School & District Management

Despite Retirements, ‘Baby Busters’ Scarce in Principals’ Positions

By Mark Stricherz — October 24, 2001 7 min read
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Although they’ve captured headlines lately, young principals aren’t a common sight in the nation’s schools. And that worries some experts, who had anticipated that people under age 35 would be filling the void left by retiring school leaders.

The first wave of baby-boomer principals is now eligible to retire in many states. But based on statistics and interviews, “baby busters” born after 1964 have stepped up only in certain areas.

Nationally, the percentage of K-8 principals younger than 35 dropped from almost 5 percent of all school leaders in 1988 to just 1.3 percent in 1998, according to figures compiled by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The Alexandria, Va.-based group estimates that 40 percent of the nation’s total of 93,000 principals of K- 12 schools will need to be replaced by 2006, mostly because of retirements.

Organizations representing principals in populous states such as California, Florida, and Texas lack figures on the number of young school leaders.

Young principals are cropping up in rural districts, but are scarcer in suburban and urban areas. Still, some graduate programs report an upsurge in applications by educators under 35.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, worries that young people aren’t being actively recruited for the leadership positions.

“We don’t tap people anymore,” Mr. Houston said. “I was tapped when I was 25. Someone said to me, ‘You should be an administrator,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’”

Jon Schnur, the founder and chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools, a Boston-based group that will put 15 principals from nontraditional backgrounds into urban districts next school year, said the country lacks a “systematic approach to developing these people.”

“If we don’t [develop them],” he said, “they might go into other spheres of leadership.”

Others caution that with youth comes inexperience. Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said he welcomes young school leaders, but “wouldn’t want all poor and minority districts to be filled with inexperienced principals.”

Rural Opportunities

Thomas Jacobson, the chief executive officer of McPherson and Jacobson, a consulting firm based in Kearney, Neb., doesn’t doubt that the rural Midwest has more young school leaders today than it did a decade ago. Mr. Jacobson places about 35 superintendents and five principals in jobs each year.

“What we’re seeing is younger principals getting into the business,” he said. “I think it went the other way for 10 years, when we didn’t have anyone going into the profession.”

Mr. Jacobson attributes the trend to the shortage of principals in states like Nebraska, where districts are sometimes desperate to hire school leaders. Rural areas have small populations as it is, and many college graduates don’t return home.

Ken Schroeder, the 28-year-old principal of Shelby Public School in Shelby, Neb., was recruited early to his position. His high school football coach urged him to earn a master’s degree, saying that his own failure to do so was one of his greatest disappointments. After teaching for four years, Mr. Schroeder enrolled in a graduate administration program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Through a combination of telecommuting and night classes, the program allows students to graduate within 18 months, instead of the two or three years required by most programs. About half the program’s 20 to 30 graduates this year are in their 20s and 30s, said James E. Ossian, who chairs the university’s educational administration department.

“The idea is we’re a sparsely populated state, particularly in this area, and we need to do things to attract principals to come here,” Mr. Ossian said of the 7-year-old program.

While the program didn’t prepare him for every aspect of his current job, Mr. Schroeder said, “I knew pretty much what things would be like as a young school principal. I haven’t had anyone look at me differently because of my age.”

Among his classmates was Jason E. Searle, 29, the principal at Hamburg Junior-Senior High School in Hamburg, Iowa. He taught for five years in Nebraska and heard projections of a shortage of administrators. “When I heard about a bunch of jobs here, I jumped at the chance,” he said of his move to Iowa.

Mr. Searle’s neighbor growing up had been a principal, and the Hamburg principal knew the pay would be much higher than his $30,000-per-year teaching salary. Now, he makes $52,500 annually, leading a school with only 160 students.

Other young principals in rural areas agreed that the salaries they could make, simply by relocating to another part of the country, offered unparalleled opportunities. Some also took jobs in rural schools to gain experience, in the way that a rookie police officer might choose to work in a tough part of town.

That was the case for Scott T. Ebbrecht 10 years ago when he was the principal of Amanda Clearcreek Junior High School in the 1,600- student Amanda-Clearcreek district in Amanda, Ohio.

“In rural areas, you get tremendous experience,” said Mr. Ebbrecht, now 34 and the principal of an elementary school in a suburb of Dayton. “I was also the district test coordinator. I was the person developing curriculum and content standards. We didn’t have a lot of staff. In the office, it was just me, the superintendent, and a part-time secretary.”

Suburban Cooperation

Principals are in such demand in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., that three districts have gotten together to recruit new candidates, including young educators.

Mark Edwards, the superintendent of the 42,400-student Henrico County district, has hired six principals younger than 35 in the past year. But that’s not enough to replace the 30 principals who are expected to retire within five years. What’s worse for Mr. Edwards, he had to compete with superintendents from the 17,200-student Hanover County district and the 51,000-student Chesterfield County schools to hire them.

But rather than grow frustrated, Mr. Edwards persuaded the leaders of the two other districts to join ranks with him.

“I said, ‘Guys, we need to do something. We need help,’'' Mr. Edwards said, recalling a conversation he had at a local superintendents’ meeting last year. “The boomers are retiring, and we need to start training and preparing new leaders.”

The result is a new graduate program at the University of Virginia’s school of education. Thirty candidates, each recommended by officials in the three districts, will enter the 18-month program, starting in January, to prepare to become vice principals or principals. Each district likely will hire 10 graduates, almost all of whom are expected to be younger than 35.

Other large education schools in other states report having more students in their 20s and early 30s enrolling in leadership programs, according to Michelle D. Young, the executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration. They include the University of Iowa, New Mexico State University, the University of Tennessee, and New York University.

Urban Inexperience

Urban districts, meanwhile, report a dearth of young school leaders. The New York City school system has 16 principals in its 1,100 schools who are younger than 35. Chicago’s public schools have 13 under age 40, while the Philadelphia district employs 12 principals under 40.

But many New York schools are run by inexperienced principals, regardless of age. This school year, 430 schools had principals with two years’ experience or less, said spokeswoman Marge Feinberg. Almost 150 of those have been hired since January, she added. In New York and Chicago, “grow your own” programs are a popular approach for recruiting principals, but don’t seem to be attracting particularly young candidates.

Four years ago, the 431,000-student Chicago system started a program for educators holding administrator certificates. The yearlong program, which enrolls 30 students, includes classes on education and business management. Students also are assigned a principal as a mentor.

But only about five each year are younger than 40, according to Ingrid J. Carney, the executive director of the Leadership Academy and Urban Network for Chicago, a collaborative effort by the city, local business groups, Northwestern University, and the city’s principals’ organization.

In Chicago, where governance councils in individual schools hire principals, “there’s a tendency today to look for more maturity,” said David T. Peterson, the assistant to the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

Instead of becoming principals, young school leaders are routed to become assistant principals. Educators younger than 40 hold 91 such positions in Chicago, Mr. Peterson said.

Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators in New York, said the demands of the academic-standards movement and the bureaucracy of large districts make it hard for young school leaders to be hired.

“The job is so complicated, and it’s such an accountable position, that young principals, teachers, and assistant principals aren’t feeling prepared to enter the ranks of principals,” Ms. Levy said.

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