A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Improving our ability to hire, and retain, the hardest-to-fill positions
Leaders from El Dorado and Hemet share strategies
By Patricia Greco | May | June 2024
Every member of a school team is important to a child’s success. Hiring and retaining quality staff members is foundational to building a positive school culture and improving the conditions for learning. The hiring process has become more difficult. Enrollments in schools of education are down by up to 60 percent from 10 years ago. The overall unemployment rate is sitting at a 50-year low, making it even harder to fill key support staff positions. This article shares insights from leaders working hard to improve their organizations. Each team will share specific strategies they are learning positively impact their retention and hiring processes. Their insights may be helpful to your team.
Leaders are finding it particularly hard to hire and retain school bus drivers and special education aides. School leaders know these roles are important. Bus drivers set the tone for the day and are charged with getting each child to school safely. Special education aides provide direct academic and emotional support for our most vulnerable children. Schools compete with every other employer to attract quality support staff. The hiring challenge is prompting leaders to shift their core strategies for recruitment and retention.
El Dorado County Office of Education In Northern California, Ed Manansala serves as the El Dorado County superintendent of schools. The El Dorado County Office of Education (EDCOE) supports 15 school districts northeast of Sacramento over the mountain range to South Lake Tahoe. The cost of living in this area of the state is high and the travel needed to reach their schools adds to the complexity of staffing their support positions. This team has worked hard to fill positions for bus drivers, special education aides and staffing their county-wide extended learning time, and before and afterschool childcare positions. Wendy Frederickson is the deputy superintendent of Administrative Services. Amy Andersen is the executive director of Human Resources.
“Staffing challenges impact our ability to deliver on our promise to our families,” Manansala said. He and the EDCOE executive team placed staffing updates on their weekly cabinet meeting agendas. The staffing challenge is owned by the full leadership team, not left for HR to solve it alone.
For Andersen, the work is personal: Her children attend school in El Dorado County. She hears firsthand the challenges of teachers and families when needs are not met.
Employees have been asked to provide insights on what would improve hiring and retention practices. Staff input has been used to shift existing processes.
“Staffing challenges impact our ability to deliver on our promise to our families.” –Ed Manansala, superintendent of schools, El Dorado County Office of Education
The EDCOE New Employee Onboarding Process has been a focused effort for all new staff regardless of role. Every employee receives a warm welcome from the hiring manager and is invited to attend the first day of onboarding focused on the organization’s core values, strategic priorities and what it means to be a member of the EDCOE team. Immediate supervisors extend a first-day and first-week work schedule. The leaders of each team plan specific onboarding for the role over the first 30 days. They then complete a 30-day and 90-day new hire check-in process to make sure individual needs are being met. Leaders within each department receive feedback to assess their ability to meet the needs of their new hires. Their 30/60/90-day improvement cycles align their next actions. Leaders adjust strategies that aren’t working and work together to refine the actions showing positive impact.
For EDCOE, their intentional efforts as a team are demonstrating an impact in attracting quality candidates and improving their retention rates. HR technicians have found that by making a warm outreach to potential candidates, it allows them to answer candidate questions and increase their completed application rate. They learned that by including specific school locations within their advertising, they increased their ability to fill specific support roles. And, by providing flexible schedules for high school students, they were able to decrease the number of students on their waitlist for before and afterschool care.
Manansala and his executive leadership team initiated an employee referral stipend when a referral leads to a successful hire. They revised their screening processes to reduce language barriers and are paying for necessary licensing fees and technical training for bus drivers. They sought feedback from their new hires on the support they need to be successful. Based on their bus driver feedback, they are supporting their team members with ongoing training to improve their confidence in building strong student relationships and de-escalatng behaviors, when needed.
The EDCOE team is actively building the leadership skills needed to solve any challenge, hiring among them. Frederickson emphasized the importance of examining current processes and not putting boundaries on who can contribute to the ideas that really work. Andersen shared that her team is empowered to take action, and leaders in every department are listening deeply to their people. Manansala added, “We know the importance of our executive roles. I’ve worked in this field for decades and I’ve never received this level of full team partnership to improve the outcomes that really matter. The mindset of improvement is becoming hardwired across our team.”
Hemet Unified School District In Southern California, Christi Barrett is superintendent of Hemet Unified School District. Hemet serves 23,000 students; 88 percent of their children are identified as living in poverty. Hemet employs 3,000 certificated and classified team members. Derek Jindra serves as the assistant superintendent. Mark Garner is Hemet’s director of human resources. Their hardest to fill support positions have been bus drivers, special education aides and occupational therapy assistants.
Jindra and Garner are working to refine their core processes to hire and retain all positions. Jindra reflected on the impact of COVID to access candidates. Their application numbers dropped and their ability to support their newest team members was shaken. Through their systemic improvement efforts, staffing is now tracked on the HR team’s balanced scorecard. This team quickly adopted the 30/60/90-day improvement planning process to assess progress and make adjustments to their hiring strategies.
The care this team demonstrates is intentional. Barrett invests in ongoing coaching and development. She emphasized, “It is important to me that all our employees feel cared for, valued and personally supported from the moment they are hired. We want to ensure everyone has the resources they need to be successful. Each team member needs to feel the positive culture we are working so hard to build. We know effective onboarding, development and coaching supports individual performance and retention. We take our responsibility to our people seriously so together we can take our commitment to our children seriously.”
“It is important to me that all our employees feel cared for, valued and personally supported from the moment they are hired.” –Christi Barrett, superintendent, Hemet Unified School District
Hemet’s leaders are also learning which specific shifts in their processes are making a difference. Social media advertising with outreach to their high school students has increased their candidate pools. Hosting a one-stop application support, interview and fingerprinting process has increased completed applications. New employee orientation is now held every Wednesday to reduce the wait time for onboarding team members. They designed a handbook to provide specific support to their paraeducators. They have found success in assigning a mentor with one week of shadowing for specific roles, including their special education paraprofessionals, clerical and custodial positions. Garner indicated the feedback from employees, and their mentors, has been positive. People feel a personal commitment when they join Hemet. Hiring rates have already improved and Garner is predicting retention rates will as well. Jindra added, “If we can get our culture of support right for our adults, our students will feel the impact, too. We own our student outcomes as one team.” The EDCOE and Hemet leaders have taken their leadership responsibilities seriously. They are listening to the needs of the people closest to the work. Leadership actions are aligned and assessed for impact. This intentional leadership is needed to live their core values and to really improve organizational processes and outcomes — for students and adults. They are demonstrating their leadership capacity to solve the challenges impacting their daily efforts. Their focus and shared commitment are impacting their overall success. The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions from the El Dorado County Office of Education (Ed Manansala, Ed.D., county superintendent of schools; Wendy Frederickson, deputy superintendent, Administrative Services; and Amy Andersen, executive director, Human Resources) and Hemet Unified School District (Christi Barrett, Ph.D., superintendent; Derek Jindra, Ed.D., assistant superintendent; and Mark Garner, director of Human Resources) in the creation of this article.
Patricia Greco, Ph.D., is a retired superintendent and improvement coach and senior director of Thought Leadership for Studer Education.