Thursday, June 12, 2008 | Less than three months into his tenure, Superintendent Terry Grier is shaking up the top ranks of San Diego Unified.

Top-earning administrators and vice principals are interviewing to keep their own jobs. School district outsiders and insiders alike are being tapped to fill new slots. And Grier has introduced a novel method to screen the best principals and administrators for the jobs — an interview meant to measure values and problem-solving, aimed at picking the optimal principals and teachers for disadvantaged kids.

“It’s easy for us to get comfortable in our positions, comfortable in our expectations, and comfortable in our authority,” said Katherine Nakamura, the president of the school board. “It’s not a bad thing to reassess ourselves from time to time.”

Yet even as Grier announces his first selections, few staffers fully understand the big picture for San Diego Unified. Most employees still haven’t seen a simple chart outlining the new makeup of the school district: which jobs stay, which jobs go, and who reports to whom. The chart, which exists in draft form, has not yet been made public.

That uncertainty unnerves some employees. The rapid overhaul undertaken by Grier stands in contrast to his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who waited more than six months before introducing a new layout for San Diego Unified. The hallmark of Cohn’s reorganization, five area superintendents who divvied up the massive school district, weren’t appointed until eight months into his tenure.

“In 40 years, I have never heard anybody come in and immediately implement a procedure that says if you don’t pass this interview, you lose the job you’re in,” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the Administrators Association of San Diego. “And never has a process been implemented so quickly.”

All vice principals underwent a new interview to compete for a shifting pool of jobs. The interview is modeled on the teachings of University of Wisconsin Milwaukee professor Martin Haberman, who studies disadvantaged students and the educators who help them best. Principals applying for new jobs were interviewed as well. San Diego Unified signed a $23,000 contract with the Haberman Educational Foundation to train staffers in the interview process, which includes problem-solving scenarios and is meant to reveal the applicants’ core values. Two people ask open-ended questions during a tape-recorded interview and score the answers.

“It’s a different kind of interview. You can’t really bone up. Nobody really knows how they did,” said Bruce McGirr, president of the Administrators Association and principal at Grant School in Mission Hills. “They walk out shaking their heads.”

The Haberman Educational Foundation declined to release interview questions, but Grier offered examples of scenarios: How might a principal evaluate their school’s achievement? How would they improve it? And who would they involve in that process?

“You’re posed with a situation you’d find pretty typical in any school, but especially in an urban school district. It could be a very simple question, but the answer itself reflects what you value,” said human resources director Sam Wong. “What guides your actions, if not your values?”

If their eyes glaze over, Grier said they aren’t likely to succeed.

No magic number separates Haberman winners from Haberman losers, Grier said. But conducting the interviews helped San Diego Unified narrow down two lists, one of potential principals, one of vice principals, from which principals can choose their staff. Most made the cut. Only 22 of 125 vice principals interviewed were absent from the lists.

Under Grier’s plan to equalize staffing, elementary schools will lose dozens of vice principals next year and high schools will gain them. Wong estimated there would be 19 fewer vice principalships in the coming school year. Vice principals who fell short in the Haberman interviews will likely be reassigned to teach in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, many are aggravated.

“How can they do this to me when I have nothing but glowing letters of recommendation?” one vice principal wrote Steeg.

Two hiccups in the Haberman rollout didn’t help. Some vice principals mistakenly believed that the interview was a dry run, arrived in T-shirts and shorts, and only later realized that their jobs were at stake. Weeks later, human resources staffers e-mailed a questionnaire to vice principals who made the cut, asking for their ethnicity. Infuriated vice principals complained that the question was illegal, and the Administrators Association contacted an attorney. Staffers re-sent the questionnaire minus the ethnicity question shortly afterward.

“We have a nondiscrimination policy and we understand it and we follow it,” Wong said.

“It would be helpful to statistically break stuff down” by ethnicity and other categories, Wong said. “The question [about ethnicity] got pushed out that way, but I could have found it other ways.”

Installing the Haberman interviews for principals and teachers is one of Grier’s annual goals, approved by the school board. Grier believes the Haberman system is more meaningful and less arbitrary than allowing area superintendents to craft their own questions. And it’s fairer than simply adjusting the staffing ratio and firing vice principals at the smallest schools, said Lincoln High School vice principal Helen Griffith.

“It was noble of [Grier] to not just look at the budget,” said Griffith, who was recently selected as principal of the new Millennial Tech Middle School. “If you want the best people on your team, that isn’t the way to keep them.”

The shakeup coincides with school administrators’ efforts to form a collective bargaining unit. Chief among their concerns is the hiring of school district outsiders as principals — jobs they believe qualified San Diego Unified principals should get first. The Haberman process currently allows any applicant who makes the grade to join the principal pool, regardless of where they come from. But that union is still in the making and is unlikely to have a contract before Grier’s reorganization is complete.

Vice principals aren’t the only administrators biting their fingernails. Special education administrators whose jobs were eliminated due to budget cuts are also contending for vice principal and principal jobs. And top officials are reapplying for their positions. One is Karen Bachofer, executive director of the Standards, Assessment, and Accountability Department, who is applying to become Chief Research and Evaluation Officer, a roughly similar position. In her 22-year career at San Diego Unified, Bachofer has never before had to reapply for her own job.

In addition, Grier has already started juggling the cabinet assembled by Cohn. A handful of high-ranking employees selected by Cohn have announced their departures, making way for new hires.

“Wells Fargo doesn’t automatically promote you to vice president in marketing just because you’ve been a teller in the bank for 15 years. They almost always have a structured interview process,” Grier said. “It’s a bit surprising to me when people in education think that it should be different.”

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