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Local Leadership: Women Leading Schools in Big Districts

We don’t promote the use of stereotypes here, but if there was a stereotype of a typical school district superintendent it would be a man who doesn’t stay in one district for long.

Despite continued efforts, school districts across the country have struggled to retain superintendents beyond the three- to four-year mark. Every district is different, but superintendents often leave due to local politics, strategic differences with school board members or other staff, as well as the lure of more lucrative or challenging opportunities.

Districts have also done a remarkably poor job of hiring women into the top spot. As reported late last year, an AASA study found that only one in four district superintendents are women, despite an equal amount of men and women in teaching roles.

Now a rash of high-profile hires suggests a new hiring trend, possibly intended to correct some of those persistent deficiencies: growing school leaders from within.

California hires local

In May, Oakland Unified School District in California appointed Kyla Johnson-Trammel as its next superintendent.

A native of Oakland, Johnson-Trammel attended elementary and middle school in the district. And, she has spent her entire adult career working there—as a teacher, as a principal, and as an associate superintendent.

Oakland USD is just the latest in a series of California districts to hire a superintendent from within the local school community, as Louis Freedberg and Theresa Harrington report in Ed Source. At least 12 California school districts have hired new superintendents in the previous two years. Nine of those either grew up in the district they were hired by or worked there previously. Michelle King’s appointment in Los Angeles marked yet another high-profile internal hire.

These districts hope that fresh candidates with local roots will come to the job with a clearer understanding of internal district functions, both politically and academically, and also display a greater sense of loyalty to the district, Freedberg and Harrington report.

Johnson-Trammel agreed with this thinking in an interview with EdSource:

“I believe part of the call from the community is that you have to understand Oakland, the ecosystem, some of the challenges, so you can know how to move the work forward.”

Big cities look to women for leadership

Around the same time Johnson-Trammell was being hired in Oakland, Cincinnati Public Schools announced the hiring of Laura Mitchell as superintendent.

Mitchell, Cincinnati’s current deputy superintendent and chief academic officer, also attended school in Cincinnati’s public school system, reports Corey Mitchell for Education Week.

Mitchell takes the wheel after the nine-year tenure of Superintendent Mary A. Ronan, another veteran of the Cincinnati schools system.

Some of the major roadblocks districts face when hiring women leaders include fewer early leadership opportunities and longer career paths for women compared with their male counterparts.

The jury’s still out on whether the hyper-local approach to hiring will improve superintendent tenures or shrink the female hiring gap. At the very least, this new strategy shows that some districts are willing to entertain creative ways to make their schools both more stable and more diverse.

Does your school board or district embrace a hyper-local approach to hiring? What, if anything, does your district do to encourage more women to seek leadership opportunities within the school system? Tell us in the comments.