Schenectady County

Increasing number of women are high school principals

Women are breaking through the glass ceiling in a new arena: high schools.
In this January 2013 photo, Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson explains how students and parents can use Google Voice to improve communication with her.
In this January 2013 photo, Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson explains how students and parents can use Google Voice to improve communication with her.

Narrowing the gap

1991: 8 percent of superintendents in New York state were women

2012: 31 percent of superintendents in New York state were women

Career path:

• 25 percent of superintendents (men and women) were elementary school principals

• 65 percent of superintendents (men and women) were middle or high school principals

Source: New York State Council of School Superintendents

Women are breaking through the glass ceiling in a new arena: high schools.

Traditionally, the schools for testy teenagers have been run by men. But that’s changing locally: There are now 11 women running the show at Capital Region high schools.

That’s by no means a majority — there are 23 men running high schools in the region — but it’s an encouraging trend. It might lead to a more diverse selection of superintendent candidates, Capital Region BOCES Superintendent Charles Dedrick said.

In the superintendent searches BOCES runs, he said, very few candidates are women.

“We are not seeing a large increase in the number of women candidates,” he said, “which is not good.”

He said the high school principal position is a “much more common path” to the superintendency than elementary school positions, where more women are found.

“That alone has limited the number of women in the superintendency,” he said.

So he’s hopeful more female high school principals will lead to more female superintendent candidates.

“Maybe in five years we’re going to see it,” he said.

He added that it’s not really fair for elementary school principals to be seen as less prepared for a superintendent position, but it’s a political position, to some extent — the district’s board of education decides who to hire. And school boards often rate high school principals as more experienced.

“There’s just the view that the high school job is harder,” Dedrick said.

Among non-educators, some still find it surprising to learn a woman is in charge at a high school. When Schoharie Junior/Senior High School Principal Stacey A. DeLaney mentions she’s a principal, she said listeners often assume she runs an elementary school. When she corrects them, she said, they say, “Oh, that must be a really hard job.”

There may be a stereotype that teens need a man’s firm hand, but DeLaney said it’s no harder than running any other school.

“Is it hard? Of course it’s hard,” she said. “As long as you take the time to forge relationships, then you’re OK.”

Teenagers are on the brink of adulthood, and she loves watching them take those final steps.

“People don’t give teenagers enough credit. The service our students give back is so great,” she said. “Last week, we had a vocal concert. I cried. I stood up to give a standing ovation, it was so powerful.”

But many women don’t end up running a high school. Often, female teachers don’t get the necessary credentials, while their male counterparts do. Or they get the certification, but apply only for elementary school positions.

DeLaney intended all along to eventually become a superintendent.

“So this was the path for me,” she said.

She got her certificate of advanced study in educational administration and policy studies from the University at Albany while teaching deaf elementary school students. Then she got her doctorate while running Schoharie Junior/Senior High School.

“I always had this interest in leadership,” she said. “It’s a different way of influencing students and education.”

She hadn’t intended to go to a rural school district, though — she grew up in urban schools — but once she got to Schoharie, she fell in love with it.

“I have loved the experience,” she said. “Now I want to be a rural superintendent. Rural schools are really special entities, the center of the community.”

Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson got her certification because she wanted to work with teachers. She felt she could make a greater impact that way.

She held onto her certification for six years before applying for her first administrative job, as principal at Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy. The city’s second high school, Steinmetz is a smaller school with more hands-on and vocational classes.

She had been training teachers to use new technology in their classrooms, including smartboards and video conferencing. Then Steinmetz got a grant to provide every student with a laptop, creating new challenges to incorporate computers into everyday learning. The school needed a principal who could lead both teachers and students through that evolution.

“This is it. This is the one,” Wilkinson said of the job. “I got the best of both worlds. I got back to being with kids, but I could still work with teachers.”

Two years later, she got the job as the principal for the city’s main high school. There was no promise of technology-focused education, but Wilkinson wanted the job anyway.

“What has always driven me is really making a difference with this community,” she said, adding that she thought she could make more of a difference at the main high school.

Both principals emphasized they didn’t think women were better at the job than men, but they do bring their own style to the position.

“I don’t know if my leadership style plays into being a male or a female, but it’s about the relationship. It’s a shared leadership model,” Wilkinson said.

She cited the new technology policy, which student government helped to craft. Students can use cellphones and music players in the hallways and cafeteria, but not in class. Wilkinson’s theory was that she’d get more compliance if students helped design the rules.

“People feel that they’re part of something. It increases the ownership,” she said.

She expects more women to get the certification to become principals now that many women have done it. Younger women can easily see role models that tell them they can aspire to leadership, she said.

“It’s, ‘This is something that is doable for me,’ ” Wilkinson explained. “There are thousands of positive female role models now. It is becoming more likely that women are leaders of buildings.”

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