Recruitment & Retention

Building the Superintendent Pipeline: Advice From 3 District Leaders

By Sarah Schwartz — March 08, 2023 2 min read
Art Cavazos
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Superintendent turnover has increased over the past few years, according to recent analyses—especially in big urban districts. With all of this movement, what happens when spots for the top job in districts open up? And who steps in?

At SXSW EDU in Austin this week, superintendents talked about how their districts had prepared to fill those openings from within, by creating a leadership pipeline.

Recruiting from within can give school boards more of a guarantee on a candidate than they might have with an external applicant, said Alicia Noyola, the superintendent of the Harlingen school district in Texas. Before she took the role, she was the district’s chief academic officer.

In this case, “your future superintendent has been involved in a multi-year interview process,” she said.

Noyola and two other leaders spoke on the panel, “The Trouble With the Superintendency,” about how to cultivate and prepare district leadership from within. Read on for three takeaways.

1. Create opportunities for leaders to build their skills and demonstrate their capabilities

“Unbeknownst to me, my predecessor was preparing me for the role very strategically,” said Ángel Rivera, the superintendent of schools in the Mesquite schools in Texas.

Before he took his current role, in his first year as an assistant superintendent in the district, the superintendent started to involve Rivera in school board relations. “There is no superintendent test that will tell you how to do that,” Rivera said. It’s something that had to be learned through hands-on experience.

Art Cavazos, the former superintendent in Harlingen, asked Noyola to stretch into new responsibilities, too. During the pandemic, he tasked her with running the district’s curbside food service operation. Noyola ran the program deftly, Cavazos said. “She had built a lot of trust in the system over her years and her time,” he added.

2. Pay attention to diversity

The superintendency is overwhelmingly white and male. Just over a quarter of school system leaders are women; most superintendents are white.

But the gender breakdown of teachers is the reverse—about three-quarters of teachers are women. (Most teachers are white, as well.)

“A traditional pathway [to school leadership] starts at the teacher level, to the teacher-leader level, to campus leader, to central administration,” Noyola said. That means that somewhere along the way, women are dropping out of that leadership track, she said.

Districts need to think about how they can develop women leaders, starting at that teacher level, she said.

3. Prepare career educators for a major shift in job duties

District leaders—like assistant superintendents, or CAOs—are only one step removed from the superintendent role. But there’s a big difference in what the jobs entail, Rivera said.

“You go from being the doer, to making sure that things get done,” he said.

Making that shift can be hard for an internal hire, Rivera said: “You’re still attached to the departments, and the organization.”

Rivera had to get used to the fact that he wasn’t wading into the weeds of problems anymore, or coaching instructional leaders one-on-one.

The key is learning to empower the district leadership team, Noyola said.

“At the onset, I was there at all hours. I’m getting better,” she said. “It’s that distributed leadership piece. And your leaders will rise to the occasion and that gives you the peace to say, ‘I know they’ve got it.’”

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