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Principals' Shoes Are Hard To Fill, Study Finds

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A new study confirms what many superintendents have been complaining about for years: Fewer and fewer qualified people want the principal's job.

The study, commissioned by two national principals' groups, surveyed those charged with hiring school administrators in a random sample of 403 districts with enrollments of 300 or more students.

In about half the districts surveyed, officials reported a shortage of qualified candidates for principals' positions they were trying to fill this school year.

"It supports the conversation we've been hearing that there is a shortage," said Ronald J. Areglado, the associate executive director of programs for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which commissioned the survey along with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "There are not great numbers of qualified people applying."

And the problem is likely to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in school administrator jobs through 2005, most as the result of retirements, according to the study.

Inadequate Pay

In the survey, conducted by telephone the last week of January, administrators said that all too often the issue comes down to money. The most important factor discouraging candidates, respondents said, was too little pay for the job's responsibilities.

Sixty percent of the respondents said the financial barrier outranks all others, whether the available jobs are at the elementary, middle, or high school level. Following in either second or third place, depending on the school level, were the long hours or the stress of the job.

The districts surveyed reported shortages at all school levels and in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

In general, the officials surveyed did not say they were dissatisfied with the people they hired, only that the candidate pool was shallow.

District administrators said they did not have to be particularly on the lookout for woman candidates. At least one qualified woman had applied for more than three-quarters of the vacant positions at each of the three school levels, according to the survey.

More Data Needed

But minority candidates were harder to find, the administrators said. In two-thirds of the urban districts and 44 percent of the suburban school systems, officials called increasing the number of minority-group members in management positions an issue for them.

Despite the perceived shortage of prospective principals and assistant principals, only about one-fourth of the districts surveyed had a program aimed at recruiting and preparing candidates from among current staff members. Urban districts were the most likely to have such a program, the study found.

"I think that's something school districts are going to have to look at," Mr. Areglado of the elementary principals' group said.

He said the NAESP would be encouraging its state affiliates to conduct their own surveys because this one, which he called exploratory, did not give a complete picture of the shortage. He said almost certainly the shortages were greater in some states, regions, and types of districts than others.

One superintendent said last week that not only is the shortage of candidates for administrators' jobs not news to him, it's also a problem of long standing. Alfred H. Meunier, the Pendleton, Ore., schools chief, recalled an opening for a high school principal about 10 years ago."We had three applicants, and two of them couldn't write," he said. In desperation, he talked a talented teacher with a supervisor's credential into taking the job for two years.

Mr. Meunier is now hiring a principal for the 3,500-student's well-equipped and relatively serene high school. Eleven people applied, a number he quickly whittled to five. "People look at the demands of the job and what it's going to take, and see what some of the people are undergoing now," he said, "and I think they get turned off."

Bradford Allison, the superintendent of the 35,000-student Davenport, Iowa, schools, has reached a similar conclusion. "High school principal is one of the most difficult jobs in the business," he said.

After a strenuous search two years ago, Mr. Bradford hired a principal for one of his district's three high schools, only to have the man arrested in a prostitution sting last spring.

"I advertised again, and I didn't have anybody who had credibility," the superintendent recounted. "So I took an elementary principal with a very good track record and appointed him.

"I'm going to try this year to get our high school principals a salary increase," he vowed.

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