Cynthia Rios remembers how much she relied on the secretaries and guidance counselors when she was a student at Haines City Senior High School in Florida’s Polk County district.
Now, nearly three years after graduating, Rios sits next to some of the same secretaries as their colleague, ensuring that incoming freshmen have the supportive environment she enjoyed as a student.
That’s also the case for Johnny Disla and his sister, Jocelyn, both of whom are alumni and work at the school as substitute teachers.
The three are among the 54 graduates employed at Haines City Senior High School, serving as assistant principals, teachers, substitutes, and support staff. About two dozen of them, Rios and the Dislas included, graduated since the current principal, Adam Lane, arrived in 2015.
Lane has cultivated a deep talent pipeline over the years, starting with explicitly telling seniors that there was always a place for them at the school after they’d graduated, attended college, gone off to the military, or tried out their first—or even second—jobs.
That’s allowed him to build up a pool of substitutes who are ready to step in when a full-time staffer can’t—and also alumni armed with credentials looking for full-time roles. It’s also allowed him to overcome some of the staffing pressures that have bedeviled schools and districts throughout the country, he said.
Develop relationships and partnerships
But Lane has been equally intentional about welding together other pieces in the pipeline, such as working with five local colleges and universities to recruit student-teachers to intern at the school—he’s hired about three or four interns annually, he said—and building support structures for teachers so that once they arrive, they’ll find it hard to leave.
Staffers have also taken active roles in recruiting colleagues, family members, and friends, Lane said. As a result, the school has brothers and sisters working alongside husbands and wives and relatives.
That deep bench meant that Haines City Senior High School largely avoided the shortage of both full-time and substitute workers that afflicted schools and districts across the country this winter when coronavirus infections spiked with the omicron wave.
“We have not had a problem because we’ve really built a culture that students and staff are attracted to,” Lane said of the nearly 3,000-student school, located about 50 miles south of Orlando. “I feel that it’s my job to create unforgettable moments that keep them wanting to come back.”
Building an alumni pipeline
Lane didn’t exactly start out to engineer that system when he got to Polk County.
While many schools have established shadowing programs to give their current students a glimpse into the teaching profession, Lane’s approach has been less formal. He makes sure he tells seniors at each of the four senior meetings that there’s always an option to work with him in some role in the school.
“The goal in the beginning was to build a place where students want to return to school and a place where staff want to return to work,” he said.
“But then, as we’re seeing the vacancies that were starting to come up, the goal ended up not only having a place where they want to return as a student or a staff member, but you know what, why don’t you make a career here?”
Other components require more focus, he said.
One of the first things Lane highlights is the importance of creating strong relationships between students and staff and among employees. Haines City Senior High also focuses on empowering staff and teachers in decisionmaking. Students, staff, and parents, for example, participate in forums on major school issues and vote on things like dress codes and school schedules, which Lane then formally enacts.
These steps make people feel like they’re valued and are having an impact, Lane said.
“My number one recruiting is the returning alumni, because they know what it was like to be a student here: they felt really good, they felt taken care of, they felt inspired, empowered. Their teachers gave them a great relationship,” Lane said.
“Those relationships are what make the students want to come back and be a teacher across the hall from [their] favorite teacher and work with them.”
Johnny Disla, a provisional teacher and a long-term substitute for digital technology, graduated in 2016, Lane’s first graduating class.
Becoming a teacher was the furthest thing from his mind while he was a student, but he remembers how the school changed when Lane arrived.
One of the reasons he returned to teach at Haines City Senior High School, he said, was because of the positive influence the teachers and staff had on him.
“No matter what was going on—it could have been a storm, a fire drill—they always had a positive attitude,” Johnny Disla said. “They helped my way of critical thinking and how I’ve developed my personal judgement.”
“You could say that it’s my dream to be here,” he said.
But it’s not just getting new employees in the door, it’s also keeping them.
Lane has set up a new-to-campus group, with teacher ambassadors who help newcomers get acclimated. The group meets twice a week over the year to review everything from the school’s mission and vision and attendance issues to how to enter grades into the system. They also get together for coffee and lunch.
“They just really talk and support each other as new individuals on campus—again, to build those relationships, because when you have the relationships and support the odds of you staying are dramatically increased,” Lane said.
Another key prong is ensuring that there’s accountability and support for staffers, he said.
Each of the school’s assistant principals oversees about 40 staff members and is responsible for ensuring that those staff members have everything they need to do their jobs.
Having a designated go-to person for assistance can temper the frustration of staff members serving in a large school, where it’s easy to get lost, he said.
“You know one assistant principal is responsible and gets paid to take care of you, and you go to that person,” Lane said.
In turn, Lane does the same for the six assistant principals, so that they can help their staff with their needs.
‘Felt like coming home’
Jocelyn Disla, a substitute with a bachelor’s degree in psychology who teaches a drama class, began working as a substitute to get more hands-on teaching experience.
Leadership engagement with students is one of the things that stands out about Haines City Senior High School, said Jocelyn Disla, who graduated in 2018.
“Sometimes, the principals [in other schools] are not as engaging with their students,” she said. At Haines, by contrast, “you can really feel that—and you can notice the change in behavior in students. It’s really made me want to come back to my high school.”
Teachers have also jumped at the opportunity to help their former students learn the ropes.
“The teachers around us were our teachers,” Johnny Disla said. “The ones next to our doors would give us tips and advice on what materials to give the students and advice on classroom management.”
It “really just felt like coming home” said Rios, who was recently hired as a full-time front-office secretary.
Rios is majoring in finance at college and isn’t quite sure she’ll stay in education. But, she says, if she does choose an education career, Haines City Senior High School will be her choice.
“This is the only school that has [had] a great impact on my life,“ she said. “I have thought of eventually coming back as a teacher, but who knows.”
For Camil Fowler, a 2018 graduate who teaches intensive 9th grade reading, working at her alma mater made a lot of sense.
For one, the school is only about 10 minutes from her home. And when she worked as a substitute at other schools, she didn’t feel that her requests for assistance were supported by administrators.
“Just having the administration there every single day, supporting you, reminding you that if you need anything, we’re here, we’ve got you, that definitely helps out a bunch,” said Fowler, who recently started on staff full-time after subbing for more than a year during the pandemic.
“I think in other schools where it didn’t work out for me, where I only subbed there once, and I said, ‘You know what, never again,’ that was because the administration and the staff weren’t as welcoming or they weren’t as reminding of like ‘Hey, if you need anything we’ve got you.’”
Despite coming from a family of teachers—her mother and grandparents were teachers—Fowler only started seriously considering teaching while completing a degree in communications at the University of Central Florida.
She started subbing after she finished her first year, just before the pandemic hit.
“It was a good experience, and it was almost like an internship—kind of a window to see if I wanted to teach.”
Now, she says, she thinks she’s in the profession for the long haul.
“This place is a community in and of itself,” she said. “I don’t see myself going anywhere for a while.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as How One Principal Has Dodged the Staffing Shortage