By the end of the next school year, nearly a third of school leaders in Hamilton County will have reached a milestone decision: Sail into retirement or keep plugging away in county schools.
And their decisions will have a major impact on the school system as a whole. If the 43 eligible administrators choose to retire, they could leave behind a leadership vacuum that would be difficult to fill.
To begin to address the problem, officials are creating a program aimed at identifying more people to fill principal, assistant principal and other leadership positions long before they become vacant.
Superintendent Rick Smith said he wants to avoid a situation like last spring, when a host of principal retirements sparked a systemwide shuffle ending with new leadership in more than a dozen schools. If that happens again, this new program will give officials a ready pool of candidates.
"You want to have a group of people who you can identify that are ready for those jobs," Smith said in an interview.
By the 2013-14 school year, 24 principals and 19 assistant principals will have completed 30 years of school service, the minimum time required to qualify for full retirement.
District leaders don't expect that many to retire, though the numbers show the need for more school administrators in the near future.
Many of those holding key central office positions also are at or approaching retirement age.
But this year's group of principals also presents another demographic challenge. With 16 first-year principals -- nearly a quarter of the county's principals -- administrators are working on amping up mentoring and training programs for novice school leaders.
"You're looking at a system with a number of people who are new to the job or who could retire at any time," Smith said.
Himself a former principal, Smith is adamant that the principal plays the most important role in the school system. And with a new teacher evaluation system, high-stakes testing and increased pressure to close student achievement gaps, Smith said the job now requires a special individual.
"It's no longer a wise situation to take people out of the classroom and assume they're ready to be a school leader," he said.
National research shows that principals are serving shorter tenures than in years past. And the job is growing increasingly complex as poverty, disabilities and other sociological problems continue to seep into schools.
In a study released this month by MetLife, three-quarters of surveyed principals said their jobs had become too complex, and nearly half reported feeling under great stress several days a week or more.
"The responsibilities of school leadership have changed significantly in recent years, leading to a job that principals say has become too complex and highly stressful," the report states.
Creating the pipeline
Hamilton County plans to continue its existing programs, Leadership Fellows and the Principal Leadership Academy. Those yearlong programs are conducted in partnership with community organizations. Graduates often go on to jobs as principals or assistant principals, though there is no guarantee of promotion.
But now, administrators want to do more. Instead of preparing only a small group of people to be principals, leaders want to extend opportunities for teachers and employees at all levels of employment.
"Essentially we're looking at the whole career pathway of educators in our district," said Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent for education and leadership.
Once built, the pipeline will work with aspiring principals and central office leaders. But it also will work with teachers who may want to stay in the classroom but take on more responsibility by becoming department heads or lead teachers, Sharpe said.
The idea is to provide support for aspiring, novice and veteran leaders throughout their careers. The system also will allow the superintendent to be more active in making principal appointments.
He won't have to recruit people once principals are transferred or announce their retirements; a pool of candidates will be at the ready.
The leadership pipeline, set to be switched on in the fall, drew questions at last week's meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education. Board member Rhonda Thurman, a regular critic of the Public Education Foundation, questioned that group's involvement in the program.
The current Principal Leadership Academy is a district partnership with PEF, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Thurman is suspicious about who selects people for the program and is wary of too much involvement by the nonprofit.
PEF officials said the program is a true partnership, and the selection committee includes community members, school employees and PEF employees.
Thurman also said she takes issue with leadership programs such as the Principal Leadership Academy that take teachers or assistant principals out of their buildings for professional development and mentoring. While district leaders laud the support that participants get from the training program, Thurman said principal training should occur in-house.
"The best lessons they can learn are in the schoolhouse," Thurman said. "There's always been principals retiring. If we had been training principals all along and assistant principals were being trained by good principals, we wouldn't have this problem."