The Omaha school district is shaking up its hiring process for aspiring principals.

It’s part of an ongoing process to build a deeper bench of candidates who can take on a school’s top job.

The Omaha Public Schools are anticipating that roughly 10 principals will retire or leave their jobs at the end of this school year. Last year the district filled 15 principal or program director vacancies and even hired a search firm to find candidates for openings at Burke High and Wakonda Elementary.

Now, instead of an aspiring principal applying directly for the job he or she wants, a candidate will apply to a principal pool, where candidates will be interviewed and vetted before being considered for a principal position at a specific school.

A committee of OPS principals, teachers and administrators also has drawn up specific job requirements and skills that principal candidates should be able to demonstrate to show they’re ready to lead a school.

OPS has been trying to build a stronger principal pipeline — as are other urban districts facing waves of administrator retirements or having difficulty attracting candidates for jobs at high schools or struggling schools.

The effort started last spring. It’s being funded with a $450,930 grant from the Sherwood Foundation and Lozier Foundation and help from Cross and Joftus, the same Maryland-based education consulting firm that helped OPS develop its strategic plan, which calls for high-quality leaders in all schools.

The goal is to be able to predict retirements and vacancies two years out and have three to four quality candidates for each open job, Charles Wakefield, the chief human resources officer for OPS, told the school board during a presentation this month.

“How do we pick, how do we select, how do we build that succession plan so we make sure we’re getting the right people in the right place at the right time?” Wakefield said.

For many in OPS, the hiring process for principals remains shrouded in mystery, Burke High Assistant Principal Gaye Lannan said at the meeting.

“Working in the trenches, that’s what I hear most from people: ‘How do they get selected, how do they get picked?’ ” Lannan said. “So being able to say to them ‘You’re going to be able to look at a document ... and get a feel for the target skills and knowledge we want principals to develop and form and have when they step into that role.’

“We really want principals to be able to manage achievement gaps, be able to identify where students are learning and not learning, come in with action steps and build a culture in that building that’s able to address those things,” Lannan said.

At the end of January, the district began accepting applications for its new principal pool. It’s the first requirement in a new and centralized three-step principal hiring process that officials said should help them better identify who’s ready to take on the increased responsibilities of a principal.

Several large urban districts, including Chicago, New York City and Denver, have created principal pools and pipelines to ensure that they have a steady stream of candidates waiting in the wings and aren’t left scrambling when principals retire or leave for other jobs.

A 2015 report by the Wallace Foundation, a school leadership organization that funded grants for principal development at several districts, said school-by-school interviews in districts like Denver were time-consuming and repetitive and didn’t always result in principal placements that were the best fit. Districts that implemented a principal pool with a more rigorous screening often found that they fielded better or more candidates and streamlined the hiring process.

That doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing.

Other districts, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, had to tweak their process several times. Pools were sometimes perceived as too large or too small. Some districts still had difficulty attracting enough candidates for high schools or challenging schools.

In OPS, prospective principals — assistant principals or teachers who haven’t yet held the job — will have to apply to the pool before they can be in the running for a vacancy at a specific school.

Wakefield said there probably will be several application rounds through the spring. Feb. 15 was the first deadline, and 56 aspiring principals, mostly from inside OPS, submitted applications. Staff also can tip off human resources if they think someone would make a good principal.

“We know that staff that are ready to be principals have opportunities elsewhere,” Wakefield said. “We want to make sure we have a wide selection of talent to fit the individual needs of buildings we have openings in.”

Once candidates apply to the pool, their applications, which include work history, references and essay questions, will be reviewed by screeners. If a candidate checks all the boxes he or she will be invited to a brief first-round interview and asked to complete an online assessment.

Candidates who clear those pre-screen hurdles will go on to a more in-depth, half-day interview with various OPS administrators and engage in three exercises, such as role-playing or data evaluation, to show off their principal chops.

If candidates pass background and reference checks they will be admitted into the principal pool, where they’ll be considered for jobs for up to three years.

But it doesn’t end there.

Principal pool candidates can then apply for specific openings at schools in the hope of moving on to a community interview at a school, where parents and teachers hear from finalists for the job and weigh in on who they think is the best fit. Current principals who want to transfer to a different school won’t have to apply to the principal pool but would have to take part in the community interview.

The superintendent has the final word on who gets hired.

Wakefield said he hasn’t heard much feedback on the new hiring steps but said some candidates have appreciated that there’s a clearer job description.

“We really approached this from the idea of grooming top talent to take on leadership roles, to define what a principal does, what skills can be developed ahead of time and what can be developed on the job,” he said. “We want to be clear and upfront and really define the role so our candidates know what we’re looking for and what they can work on.”

OPS continues to run its Launch program, too, which helps prepare teachers looking to move up into administrator roles. Currently, 30 candidates are in that program.

Several surrounding districts, including Millard, Council Bluffs and Bellevue, have similar leadership programs, but most accept applications for specific schools instead of creating a principal pool.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1210, erin.duffy@owh.com

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