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Shelby County Public Schools is facing a rather rare opportunity that has emerged at even a rarer time – a situation so unique that school officials should find it compulsory to use the situation to its best advantage.
We speak of the five openings for principals – at Collins High School, East Middle and three elementary schools – that must be filled before the next school year, nearly half the principals employed by the district.
The opportunity here is for the school system to make adequate progress toward an objective it has sorely failed to meet: diversifying the color of its leadership.
The rarer part of this is that there are five openings for principals without the opening of any new school to create a whirlwind shuffling of experienced leaders out one set of doors through another.
That is what happened when Collins opened in 2010-11, and when the merry-go-round stopped, the school system had a near zero batting average for finding leaders who were non-Caucasian.
Now, much sooner than may have been anticipated, there’s a new chance to remedy that, and although we would not be surprised to see that carousel continue to move, we can’t abide it stopping only at doors that would be opened to faces of all the same color.
The pool of applicants must be large enough to give us an opportunity to hire talented new leaders of every color.
We realize that historically this was not a simple problem to solve, because there was no one administrator – or team of administrators – charged with making those decisions about hiring.
That process is handled at each school by a Site-Based Decision-Making Council, which consists of parents, the existing principal and teachers.
But since that siege of hires in 2010, there is one new variable in this calculation:
Superintendent James Neihof has been added to each SBDM to serve as its “president” for the hiring of a new principal.
And in his presence we have the true opportunity for change.
Mr. Neihof is the CEO of the school system, and the people who are hired at all levels ultimately report to him. Having him in a hands-on role in the process of hiring a principal means that we can’t have the same response for previous failings: That those were the SBDMs’ decisions.
To be sure, the Shelby County School Board has no role in this but to approve or question the ultimate contract for a new employee when it is presented. Board members don’t screen candidates or even know much about their qualifications.
But those board members can insist that their employee – Mr. Neihof – has goals for improving the diversity of the school system’s leadership, a goal to which he can be held when evaluating his performance and renewing his contract, as the board voted recently to do.
As we have said, we believe our students deserve a more egalitarian approach to this effort. Our classrooms aren’t filled with students who are all one color, and we don’t think the principals’ offices should be, either.
We need leaders – and not just principals, but also their associates/assistants, head coaches, counselors – with whom the students can identify and who also mirror more consistently the makeup of our community.
We understand that this is not simple, that there is a national gap in educators of color – particularly male and particularly at elementary levels – but that does not mean we shouldn’t have high standards.
Diversity goals at the highest level of any corporation are common, and Shelby County Public Schools, as the biggest industry in our county, should in this case adhere to those standards of corporate excellence.
If in two or three months from now we see the new roster of principals at our 11 schools and there continue to be only white faces beaming back at us, we won’t question the qualifications of those leaders who were chosen, but we will question the decision-making prowess of our SBDMs, our superintendent and the members of the school board who ultimately are in charge.