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Q&A: L.A. Principal Describes Unusual Participatory Hiring Process

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As part of a move toward site-based management, some schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have tried to involve parents and teachers in hiring principals and other staff members.

Westside Alternative School in Marina Del Rey lived up to its name by taking the process even further. When the K-12 magnet school, which enrolls about 400 students, recently had to replace its principal, the new administrator was not chosen by the central office from its promotion list. Instead, any parents, teachers, and students who wanted to interview the 14 candidates for the job could participate and then choose the new principal.

The interviewers voted overwhelmingly to hire Darrell Hughes, who was an assistant principal at George Washington Carver Junior High School in Los Angeles. Mr. Hughes, who took over as Westside's principal last month, discussed the unusual interview process with Staff Writer Daniel Gursky.

Q. How many people were involved in your final interview?

A. There had to be over 100 people. But the people who were going to ask questions had already been designated, which was good because otherwise you could get some embarrassing questions. All the questions were submitted in advance, and then the staff went through them and selected the ones they thought were suitable.

Q. So how many people actually ended up asking you questions?

A. Probably about 10 different people. It would be parents, it would be teachers, it would be students.

There were some really loaded questions, like, "What would you do if there was a conflict between a teacher and a parent.'' On questions like that you have to consider all the circumstances; you can't make a decision on some mythical question. And the kids asked things like, "How would you handle discipline with a kid who fought or cursed?''

Q. What did you think of the selection process?

A. I don't have any problem with the method, but I think they could have cut down the number of people. It was uncomfortable. I don't know of anyone who's sat down before that many people for an interview for a job. I mean, it was like a performance; I was on stage.

Q. How did this compare with other interviews you've gone through for other administrative positions?

A. I don't think it's really as good as other ones I've been through. [In past interviews,] they'd have a parent representative there, they'd have a principal, a teacher--about four people. And you'd sit in front of them and answer questions.

That was years ago. Then, they had a setup where there were no interviews at all. They had these mock sessions you had to do. Administrators and parents and the like would give you situations, like, here's a parent who's very upset with a teacher who failed her kid. So you would go in and these people would play-act, and there would be people sitting in the back who would record how you did.

Q. Having gone through this interview and selection process involving so many people, do you think it's made your job easier because people already knew you better than someone selected by the central office?

A. Oh, yeah. I think it makes it easier. A parent was interviewed on television the other day, and she said, "Well, we feel that since we're the ones who chose him, we have to support him.''

Then one of the reporters asked me off-camera if they could fire me because they selected me. And I told him I thought it would be difficult because the district would turn to the parents and say, "You were the ones who picked the guy, we didn't pick him.''

I was also thinking that one of the problems with the process could be if it ever boiled down to two people who were up for the job, and there were two factions in the school--say the parents wanted this one and the teachers wanted that one. Then whichever one was selected, it would be like in an election; those people who are supporting Brown are not going to be too happy when Clinton gets in there.

Q. Is this something that's feasible for larger schools?

A. I don't think it is feasible unless you run into a school in which you have a large number of parents involved, as we do here. Say we had 100 people at the meeting--there had to be at least 50 or 60 parents there. Out of 400 students, that's a pretty high percentage.

At a lot of schools, I've noticed that they have a lot of involvement of staff, but they don't have parent involvement. So quite often the staff does the selecting, not the parents. At the school I came from, there was a student body of about 2,000, and we might get 10 parents out.

The problem in L.A. is that our schools are so large. This school is one of the rarities. We've got junior-high schools with around 4,000 students, and to me, it would be very hard to work with this kind of process.

Q. In other words, people shouldn't be looking to imitate this just because it seemed to work at your school?

A. Right. This is a unique situation. At one conference I went to, a woman was talking about what they had done at her school, and she said, "If you take this and put it in your school, I can guarantee you it will fail.''

Everyone looked at her, and she said, "That's because it's unique to our community.'' So if anyone wanted to use this method at a large school, they would have to make some modifications.

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