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Driving Achievement Through Campus Operations, Part II

June 15, 2017

A Needle In a Haystack?

Hiring people to work at charter schools can be challenging. Our teams work longer hours, go above and beyond the job description, and are frequently paid less than their traditional school counterparts. Directors of School Operations often face intense durations of stress, are required to manage multiple streams of work, and perform at very high levels. As such, the process of hiring, training, and retaining these individuals can feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The skill set required for a Director of School Operations, particularly at large campuses with many competing priorities, may be available with an internal candidate. More likely, however, organizational leaders will be required to look beyond their four walls and outside the norms of their typical talent pool. This translates to reallocating precious resources to hire a high-capacity individual. Candidates may be sourced from the private sector, local government, veterans of military or civil service, or small business owners. Applicants with backgrounds in education, business, finance, supply chain management, and management will bring value to the school. More important than skill sets, however, is the will set: the drive to action, to get in and get dirty, focus on constant improvement, a temporary acceptance of the good while seeking the excellent, an ability to adapt and overcome, and a mindset of solutions, rather than simply problems.

As schools consider the position, equally important is the internal capacity to train and support. Does the central office have a structure that reflects the divide between academics and operations? Does the Chief Operating Officer have the skills and capacity to train and coach the Director of School Operations? Are central office employees primarily from an education background or from other sectors? How can the governing board’s skills and networks be leveraged to support in this new role? These questions are important because while Directors of School Operations will ultimately report to principals, principals will not have the skills or time to provide hands-on training.

While some charter management organizations (CMOs) implemented the Director of School Operations early on, this role is relatively nascent. While educational service centers provide some general training, the sector lacks a one stop shop for the specific competencies required for this position. Educational consultants and other associations tend to focus on specific areas such as special education or business operations. Current best practices have materialized through extensive trial and error and constant process improvement. In some areas, the Charter School Growth Fund has convened top organizations to document and develop sharable materials. These materials are becoming more been widely available, but only scratch the surface.

Perhaps the hardest part is retaining these high-performing individuals. When a school leader transitions out, things are rarely seamless and the impact is felt schoolwide. The same is true for the Director of School Operations. Given that the role oversees many disparate functions, it is challenging to hire a new candidate with the skills and abilities as the outgoing one. Therefore, retaining these individuals is critical to the school’s overall success. Aside from a competitive salary, several key factors impact retention:

1. Empowerment – Provide Directors of School Operations significant decision-making authority and communicate that authority to teachers, parents, and community members. Principals should only involve themselves when absolutely necessary.

2. Clarity – Clear roles, goals, and expectations are essential given the tensions that may arise from all different aspects of school. From the top to the bottom, everyone should know who owns which outcomes.

3. Support and Coaching – Provide consistent feedback both on-the-spot and during check-ins. Outward support of the Director of School Operation in the moment will demonstrate confidence, even if that decision is not the “right” one. Manage repercussions together, while coaching privately on the back end, will exemplify the team approach to school leadership.

4. Praise – Principals earn praise when the school performs well. However, recognize the effort that the Director of School Operations AND his/her team undertake to help drive outcomes. Public applause encourages teachers to recognize the work and highlights everyone’s contribution.

You may be thinking to yourself “Is this really that hard to hire/retain a Director of School Operations, and if so, is it really worth it?"

Yes. It is pretty challenging to hire and retain Directors of School Operations. And yes, it is a worthwhile investment in time and resources. Hiring and retaining a Director of School Operations yields dividends; the school gains an additional administrator; principals are freed-up from non-essential functions; organizations build leadership capacity; and teachers who wish to step out of the classroom have an additional career pathway. Having found the needle, schools must do everything in their power to hang onto them.

Hopefully you are convinced that these Directors of School Operations are a) essential to campuses, AND b) that while difficult, these candidates can be identified, hired, trained, and retained. Next week, I will delve into some of the goals, metrics, tactics, and practices to ensure a high-performing Director of School Operations and campus operations team.

Just as there is no silver bullet in education, hiring a Director of School Operations will not solve all of your challenges. What hiring a Director of School Operations will do is to clarify roles and responsibilities for students, staff, and parents; increase opportunities for direct coaching and management to support staff; allow Principals and Assistant Principals to focus on teaching and learning, all of which create a healthy school culture, and ultimately drive student achievement.

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If you are interested in learning more about the Director of School Operations role, tune in to this podcast, recently published by the Charter School Growth Fund. Similarly, D.C. Public Schools was recently featured on NPR regarding their pilot program to implement Directors of School Operations through DCPS.

Finally, at a recent conference held in the Rio Grande Valley, panelists from four different KIPP regions participated in discussion focusing on KIPP’s journey to implement, hire, and train Directors of Campus Operations. I strongly encourage you to check out those resources, reach out to schools already doing this work, and of course, contact TCSA.   

Prior to coming to TCSA, I served as an Assistant Principal of Operations at a K-10 campus with IDEA Public Schools. I am more than happy to share more of my personal experience and discuss how Directors of School Operations are a critical asset to your school’s success. I can be reached at ENguyen@txcharterschools.org.

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