When students at Santa Fe Public Schools find their seats on the first day of school in August, many will be greeted by new school leadership, including those who attend large campuses such as Milagro Middle School, El Dorado Community School and El Camino Real Academy.
The turnover, prompted in some cases by retirement or internal promotions, is a little lower than usual, said Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez. But as he looks to the future, he and other educators are wondering where the next generation of school leaders will come from.
School officials say the retention of quality principals, who are largely charged with guiding teachers, establishing a culture and carrying out student discipline, can be integral to the success of students and schools.
But keeping established principals is only half the story. As New Mexico continues to deal with high rates of teaching vacancies following the coronavirus pandemic, some worry schools won’t have enough talent to nurture and grow into leadership positions down the road.
“I think it’s a concern in general, just to make sure we have enough individuals in the pipeline to fill all positions,” Chavez said.
Though limited, the moves in Santa Fe Public Schools have created a cascade of change. An example: The retirement of Milagro Middle School Principal Brenda Korting prompted the transfer of E.J. Martinez Elementary School’s Georgia Baca into the spot. Filling Baca’s role at E.J. Martinez will be Angelique Armijo-Ortiz, who served as principal at El Dorado Community School last year.
The district has formed a hiring committee for the parents and staff at El Dorado to help select a new principal, the district confirmed earlier this month. The decision came after rumors arose that Aspen Community School Principal Tina Morris would be headed to El Dorado.
In late May, Aspen’s Parent Teacher Organization called on families to contact Chavez and ask that Morris remain at the K-8 school near downtown, according to a Facebook post.
“I think any time someone is rumored to be moved, you’re not going to please the entire community, department or organization,” Chavez said.
Chavez said Armijo-Ortiz and assistant principal Shantel Dixon were moved to other schools from El Dorado because it was a “better fit.”
Dixon now works as the assistant principal at Desert Sage Academy, the district’s online school.
Chavez said the assistant principal position was added at Desert Sage to accommodate the enrollment growth.
“It’s really looking at their tools, looking at their personality and their vision of a school and seeing if that’s a good fit,” Chavez said of deciding which principal goes where. “Or if it’s a better fit at a different school that has a vacancy.”
Along with the recent appointments, Chavez will be looking to fill assistant principalships at Ramirez Thomas Elementary School, Capital High School and El Camino Real Academy, where former assistant principal Evan Gourd will succeed outgoing principal Jack Lain.
There also is an opening at Salazar Elementary School. Its former principal, Jule’ Skoglund, is moving back into teaching, Chavez said.
The district doesn’t have a formal program to identify teachers who would make good administrators. Chavez said principals do try to mentor interested teachers, and the district helps them log internship hours to receive their administrative certificates
But the superintendent, who said he prefers to hire administrators from within the district first, said if New Mexico wants a ready supply of principals the state will first need to shore up its teaching pool.
“I think the pipeline in general in public education needs to be addressed,” he said. “You can be creative, you can create a robust pipeline into education. And you have to be able to take chances so you can ensure you have educators who can fill those positions.”
Sharon Olguin, who oversees a leadership program for new principals at Albuquerque Public Schools in partnership with the University of New Mexico, said she’s noticed a decline in the number of people applying for administrative licensure.
The drop, she added, falls in line with the staffing shortages schools are facing in the teaching ranks.
Olguin said part of that is because experienced, top-level teachers don’t always see a marked salary increases when they get into administration. As the state boosts pay for teachers and principals, Olguin said the differences aren’t always enough to justify the longer hours, extended contract and increased responsibility a principal has.
Statewide, minimum salaries are jumping to $84,000 for elementary school principals, $98,000 for middle school principals and $112,000 for high school principals. Top-earning teachers, often known as Level 3, at minimum make $70,000 annually — and sometimes more.
Olguin said new research shows principals are more important to the health of schools than ever before.
“The teacher is critical in the classroom; we all recognize that,” she said. “But we’re starting to have more and more data about the importance of the principal in leading change in the school.”
Olguin, whose program has an 83 percent retention rate for the roughly 126 principals and assistant principals who have completed it, believes more districts could benefit from having clearly defined pathways for teachers who want to leap into administration.
During the last legislative session, she helped craft a memorial in the House of Representatives that would have asked the Legislative Education Study Committee to collaborate with the state’s education agencies to create a comprehensive plan for amping up principal recruitment and retention with methods like paid internships.
The memorial noted principal preparation pathways haven’t been formally studied since 2008, and the state faces “significant challenges” in recruiting and retaining quality principals.
Scott Affentranger, the principal at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho who also leads the New Mexico Association of Secondary Principals, said part of the issue with finding qualified school administrators is that the job is almost entirely different than it was three years ago.
The reason? A rise in student behavioral issues, Affentranger said.
Affentranger said most of his days since students returned to in-person learning this year have been filled with cooperating with his school’s security team on investigations and monitoring behavioral issues.
He said applicants for open jobs at his district have dwindled. While turnover isn’t as bad for principals as it is for teachers, it remains a challenge.
“It’s almost like you’re a policeman instead of an educator,” he said. “People are hesitant for a lot of reasons to apply. And that’s a challenge. I think we’ve got to work on that.”