As part of our ongoing work with districts that are working to fix inequitable staffing patterns, we recently checked in with a human capital officer in a large, urban district. Referring to a handful of predominantly black and Latino schools, he said: “These schools have a lot of trouble attracting talent, which has nothing to do with the kids, but a lot to do with the reputation of the schools.”

According to a new report, his district’s challenge is not unique: High schools serving large percentages of students of color are almost twice as likely to have at least one hard-to-staff position compared with high schools serving smaller percentages.

Hard-to-staff vacancies create considerable tumult in schools — tumult that is ultimately felt by students. These vacancies sometimes go unfilled, creating strain on the entire school community. But more often, they’re filled after the start of the school year, meaning new hires miss out on important opportunities to plan with their teams, build rapport with families, and assess their students’ incoming strengths and weaknesses. And even when principals are able to fill these vacancies during the summer, they may be choosing from a small pool of not-yet-hired candidates and unable to find a good match for their students.

District leaders are well aware of these consequences, which is why this large, urban district is working to address it. First, the district focused on ensuring schools had strong leadership. Last year, veteran principals were offered a $130,000 salary and $20,000 sign-on bonus to move to a hard-to-staff school. Some of the district’s best school leaders took the district up on this offer and brought a handful of teachers with them.

District officials were fully aware that financial incentives alone wouldn’t solve the problem. They knew they needed to address the underlying culprit: the schools’ reputations. “These are not disrespectful places,” the human capital officer told me. “They have good kids and just need good teachers.” Convincing others that this was the case was what they had to do.

So this year, district leaders have a series of ideas they believe will help showcase the positive aspects of these schools to prospective teachers:

  1. Share what you saw. District leaders are encouraging teachers from other schools to visit hard-to-staff schools and, even if they don’t apply for positions there, to share what they saw with other teachers and their communities.
  2. Collaboration with demonstration schools. The district has already identified a set of schools that serve large populations of low-income students and students of color and are getting excellent results. By providing venues for collaboration between demonstration and hard-to-staff schools, district leaders hope a subset of teachers at demonstration schools will apply for open positions at hard-to-staff schools.
  3. Lab schools. The district hopes to partner with a college of education to “adopt” a hard-to-staff school and develop a cadre of top-notch prospective teachers there.

This work isn’t easy. There are many speed bumps along the way to getting the talent these schools deserve. For example, though the human capital team tracks the number of candidates applying to hard-to-staff schools, they do not have access to good data about the quality of applicants — making it difficult to monitor whether these efforts are bringing the right people in the door.

But they are not dissuaded; they know that changing inequitable staffing patterns is something they can do.

Photo credit: Bill Grove

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