At the start of her tenure, Gillian Chapman was given an assignment to look to the future.
“The board tasked me with evaluating our bench strength,” the superintendent said.
The school board wanted Chapman to identify and develop the next generation of Teton County School District No. 1 leaders, essentially creating a farm team of candidates who could become principals, curriculum experts and peer mentors. Five years later, she has a thriving leadership development program that she says pays dividends at the administrator level and within teacher ranks.
Leadership TCSD is a two-year program in which candidates go through a series of lessons, internships and projects to learn how the district functions and develop skills to step into leadership roles. Graduates may become administrators, peer leaders and instructional experts, while some return to their classrooms with a stronger understanding of the district’s inner workings.
The need for Leadership TCSD comes back to Teton County’s ever-present housing struggles. Administrators need a variety of skills to be successful in today’s schools, an array of abilities that aren’t always easy to find.
“It used to be that principals — no matter what level — the criteria that superintendents looked for was [they were] basically a good coach and liked kids and were charismatic,” Chapman said. “I need that charismatic principal who loves kids.
“But I also need that instructional leadership, someone who also can coach teachers to be their best and to give them really solid feedback, that can coach a student that’s struggling or a family that may be struggling.”
She admits that’s a lot to ask. To make matters more difficult, hiring someone with that skill set from outside the district can be tough. Sometimes it’s successful, like when Wilson Elementary Principal Scott McDowell was hired before the 2020-21 school year after a wide external hiring process.
Sometimes, it’s not that easy. Housing, in particular, can be a sticking point that prohibits promising candidates from accepting a position.
“We have people who want the job,” Chapman said, “but then they say, ‘I can’t find anywhere to live.’ ”
Enter the district’s bench strength, which came in handy this spring. Munger Mountain Elementary School Principal Scott Eastman announced he was leaving to run his business and spend time with his kids. Chapman tapped Jackson Hole High School Vice Principal Dan Abraham to take over the dual-immersion school.
That left a hole in the high school administration team. Though she did post the job externally, Chapman had some internal candidates in mind, and Leadership TCSD graduate Annie Kuvinka rose to the top.
A Jackson native and school psychologist, Kuvinka had been working toward her administrator credential (which is required for any principal or vice principal job), but she jumped at the opportunity to enter the leadership program, too.
“I could take what I was learning in the classroom and actually see it in practice through the leadership program,” Kuvinka said.
For participants like Kuvinka, the program confers college credit for the administrator credential. It has evolved over the past five years, now including afterschool lessons with Chapman, an internship and a capstone project. The cohort size varies each year, but it is usually small, with 36 people having gone through the program in its five years.
The evening classroom sessions provide foundational knowledge, and the capstone tasks cohorts with researching areas of improvement for the district.
A team from a past cohort researched how to improve parent-teacher conferences, which were at that point held in the gym. Parents lined up to talk to individual teachers and conversations were quite public.
“Parents could be standing there for 20 or 30 minutes, just to talk to one teacher,” Chapman said.
The team put in place a new system in which teachers gave overviews in their classrooms then scheduled one-on-one meetings with parents. Though each school might do theirs differently, Chapman said, the model put in place by the Leadership TCSD cohort has made it easier for teachers to provide support for families and kids that need it during the conferences.
On an individual level, educators highlighted the internship aspect of the program as eye-opening and beneficial. In one weeklong session in each year of the program, participants shadow an administrator through every part of the job, from giving teacher feedback to attending basketball games.
Often they intern at a different level than they work at, say moving from elementary school to high school or the administrative office. That kind of experience is rare for administrators, and it can help them broaden their horizons.
“Having done the internship with the middle school and the high school made me more willing to try for jobs at those levels because I felt like I had a little better look,” said Anitra Jensen, who will take over as principal at Kelly and Moran elementary schools in the fall.
Chapman and her administrators are quick to point out that the program doesn’t just grow potential principals. Of the 36 graduates, half are now in leadership roles. Some, like Jensen and Kuvinka, are administrators; others are leading their professional learning communities or working in the administrative office as curriculum and data specialists.
Such a program doesn’t come without challenges. For one, Chapman doesn’t have space for all the educators who want to join each year, so she could have more homegrown leaders if she had more capacity.
A bigger challenge is covering the educators as they go through their internships. Substitutes can be expensive, so the program does carry a financial cost, but it also carries an operational cost.
Take Kuvinka, the school psychologist. She’s an expert in her role, so the weeks she was interning, she wasn’t in her normal job. It’s tougher to find a substitute school psychologist than an extra classroom teacher, so those services were temporarily limited.
In the grand scheme of things, Chapman said, the gains outweigh the costs of finding substitutes. There is a risk, however, that graduates leave the district soon after the program to take jobs as principals elsewhere, something that has happened a couple of times.
“It’s great that they take what they learned at TCSD and implement it across the country,” she said, “but it is a lot to invest in someone and have them leave.”
After five years of growing her bench, Chapman has graduates from the program in schools around the district and her administrative office. Educators say they love the chance for extended professional development in a smaller district.
“This is the fourth district I’ve worked for and none of them had a leadership-type program” for administrators, Jensen said.
Since she had been an administrator before, Jensen said she moved to Teton County intending to be in a principal role. Kuvinka said she was pursuing being an administrator before she entered the program, so it didn’t necessarily push the women into leadership roles they didn’t already want.
However, Leadership TCSD gave them local hands-on skills and experience, something that’s impossible to get either in a university classroom or another district. That, Kuvinka said, was the biggest benefit and a reason to add the work to her very busy plate.
“It was a great cherry on top,” she said.
“I could take what I was learning in the classroom and actually see it in practice through the leadership program.” — Annie Kuvinka Leadership TCSD Participant