Women make some inroads at elementary school level around state
For the first time in 15 years, when two new principals start this summer all three of the school district’s major administrative positions will be held by men.
The Methow Valley School District recently hired Crosby Carpenter to head up Liberty Bell High School, and Paul Gutzler to lead Methow Valley Elementary. Both men have hands-on experience in educational approaches already in use in the district and earned enthusiastic support from district staff and community members. They replace Liberty Bell principal Deborah DeKalb and Methow Elementary principal Bob Winters, who are both retiring in June.
Although the field of education is overwhelmingly female, having mostly men in leadership roles is the norm. Most school administrators are male, in Washington and across the country. In Washington, 60 percent of current high school principals are men, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
Superintendents in the state are predominantly male (74 percent). At the elementary level, the ratio flipped about 20 years ago, so that today 61 percent of Washington’s elementary principals are women.
The Methow Valley attracted a talented group of applicants for both principal jobs, but not a wide choice of female candidates. Eighty-two percent of those seeking the high school job were men, and 67 percent of applicants for the elementary-school post were men, according to Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable. Only one of the eight finalists was a woman.
“It’s a challenge to recruit people into those positions. We had a strong pool of candidates but, unfortunately, not many educators choose to pursue leadership positions,” said Venable.
At the elementary level, 86.5 percent of teachers are women, and 55 percent of secondary teachers are women, according to OSPI. While women make up more than 70 percent of the education work force in the United States, few hold top leadership positions, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA).
DeKalb has some theories about this lopsided representation. “My first thought — for superintendents — is that maybe women still want to be more involved with kids. Superintendents are one step removed,” she said.
When DeKalb was hired for the principal job in 2005 (after nine years as Liberty Bell’s counselor), people remarked that high school principals in the Methow had always been men. “That didn’t scare me,” she said. “It was just an observation.”
Because it’s such a high-profile role, anyone in a leadership position will be second-guessed, said DeKalb. But she doesn’t associate that feedback with her gender. The staff and superintendent are very supportive and everyone is “super-respectful,” she said.
In the minority
Suellen White, who was superintendent in the Methow from 1991 to 2000, was a trailblazer. She was one of just nine female superintendents — out of 296 in the state — when she got her first superintendent job in the 1970s.
When White and her family moved to the isolated mountain community of Onion Creek in 1973, classes were still held in the 1907 one-room schoolhouse. Concerned about the quality of instruction, White ran for the school board and won.
Onion Creek also had to comply with a state law that required every district to have a superintendent. As White put it, “Since I had a degree in education — and I was kind of bossy and not willing to settle, believing we could do better,” she got the assignment.
For her first two years as Onion Creek superintendent, White wasn’t even paid. “I was just trying for a good education for my kids,” she said. They replaced the ineffective teacher and voters ultimately backed a larger school as the population grew. White started receiving a salary once she was overseeing school construction and related financing.
White also lobbied state lawmakers for better teacher pay. When the Legislature adopted statewide salary guidelines, it meant a $10,000 raise for teachers in small, poor districts like Onion Creek, she said.
While in the Methow, White made many changes. She oversaw the launch of the alternative school, a local Head Start program for preschoolers, and a technology grant.
She also supervised construction of a new high school and remodel of the elementary school. Almost immediately, the new high school was plagued by leaks, prompting questions about the design and poor construction. “There was lots of controversy,” said White.
“Nothing in my experience suggested I was being treated differently because I was a woman,” said White. She conceded that her leadership style — figuring out what needed to be done and just doing it, rather than delegating tasks — might have ruffled some feathers.
After leaving the Methow district position, White served as superintendent in two other small, rural districts. She retired four years ago after a 36-year career.
White speculated that the Methow poses unique hurdles to attracting women to administrative jobs — and even teaching jobs — because there are so few jobs for a spouse. “If you have two professionals and both are working, what will the other one do?” she said.
The problem is magnified because men typically earn more than women, making it less likely that they’ll leave a high-paying job somewhere else, said White.
Another factor that contributes to the low number of women superintendents is that superintendents tend to come from the ranks of secondary-school principals, most of whom are men, according to Education Week.
Although teaching is overwhelmingly female today, it was a male occupation from the colonial period until the 20th century, according to research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
But with industrialization, men began leaving the profession for other jobs. Moreover, as a drive for universal education increased the demand for teachers, many schools economized by hiring women, who were paid half as much as their male counterparts. The wage gap was smaller in rural schools, because people had fewer job options overall, and many used income from teaching to supplement other work like farming.
More men again began working as educators after 1950, as the need for teachers grew and salaries increased, according to the MIT research.
Mentoring from within
Diversity has become a goal both locally and nationally. “We were hoping for racial and gender diversity, but unfortunately we don’t see that in many positions we post,” said Venable.
“Most associations have increased diversity of the educational workforce on their radar,” said Helene Paroff, WASA’s assistant executive director. WASA is working to attract leaders who reflect the demographics of the state’s students — in overall diversity, not just gender, said Paroff. WASA is hosting its fourth-annual Women in Leadership conference this year.
The Methow school district is also promoting leadership opportunities among current staff. In fact, three women are obtaining their credentials — Independent Learning Center (ILC) teachers Sara Mounsey and Kim Odell, and Liberty Bell special-education teacher Laura Schrager.
Mounsey completed her administrator certification last year at Gonzaga University. “Gender did not consciously play a role in my decision to pursue my leadership training,” she said by email.
Mounsey was drawn to leadership so that she could help create innovative educational programs that provide a variety of pathways for all students. “School should be relevant, challenging and transformational for all students,” she said.
Developing leadership skills among current staff is part of the school district’s “grow-your-own” approach to nurturing school leaders, said Venable. Research indicates that successful leadership comes “from the middle,” he said. Top-down leadership can feel oppressive and can end abruptly if the leader changes jobs. Bottom-up leadership can be “too loosey-goosey,” he said.
The Methow has a rotating team of teacher-leaders — three from the elementary school, three from the high school, and one from the ILC. These instructors receive a stipend to work with other teachers and staff on curriculum development across grade levels and subject areas, said Venable.
In her time at the ILC, Mounsey has already helped lead the ILC in new directions, including implementing a competency-based approach. Last year, she helped develop and design alternative-school programs through a fellowship.
Odell, who will receive her master’s in educational leadership from Western Governors University in June, sees school leadership evolving. “I see more and more women rising up into positions of leadership. In my opinion, the future is female!” she said by email.
“Diversity is vital — really important,” said White. But she noted that kids also see great examples of leadership in their teachers.
“Certainly, we want to develop the capacity to lead within our organization, and the teacher-leader team is a great place for that to grow,” said Venable.