-4 Mount Lebanon Elementary School principal post. That position, which is responsible for overseeing the school that includes roughly 240 students, became vacant when Principal Gino LoRicco resigned in September “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Katie Roach, the school’s assistant principal, is filling in as interim principal this year.

“We are looking forward to holding interviews and selecting a candidate who will continue to provide a positive and supportive working and learning environment for our staff, students and families,” Roberts said in an email.

Tompkins said that schools like Hanover High and Mount Lebanon that have other administrators ready to fill in are likely to see less disruption when a principal leaves, even suddenly.

“Other places, perhaps Stevens, may not have that pool of people,” Tompkins said. In that case, schools are trying to sort out “can we attract somebody to come here?”

That’s “a totally different proposition,” he said.

Four vacanciesin Claremont

Last year, Claremont schools lost a husband-and-wife pair who were leading Bluff Elementary School and Maple Avenue Elementary School, Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague said. This year those posts are being covered on an interim basis. More recently, Stevens High School Principal Patricia Barry announced that she will be retiring at the end of this year, her eighth in the position.

Barry, who is 63, said her departure is being spurred by a variety of factors. She has a 93-year-old mother in need of care and three grandchildren with whom she’d like to spend more time.

“Those obligations are a big part of the decision,” Barry said.

Another influence, she said, is that over the past three school years the job has changed. After a year and a half without in-person classes, some Stevens freshmen arrived this fall with the social skills and academic abilities of sixth graders.

“To make up that difference has become daunting,” she said.

Barry, who has prided herself on being a problem solver, said she now finds that following budget cuts she has dwindling resources to address issues as they arise.

“You become paralyzed,” she said. “I’ve done as much as I can do. At this point, now, I’ve got to deal with my own quality of life (and) mental health.”

Barry, who is a breast cancer survivor and fully vaccinated and boosted, still managed to contract COVID-19. In addition, the stress of the job has had effects on her physical health. At 63, she said she feels like she thought she would at 70.

“I need to kind of shift my work/life balance,” she said.

She hopes spending time with her grandchildren and baking bread are “things that are going to bring me joy.”

In the near term, Stevens, which has an enrollment of about 550, is currently looking to fill an immediate opening for an assistant principal, Sprague said. The previous assistant principal went on maternity leave and didn’t return, he said.

Hiring committees have been formed and the district is working to determine what it wants to see in these new school leaders.

“I see it as an opportunity,” said Sprague, who was Stevens’ principal from 2012-14, and previously held other school leadership positions in Claremont and Newport schools.

He noted that Superintendent Michael Tempesta, who joined the district in 2019, is relatively new in his job and “as a superintendent the opportunity to pick your own team is a great opportunity.”

Sprague said he’s optimistic the district will be able to find good candidates for the open posts, in part because the board recently negotiated with the administrators union to be able to add $5,000 to a salary offer when they’re close to hiring a new principal.

“We’re feeling pretty good about our ability to attract highly qualified people with competitive compensation,” he said.

Leaders for merged schools

In the White River Valley Supervisory Union, three principals have announced they won’t be returning next school year: White River Valley High School Principal Reed McCracken, Chelsea Public School Principal Mark Blount and Tunbridge Central School Principal Michael Livingston.

“There’s lots of educators (who) look in the mirror sometimes and say, ‘Is this really what I signed up to do?’ ” Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said of the additional challenges of leading a school through a pandemic.

For his part, Kinnarney said he encourages school leaders to be kind to themselves in how they measure their success.

“We did keep the doors open today,” Kinnarney said. “It’s OK to say that’s a real success.”

A search is underway to replace McCracken, who came to Royalton in 2018 to become the first leader of the White River Valley High School, which came into being when Bethel and Royalton merged schools. The school has an enrollment of about 190. School officials are planning to review applications this week and conduct interviews next week. If they aren’t able to find anyone in this first round, they will repost the position, Kinnarney said.

“When I’ve been talking to my colleagues, high school principal positions are drawing less interest,” he said.

A separate search is underway to find one principal to lead the First Branch Unified District, which includes schools in Tunbridge and Chelsea. Whoever is hired in that role will then lead a search to find an assistant principal. Tunbridge and Chelsea each have preK-8 schools this year, with enrollments of 117 and 129 respectively. But next year, Tunbridge is slated to host grades preK-4 from both towns and Chelsea will be home to students in grades 5-8.

Blount and Livingston announced their departure in a joint letter that explained that they felt it best for the district to find a new “leader (who) takes it through the next phase,” Kinnarney said.

There’s a bit of a question mark surrounding First Branch’s future as Chelsea voters will be asked whether they want to leave the merged district during Town Meeting voting.

Still, the district is moving forward with hiring. It has received 10 applications for the principal position, and school officials have selected five candidates to interview.

Kinnarney said he’s “optimistic” that they will be able to “find a solid principal and leader for First Branch.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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