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Devoting Time to Activity Programs Challenge for School Administrators

By Cody Porter on March 10, 2016 hst Print

The career paths of school administrators through coaching and athletic administration are changing in various part of the country. In some cases today, the résumé of a school’s principal or a school district’s superintendent includes no experience as a coach or athletic director.

While the qualifications for serving as a high school principal or superintendent would not necessarily include coaching and athletic administration, the changing backgrounds of school administrators may impact the amount of time devoted to education-based athletic and activity programs.

Whether an administrator boasts a long-time coaching tenure or strong business acumen, Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), believes the value of school programs is present throughout his state. The challenge, however, is the amount of time that can be devoted to these programs.

“I know a number of administrators who are band directors, are in orchestra or music, and are very strong administrators,” Colbrese said. “I haven’t come across anyone in administration – superintendents or principals – who doesn’t understand the value of school programs; but having the time to get out and be actively engaged is what has changed I think.”

Unless you count his stint as a Babe Ruth League baseball coach while in college, coaching experience is not a characteristic that Colbrese can attribute to aiding his rise through the ranks. A former English teacher, Colbrese’s closest sideline stroll involved a whistle as a high school and college referee for basketball and football. For him, communication is what has been instrumental since 1982, when he began work as a state association leader.

No matter the background, Colbrese said the importance of focusing on students is understood by all, and school administrators should be striving to emphasize the value of education-based programs to their youth.

“What we’re trying to do is to train that next generation so that they’re someone that you would want to hire and make your business stronger, and that’s the value of school programs,” Colbrese said. “We get that experience in school activity programs more than anywhere else.”

In the February 2015 issue of High School Today, Matt Troha discussed the role of superintendents in maintaining athletic programs with Dr. Bruce Law, superintendent of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Illinois.

Despite a high school career featuring basketball, cross country and tennis participation, Law never served as a coach or athletic director prior to taking his position.

“One thing I would say to any new high school superintendent is never underestimate the importance of athletics in the educational setting,” Law said. “It is easy to become focused on other things and not remember that for a lot of the communities, athletics are very important.”

Throughout her state, Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Executive Director Dr. Karissa Niehoff is seeing a “perfect storm of changes” brewing.

“We’ve been challenged by AAU programs and club programs. Kids and families are now being lured away from the public school program even prior to high school. Maybe the school-education based way to go isn’t the only one there for people who are coming into the coaching and school-administration ranks,” said Niehoff, who was once a high school and college field hockey coach and student-athlete. “We have a lot of coaches coming in who weren’t teachers and weren’t education-based coaches. When you look at the school-administrative level, it used to be that a lot of our administrators were teachers and coaches; they had that management strength and they kind of went into administration because that was the education they had received.”

According to Niehoff, an estimated 70 percent of Connecticut’s athletic directors have no more than five years of experience. As a result, the traditional path of athletic directors into principal and superintendent positions is being rerouted, allowing those from other backgrounds to pursue those administrative positions.

“You’re losing that institutional memory, so there’s sort of a societal shift around the importance of education-based athletics. I think a lot of the stress for administrators has to do with accountability on the academic side, which takes a lot of their time,” Niehoff said. “They really don’t have the time to spend appreciating and learning about their athletic and activity programs. They trust that the leaders of those programs are going to do a good job and let them know what they need to know.”

The Pennsylvania law known as House Bill 1307 was signed in 2012, dismissing the requirement that a school superintendent have “any experience in a classroom” or “education-related degree” in order to be considered for a school administration position, according to Troha. Also revealed in his article were the new requirements to become a superintendent, which were cited by The Scranton Times-Tribune in regard to House Bill 1307. The bill states the requirements for the position include “a degree in business, finance, management or law, along with four years of related experience. Upon appointment, the person would need to complete a leadership development program.”

Enid (Oklahoma) Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Darrell G. Floyd has noticed an increasing trend in positions such as his own being filled by individuals with varying non-educational based backgrounds.

“I believe that pathway has changed partly due to the state and federal academic pressures placed on school districts. Some of that pressure is good, but much of it is not,” Floyd said. “Many of them are coming from a strictly academic background. Sometimes that is good; other times it doesn’t work out well.”

Educational reform at the secondary level was a tall task for school administrators to tackle between 2010 and 2012. Schools had to prove 100-percent proficiency, while states applied for waivers and sought to raise money to overcome what Niehoff called a “massive elevation in accountability” geared toward student performance. What followed was a “significant turnover rate,” according to Niehoff, who added assessment became the wrong driver as school administrators were pushed into increasing pressure for improved academics.

“The general issue is that accountability and pressures on the place of administrators and teachers have intensified so much that people aren’t staying in the profession for as long as they used to,” Niehoff said. “We’re just trying to navigate what accountability means now having pinned the needle in one direction and now relaxing it back.”

Such “extraordinary pressure” on these leadership positions is why Newton (Connecticut) Superintendent Dr. Joe Erardi agrees with Niehoff.

“Folks look for greener pastures and they’re usually not greener … I think sometimes youth is blind,” Erardi said. “My concern with young athletic directors and young superintendents is it’s a very, very difficult job for the next 30 years of your career to be a superintendent or an athletic director. There’s a piece in it where you just don’t know.”

Down south, the pressure is just as powerful. Don Hulin knows all too well the importance of academics and athletics as principal of Hoover (Alabama) High School.

“I believe we need to be equally as great at our school in academics and athletics,” said Hulin, who has 15 years of coaching to his credit. “To do this, I have to have the ability to hire great teachers who are also great coaches. I have to be able to offer a great work environment, competitive pay, and the resources to make winning in both the classroom and athletic fields possible.”

Hulin’s in-state colleague, Daphne (Alabama) High School Principal Dr. Meredith Foster, sees opportunity for academics to excel in her school system with help from the school’s own interscholastic stars.

“We have to prioritize academics as a standard among all. Athletes can be the brains of the school also, and when those standards are high, our athletes will rise to the occasion,” Foster said. “They are role models in every capacity. When the star running back participates in class and makes the honor roll, everyone thinks learning is cool.”

As Foster noted, role models and football in her state are two topics that are often mentioned in the same sentence. Although she doesn’t share the coaching background that many of her colleagues offer, Foster has found that her on-field experiences have helped shape the professional she is.

“Athletics taught me discipline, teamwork, time management, confidence, how to have a winning spirit, how to handle life’s challenges, and contributed to who I am as a person,” Foster said. “I only coached as a beginning teacher (soccer and tennis), but I think understanding the role coaches play is important. They give so much time to working with students on a more familiar level, and form relationships with young people that create lasting impressions on them.”

The characteristics acquired from education-based programs by Foster are part of that continued effort by states in hiring school administrators from diverse backgrounds to push students to their upmost potential. Even without a coaching background, Foster has developed leadership traits that have combined to promote high academic standards for all students.
In an effort to promote this idea, Foster said her school has a program in place that stresses the importance of behavior and good academics.

“We have a program that places athletes on intrasport teams that compete among one another for points based on their behavior in school and academic performance,” Foster said. “Teachers have to sign off on daily forms for coaches to ensure accountability as well as good communication and teamwork as a school community. The teachers then want to come watch their games.”

This example of communication is what Niehoff and Erardi are finding vital in Connecticut. Erardi said from an academic perspective he has high expectations for what it means to be a student-athlete. In addition to academics, he said there’s a need for demonstrating citizenship and community service so that person exemplifies how to be a leader.

“I want that person to be the leader in the school and the leader in the community. That’s the reason why I pitch so hard for athletics,” Erardi said.

Moving forward, Niehoff believes regardless of background, school administrators need to talk and work toward cohesion between academics and education-based athletic programs that accommodate the “niche” of students.

“I think now more than ever we’ve got to be communicating, we’ve got to be aligning what we’re doing because of the kids. Not that there’s anything negative, it’s just that we need to shift so that there’s more of a connection between the school day and the after-school day,” Niehoff said. “We’re seeing that there’s an absolute need for there to be a crossover because we know that so many kids engage in school because of their involvement in activities – be they sports, clubs or whatever. That’s their niche, they find their identity there, and we need to hang on to this concept of engaging our kids.”