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Tackling the Challenges of Central Office Hiring for Schools

By Kevin Bryant, Principal, Edgility Consulting

March 1, 2019

Not much is written about hiring practices for central office staff in schools, and understandably so. Teachers make up the large majority of hires made by individual schools, districts and charter networks. Also, the important work of educating students happens in classrooms and science labs, not in office cubicles, so this hiring is rarely a priority in our work until we have a “fire drill.” Still, central office hiring is an important function of many schools and networks, with serious implications for school organizations when poorly managed.

Central office teams oversee vital regulatory and business functions, and many of the most successful districts and CMOs rely heavily on support from these professionals for valuable expertise and added capacity. Therefore, these hires matter. For some organizations, these teams are made up of only a handful of employees, for others a few hundred. During my time at Uncommon Schools (a charter school network headquartered in the New York area), we were over 200. Regardless of size, the work of these teams can range from accreditation and curriculum design to HR and external relations. Ultimately, how well schools are able to serve students, depends on how well central office teams are able to support schools.

Challenges of Central Office Hiring

As one might expect, a limited budget often tops the list of constraints facing central office hiring managers. However, many other challenges exist as well. Here is a quick list of challenges central office recruiting teams and hiring managers often face.

External factors, such as:

  • Competition for talent from (big budget) private sector employers. (At Uncommon, we were at battle with giants like Goldman, Google, and JP Morgan.)
  • Fewer alumni on staff often leading to fewer referrals.
  • Less recognizable brands often leading to less overall interest from job seekers.

Internal factors, such as:

  • Outdated and slower to update systems and process improvements.
  • Long hours for less pay.
  • Less well-defined career paths.
  • And, many times, a culture that is slow to terminate for underperformance. (The education sector wants to have strong business functions, without the accountability of the business sector. Ultimately, it is schools and kids who suffer.)

Sadly, these conditions often create a “revolving door” of high-quality talent, as employees are drawn to greener pastures with better pay or greater appreciation. With their departures, go a wealth of institutional knowledge, and recruiting teams and hiring managers are again faced with an unwanted, often unanticipated central office hiring process. A vicious cycle with an unrelenting grip on our time, and attention.

Potential Solutions

That is, until we choose to fight back. See, despite the frustrations and challenges of central office hiring, there are certain advantages to our nimbleness and flexibility. Schools are finding innovative approaches to improve student performance. We, too, should be finding creative ways to overcome our hiring challenges. The traditional model of hiring is outdated and ineffective. Here is a quick list of recommendations for moving central office hiring in a more thoughtful and strategic direction:

  • Win over otherwise outpriced candidates by appealing to their desire to make a difference and leave a legacy. (Ex: Work as an IT specialist, and volunteer to teach an after-school coding class once a week)
  • Offer generous benefit plans to offset the pay gap (Ex: health and dental plans, PTO days, 403b matching, etc.)
  • Attract additional candidates by offering greater flexibility (Ex: flex-days, or other remote work options. At Uncommon, we had the freedom to work from our Home Office or at a school campus.)
  • Revisit hiring a back-office provider or outsource certain services to redirect funds and focus to classrooms and schools.
  • Offer leadership opportunities aligned with organizational priorities, or social movements. (Ex: At Uncommon, I was invited in my second year to join a diversity-recruitment focused steering committee.)

This list is not exhaustive, but directional. Begin by answering the question, “what can we as a school uniquely offer to top candidates?”

Organizational Design for Charter Schools: A Case Study

By Christina L Greenberg, Co-Founder & Partner, Edgility Consulting

May 16, 2018

“”Every company has two organizational structures: The formal one is written on the charts; the other is the everyday relationship of the men and women in the organization.”  – Harold Geneen

Among all the things I have learned working with schools over the past fifteen years, perhaps the most important lesson is that each school community is a distinct organism with a culture, traditions, and character all its own. This does not mean that best practices from a particular school cannot be leveraged or applied at another, but it does mean that we need to be sensitive to the site context and culture when making recommendations. This is especially true if the best practices we are considering require change on the part of current employees and/or the functional division of labor and organizational structures in which they sit.

One of the areas where I think schools have the most to learn from other organizations is in their talent management practices. And one of the core talent management practices that many growing school organizations ignore at their peril is the imperative to create a clear and appropriate organizational design, reporting structure, and job responsibilities along with a transparent salary schedule that is evidence-based and reflective of broader market trends.

Case Study 

About 18 months ago I was brought in by a small but growing charter school organization to help them evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of their non-teaching staff roles, responsibilities, and reporting structure. The principal and many of the staff had started there when it was a brand new, stand-alone school six years before. Based on parent demand and its academic success, the school decided to expand the grade levels they served, creating an elementary and middle school program.

In planning for this change, school leaders had spent time developing and implementing a model for the increased educator capacity they would need including demand for new classroom teachers, specialists, and other instructional staff. They had modeled the facilities needs that would result from an increase in enrollment and ensured that their student enrollment and thus budget revenues would cover these updates. Finally, they hired one new school leader and promoted others so they would have adequate instructional leadership for their expanded grade levels. In short, they did all the things that most schools in their situation would do in preparing for an expansion or replication of an existing academic program.

The one thing they didn’t plan for, though, was the need to update their projections and expectations for leaders and staff who did not sit squarely on the academic side of the house. They still had one single office where all non-teaching staff worked, with an open reception area and a few offices along the perimeter for more senior staff. The Director of HR, Data Analyst, and other admin team members would regularly get pulled into conversations with parents around school routines or student health and discipline matters even though there were dedicated receptionist/assistant staff that should have been managing those types of issues and inquiries.

In addition to the lack of physical separation between what we would typically consider “central office” staff and those dedicated to school site activities, there was a lack of clarity regarding who reported to whom and who was in charge of which functions. All of the clerical/admin staff felt overworked, in large part because they each felt they were supposed to be involved in everything but did not understand who had ultimate accountability for most core activities. Small matters like preparing flyers and ordering food for events took on outsized importance as the office lacked clear systems for ownership of even low level tasks. And finally, job descriptions were nonexistent or out of date while salaries were inconsistent – some employees seemed to be paid outside the market range (either too low or too high) without a clear rationale.

Areas of Concern

This school approached our firm to help them sort out these challenges and come to resolution on these key questions:

  • What is the difference between school site and central office staff and how do we delineate between these folks in their titles, duties, reporting structure, and where they physically work in the building?
  • How do we adjust our previous org chart, reporting structure and roles/responsibilities for staff as our school organization expands? Once we develop the ideal org chart for our team, how do we evaluate the skills and interests of our current team to discern which roles are appropriate for whom? And finally, what do we do if we don’t see a match between someone’s skills and interests with one of our new positions?
  • How do we start to identify inefficient practices and workflows on the non-instructional side of the house and how do we communicate these areas for growth to the rest of the team without people feeling personally challenged or that their work (and thus their job) is threatened long-term?

Project Outcomes

Before jumping to recommendations, we started by first examining what staff members were currently doing in their jobs in the hopes of then being able to pinpoint areas of inefficiency or where too few resources were being allocated to ensure staff success. We asked the school’s HR lead to require employees to track their time over a one month period, i.e. listing the tasks they worked on, category of work those tasks fell under (i.e. admin work, data analysis, parent communication, etc.) and duration of each activity. In addition, we scheduled one-on-one interviews with every admin team member, from receptionists to directors and senior school leaders. With each, we discussed what they saw as their core responsibilities, what challenges they faced in completing those tasks, and what they liked best and felt most confident in within their current duties.

Once we had a sense of the current state of the organization, we then turned our attention to best practices research to design the ideal for: how responsibilities should break down in terms of teams and individuals; how to ensure functional areas are covered in an efficient way; and a reporting structure that maximized current staff talents and future needs. We gathered sample org charts from a dozen similar sized charter school organizations as well as interviewed several talent leads and administrators at those schools to find out their answers to some of the questions above.

Both of these steps – diagnosing the current state and looking at how others have solved similar problems – led us and the school leadership team to realize they needed a much clearer line between staff who were primarily responsible to a specific school site and those whose purview was broader, requiring them to be more separate from the school both physically and in terms of job accountability. The leadership team decided to put up physical barriers between the school reception desk and the office space dedicated to admin who worked on HR, accounting, and data so they could have a quiet space and sustained, uninterrupted time to work.

We also realized that having a corps of admin generalists did not serve anyone’s interests well, and thus managers needed to be much more specific about what each person needed to manage and to whom they reported. This meant that some folks had to give up responsibility for things they were used to being a part of while others had to change who they reported to and thus adjust to a new manager. At the same time, it also meant each job was more specific and narrowly tailored to a common set of responsibilities, and targeted a similar range of competencies that better match skills and abilities that tend to go together (i.e. external facing interactions with community members vs. detail oriented, paper-based tasks).

With a new org chart, coherent job descriptions, and evidence-based salary schedules in hand, senior leaders decided to open up these positions to the public for the first time in years. Managers met individually with staff who could be affected to talk through the reorganization plans and share new job titles and responsibilities. Current staff were invited to apply for any of the roles and were given priority for interviewing. In the end, most people were able to stay, either in a very similar role or by shifting to a new, more defined job title and set of responsibilities. One person did end up leaving because there was not a role that fit her expectations. (In this case, the organization honored her service by giving her time to search for a new job and providing her with positive references.)

When we checked in one year later, school leaders were feeling much better about how the office runs. They appreciated the benefits of tightening up on accountability and reporting structures, and observed a large boost in employee morale as a result of improved role definition and focus.

What We Learned

In this project, we were reminded that although it can be tough to tackle reorganization head-on, not acting and just hoping things will work out can be a much worse outcome for everyone involved. By starting with gathering and analyzing data about the current state of affairs, collecting artifacts and examples around best practices, and then using both of those – as well as your own intuition and understanding of your organizational culture – to craft a new org design (including roles, responsibilities, and clarity around lines of accountability), you can dramatically improve office efficiency and morale, thus better serving your instructional team and – most importantly – your students, in the process.

About the Author

Christina L Greenberg is Co-Founder and Partner of Edgility Consulting, a leading executive search and talent management firm serving schools and nonprofits in the education space. Her practice has a particular focus on the talent needs of small- to mid-sized charter school organizations. Christina is originally from the Bay Area, lived in LA for almost a decade, and for the last 14 years has lived with her family in Oakland, CA. She is a long-time board member of Lighthouse Community Public Schools, a charter network with two schools serving grades K-12 in East Oakland.

Grow Your Enrollment Applications With School Tours 

Use tours as a marketing tool to reach prospective families and tell your school’s story.

by Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

July 10, 2017

You’ve gone through all the hard work of starting a charter school.  Your programs are successful and your students are doing well. But you’re still struggling to meet your target enrollment numbers each year.  Success on its own will not automatically generate a waiting list; you must arm prospective parents with information about why your school is a strong educational option for their children.  Because while school choice provides the opportunity for your school to exist in the first place, it also creates competition.

Tweet: Most charter schools don’t have a large marketing budget, but there’s a lot you can do that doesn’t cost much at all. Start by offering tours of your school. Advertise these tours on social media and at local community events. Get in touch with the local homeowners’ association or chamber of commerce, and ask if you can speak for a few minutes at the next meeting. Talk about your school’s mission and how you serve local families, highlight recent achievements, and invite community members to take a tour of the school and/or pass along the message to those with school-aged children.  Reach out to local churches, community centers, and businesses, and ask if you can post flyers on their bulletin boards.  Make sure to include the tour schedule along with your school’s website, phone number, and social media information so that those who wish to contact you about tours are able to do so.

It’s important to get the tour logistics right. Aim to schedule tours at times that are convenient for working parents, such as early in the morning or during lunch hours.  Make sure to keep the tours under an hour (you can always assign staff to stay later and talk to families who aren’t in a rush). If you’re not sure when to schedule the tours, ask a few parents of current students for their input. Maybe evenings and/or weekends work best for your community.  In that case, you might not be able to implement all of the suggestions below, but at least you’ll have a captive audience.

It’s helpful to capture visitors’ contact information so you can stay in touch and monitor interest in your school across time. Create a simple sign-in sheet – the data gathering is easier if this is done on a tablet or computer – that includes the  parent’s name and email address, and the prospective student’s current school (if applicable), and ask visitors to sign in when they arrive for the tour. Knowing where prospective students are coming from will help you to target future communications efforts, and having a database of email addresses of interested families makes it easier to keep telling your school’s story after the tour. If your school sends  newsletters to current parents, include your new contacts in future newsletters to keep them informed of all the great things happening at your school.

Start a cohort of student ambassadors who, along with school staff, will participate in the tours and talk about their experiences. This is especially valuable at the high school level, as parents tend to bring their children on the tours, and they often have questions that only current students can answer.  Inviting parent volunteers to participate in the tours is also beneficial, as they can speak to why your school is a good fit for their families.

It is helpful for the tours to be led by an administrator and a teacher, as both offer valuable perspectives and can answer different questions about the school, its programs, and policies and procedures.  If possible, divide the visit into a school overview (complete with a short question and answer session), and a walking tour. During the presentation, remember to highlight what makes your school unique, including interesting programs and classes, innovative learning methods, and awards and achievements. Invite the student ambassadors to give a quick presentation about something they’re involved in at the school, and invite parent volunteers to speak about parental involvement.

Parents like to know what their child’s day-to-day will look like. On the tour, make sure to visit at least one classroom in action; you can create a rotating sign-up schedule in advance so there isn’t any last minute planning on the day of the tour. Guests don’t need to sit down and observe the class, but they will appreciate being able to pop in and note the setup and size. If possible, visit both a core subject classroom (e.g. math or science) as well as a music or arts classroom. Also plan to stop by areas that are unique to your school, such as a school garden or robotics lab. For larger schools,  parents might be interested in seeing key facilities such as the gymnasium and theatre.

Make sure to provide visiting families with something they can take with them that will aide in their decision-making process. Create a simple one-pager that includes key statistics about the school, such as enrollment, average class size, special programs and classes available, graduation and college statistics (if applicable), contact information, and enrollment/lottery dates and details (there will likely be a lot of questions about this last one, and you want to make sure everyone has the information they need – after all, this is the point of the tour!).  You don’t need to be a graphic design expert to create an effective document, and free online tools like Canva and HubSpot can help with layout and design.

If anyone on the tour has a question you can’t answer, note their contact information so you can follow up with them when you find the answer. And make sure your main office staff is knowledgeable of the school and trained to answer questions, or direct inquires to the appropriate people, when they receive follow-up phone calls.

When guests leave the tour, they should have a clear understanding of what your school is all about. This is a valuable opportunity to connect with prospective families and brag about your school; make the most of it!