When Kendra Ewing, superintendent of Agate School District, had to submit a list of her official titles to her local school board, the tally ran to 18 items.

“Principal. Special education teacher,” the list reads. “Pitch-in janitor.”

Ewing is one of 35 superintendents in the state who also serve as their district’s principal, often along with many other roles. (For a full list of her responsibilities, see here).

But under the state’s evaluation system, which rolled out this year, Ewing is only required to receive feedback on one: superintendent. For the rest of her jobs, she has to seek feedback through back channels, often without any additional funds.

The struggles of district leaders like Ewing with the state’s new educator evaluation system have highlighted the heavy burden the system puts on small rural districts. But they have also proved the flexibility of a system that may not have been designed with such districts in mind and have raised the profile of leaders in multiple roles, who received little attention in the past.

“We have tried to reduce ambiguity”

The struggle for superintendents who serve in multiple roles is to balance both what measures they must be evaluated on under state statute with what they can be evaluated on, given limited resources in their district.

Because they are the highest-ranking administrators (and often the only administrators), there is no one in the school with the authority to evaluate them, leaving only the local school board. But few school boards have the educational expertise to provide feedback on their work as a principal.

“There are specific responsibilities that a superintendent has to a school board,” said Toby King, who directs the Colorado Department of Education’s Educator Effectiveness unit. King works with the nearly 20 percent of the state’s superintendents who serve in more than one administrative role, so-called “superintencipals.” “Those are the things that make sense [to be evaluated on].”

In response to confusion from districts, King’s department released guidance earlier this year for any educator serving in multiple roles to help districts stay within the law. The document, which is available here, states that all educators should be evaluated on their highest role, no matter what other roles they play.

“If I’m supermarket general manager, you are sometimes going to work in produce,” said King. “But you are always going to be evaluated as a general manager.”

The department’s guidance is an attempt to clarify a system many rural districts have criticized for the time requirements and confusion it has placed on already overloaded rural administrators.

“We have tried to reduce ambiguity,” said King.

Despite the confusion over how to evaluate “superintencipals,” state officials and rural advocates say the system has proved more flexible for superintendent-principals than many imagined.

“There are things in the law that don’t even pertain to how rurals work,” said Tina Goar, the Colorado Department of Education’s rural advisor. “[But] there’s a lot of flexibility on how you set things up in your district while staying within the law.”

No correct answer

While that flexibility has streamlined the process somewhat for “superintencipals,” it has also left them to their own devices when they want feedback on the rest of what they do. And the solutions they have come to vary widely, from having no formal system to hiring outside evaluators.

Some have sought feedback from teachers and other district staff. In Crowley County School District in southeastern Colorado, the superintendent gave the state’s principal evaluation rubric to his staff and asked them to fill it out.

Ewing said her board gives her feedback based on all of her roles but she has also hired a consultant to spend one day a month in her district, giving her feedback on her performance.

Superintendent Kendra Ewing puts kindergartner Peyton Golliher down for a nap in her office.
Superintendent Kendra Ewing puts kindergartner Peyton Golliher down for a nap in her office.

“What she’s paid to do is be honest with me,” said Ewing. “That’s my way to say in my own conscience I’m doing a good job.”

According to King, that variation may not be a bad thing, but instead a sign that the system is working.

“Comparability has to be from one classroom to the next before we can have it from one school to the next, one district to the next,” said King. “Plus every district has its own context.”

But does that mean no good answer?

But for some, that flexibility just means there is no clear solution. Bruce Hankins, the superintendent in Dolores County School District Re-2J in southwestern Colorado, said that so far he has not found a solution that satisfies him.

Of getting evaluated by his teachers or his assistant principal, Hankins said, “it would be like you evaluating your boss,” an uncomfortable situation that doesn’t lend itself to honest feedback.

And the time requirements have proved a challenge.

“In the dual role, there is just so much,” he said. “I can’t spend two weeks doing this evaluation,” in addition to evaluating his teachers.

It’s a complaint many in the rural community have raised and King acknowledges that it’s an issue for many small rural districts. He and others anticipate that the time demands will lessen as people adjust to the new system, but the burden remains heavy for districts where there are few administrators.

In fact, the rollout of the evaluation system has prompted some districts to rethink their school structure.

In La Veta School District, Bree Lessar, the superintendent, asked her school board to hire an assistant principal to take over some of the teacher evaluations.

“With full implementation of [the new teacher evaluation law], I told my board I was unable to numerically do all the evaluations with fidelity,” said Lessar. The assistant principal now does the evaluations for 10 of the district’s 21 teachers.

Others have simply dodged the state-mandated evaluation system entirely. Kit Carson School District, on the eastern plains, applied for and received exemption from the state system, under Colorado’s 2008 innovation law, which grants schools and districts autonomy from some mandates.

“The previous superintendent foresaw the time it was going to take to do evaluations,” said Brenda Smith, Kit Carson’s superintendent. Kit Carson teachers are evaluated less frequently that teachers state-wide, although Smith uses the state rubric.

Smith says she would not be able to fulfill all of her duties if her district did not have innovation status.

“I feel bad for my colleagues who have to evaluate everybody everywhere,” she said.

Long term solutions

Still, even with Kit Carson’s unique flexibility, the system hasn’t been popular with teachers or administrators, who feel the state hasn’t provided enough resources to put the system into practice.

“The reason it’s been a sour note for the district is it goes back to unfunded mandate,” said Smith.

It’s an argument many in the Colorado Department of Education are sympathetic to. And the evaluations for the state’s 35 “superintencipals” have been a proving ground for how state officials can support districts overwhelmed by the pace of reform.

Goar, who is a former superintendent-principal herself, meets with all 35 dual-role administrators on a regular basis to identify the unique issues and find solutions. The responses of that group have helped inform the state’s guidance for rural evaluators.

“In some ways, Katy [Anthes, executive director of the Educator Effectiveness department] and Toby [King] have a real good handle on how do we differentiate things for our rurals,” said Goar. “It’s a unit that’s really thought about that.”

In fact, she said, dual role administrators are getting more attention that they have in the past.

“No one has ever thought about what to with these guys who are in a dual role,” said Goar. She hopes having more rural input will mean more focus on issues unique to rural areas, like the “superintencipals.”

“Right now support is just at the beginning and I hope there’s more,” said Goar.