Hire from Within

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

The announcement this month that High School Principal Katie Gibson will leave GDS at the end of the school year means that the school now has not one but two of its senior-most administrative positions to fill for next school year: high school principal and, given Kevin Barr’s 2020 retirement, associate head of school. 

For both roles, Head of School Russell Shaw and others involved in the selection process should strongly consider and favor candidates who already work at GDS—ones who understand GDS’ culture and operations and whom the community knows and respects.

The best principal and associate head of school picked from the cream of GDS’ first-rate staff would be better prepared to help lead the school than any applicant a search firm could identify from the national pool of professional educational administrators in need of a new perch.

And while welcoming new staff members is and will always be important, they ought to have the chance to integrate themselves into the community—and get to know its members—before being thrust in command. It is essential to the flourishing of GDS’ uniquely open, egalitarian culture for the primary path to leadership roles to be from within.

The life of Gladys Stern, this high school’s founding principal, who died last month, reminds us of the value of elevating leaders from inside the school. She began as an office assistant before reaching the peak of the administration and slept with a GDS blanket on her dying day. 

Not all administrators can be expected to embody GDS to the extent Stern did, of course, but one aspect of her story that those in charge of the two current searches can easily find in candidates is her deep GDS roots.

A leader who understands GDS—its charms and its troubles—is especially necessary now to stay true to its distinctive character and maintain community buy-in as the high school adjusts to the combined campus, seeks to further its anti-racist project and emerges from a pandemic that deprived the school of many of its traditions.

An external hire’s lack of firsthand knowledge of the community would reduce their odds of success. Balancing beneficial changes with fidelity to GDS’ wonts and wants is already a challenge for someone who knows the latter; for someone who doesn’t, it would seem an unreasonable expectation.

And if a newcomer took the reins of the school’s major transitions and initiatives, they would have a higher chance of encountering resistance, if only by virtue of the optics of an outsider overhaul. 

“We will be launching a national search for our next High School Principal immediately,” Shaw wrote in the all-school email announcing Gibson’s departure. 

He continued, “We will work in partnership with a faculty Search Advisory Committee as well as Educators’ Collaborative, a national search firm, as we seek to identify the next leader of our High School. After Winter Break, we anticipate bringing finalists to campus to meet with High School faculty along with representatives from the student and parent bodies.”

The unmistakable implication is that the “finalists” will come from outside the community; why else would they need to be brought here or sought out by a national firm?

According to the Educators’ Collaborative website, its consultants visit the school in question to “get a feel for your culture and meet with as many stakeholders as possible.” Rather than paying someone from outside GDS to meet stakeholders and then find someone else from outside GDS to lead GDS, why not simply pick a so-called stakeholder for the job?

Barr—who retired at the end of the 2019-2020 school year but was not immediately replaced—is another exemplar of long-term commitment to GDS and gradual administrative ascent. He worked at GDS for 44 years, starting as an English teacher and eventually holding a number of leadership positions, including high school principal and, ultimately, associate head of school.

Now, Educators’ Collaborative is helping run GDS’ search for his successor, too. The job description for GDS associate head of school posted on the firm’s website reads, “The AHOS will serve as a thought partner for the HOS and members of the leadership team. Above all, the Associate Head will live the mission of the school.” 

It would seem that a less circuitous and, in all likelihood, more fruitful route to the right person would be in house.

We recognize our argument may be susceptible to charges of parochialism—or, worse still, teenage naïveté. But it would, in short, be an affront to GDS’ wonderful staff to suggest there are not two people already among its ranks as suited as anyone in the world to help lead our school.