Building the next generation of school leaders in Dracut

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Stacy Scott, superintendent of schools in Dracut, will be writing columns twice a month for The Valley Dispatch.

I sometimes hear public concern that maybe I have a preference for hiring external over internal candidates.

I would like to debunk that myth and offer some explanations as to how hiring is managed and how I think it lays the groundwork for future hiring.

I prefer to promote and hire from within, but I never want to sacrifice quality just to favor internal candidates. Dracut is a tight-knit community. I am impressed at the numerous talented teachers growing and developing their skills here who are Dracut graduates.

The Dracut tradition is to promote from within. This is a tradition I support. Hiring from within Dracut is a priority for me for the sake of Dracut’s economic viability and the value of the commitment that resident employees bring to the system. Most important, I always want the best, most-talented candidate to get the job. Our students deserve this more than anything else.

My goal — to hire the most qualified person available whenever a vacancy comes open — creates a small conflict because in Dracut there is a feeling of being overlooked when positions go to non-Dracut residents or when longstanding employees don’t get the opportunity as promotions occur.

Let me make this totally clear: I like nothing better than to promote from within. Of the 22 key hires and promotions since my arrival, eight have come from the outside. I hope that more of our senior hiring in the future will come from within. I’ve created an aspiring-leaders program for the sole purpose of identifying, training and supporting new leaders who I can promote to leadership positions.

Thus far, I have moved up two teachers to the vice principal or principal rank, one of them through the creation of a teaching/principal position that will foster the development of leaders in their first building-level role.

This ensures that upcoming leadership positions will include local appointments. But just like the TV commercial — no wine before its time — I believe in waiting for leaders to be ready for new positions rather than placing them ahead of their time for personal or political reasons. I use hiring committees to even ensure that my own personal preferences do not get in the way of sound hiring decisions. And then I use my intuition to nudge the process along. I have yet to override a hiring committee’s unanimous decision — and they are usually unanimous.

In support of the development of our own, I have created a pilot program whereby paraprofessionals can become teachers through an internship program. We also have an internship program for psychologists in training that started this fall. We are working to strengthen and expand our mentoring program so we can retain developing leaders and teachers. We have strengthened the leadership in the nursing, guidance, special-education and curriculum- management teams, the Choices program and other areas and programs, appointing from within where possible.

In many cases, I have appointed external candidates because the need of the system is for skills that currently do not exist. Often, you need to see how different departments are managed in various school systems to have perspective about how to create improvement. At other times, one needs explicit training and experience to manage changes, such as creating a new curriculum, leading culture change or guiding staff in the development of new skills, such as pedagogy.

One of my first acts upon my arrival was to promote each of the curriculum coordinators. I immediately saw their strength and enthusiasm and expanded their purview. Even the skill needed to coordinate all the talented curriculum coordinators did not exist in the district. No one in Dracut had managed systemwide curriculum reform or could design new systems for student services, including new protocols and guidelines.

Given the 14 candidates promoted or hired from within — including hiring one Dracut resident working in another district — I have clearly favored internal promotions and hiring to external hires. I have favored external hires where the skill set needed is so vital for delivering experienced leadership for Dracut students that I have not been willing to compromise getting the best candidate that our short money can buy. These positions have one thing in common: They have all been positions where executive planning and quality professional practice are critical to driving reform and change in the district.

On this issue, I have not wavered. My highest-ranking hires have been external in year one. As I put in place a vision for where we need to go in the future, I have begun to hire for leadership from within in year two. This is a trend I hope will continue.

Bottom line: We will do whatever it takes to help students have a safe and effective educational experience.