When Frankie Stone remembers elementary school, she envisions women. After all, only one of her teachers was a man.
But when she thinks of authority, the 16-year-old pictures men. Her principal at Shadle Park High School is a man. And until this year, so were two of her three assistant principals.
The imbalance strikes Stone as perfectly natural and probably preferable.
She watches the new female assistant principal with skepticism. She doesn’t seem exactly “womanly” when disciplining, Stone says.
And the man who taught her siblings in sixth grade was a great role model, but Stone has trouble imagining men teaching young kids.
“I don’t think men lack the caring, but women wouldn’t get frustrated as easy and they’d probably be more gentle and understanding,” she said.
Stone illustrates the powerful cycle in schools that educators say helps root men in leadership positions and women in classrooms.
Why would children believe women make great high school principals when they rarely see them? And what are the odds boys would daydream about teaching kindergarten someday?
It’s a cycle that results in only one female principal in Spokane County’s 20 public high schools, and in 9 of 10 Kootenai County high schools being run by men. It contributes to most girl athletes being coached by men, most kids learning science from men, all District 81 kindergartners being taught by women.
The role-model shortage isn’t the only reason for the lopsided school system. Educators list a host of reasons, from the way people are hired to personal choice to discrimination.
Whatever the reasons, educators agree both kids and adults would benefit from a more balanced work force. Many women flourish when they go from classroom to conference room and men who try elementary teaching often excel. Kids end up with broader visions for their own futures.
Recruiting women to top posts can strengthen the district, educators say. Research shows women tend to have a leadership style that emphasizes team-building and collaboration, traits critical for districts struggling with education reform.
In Spokane School District 81, kids can easily spend seven years in kindergarten and elementary school without encountering a single man at the front of the room.
Women do occupy more than half the principals’ offices in Spokane’s elementary schools. But most never make it into high school offices.
Only two of Spokane’s six middle schools are run by women. And in most Spokane high schools, three of the top four administrators are men.
Ivan Bush, District 81’s equal opportunity officer, scanned a list of employees whose W-2 forms showed $65,000 or more last year. Less than a third are women.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so ironic if the school district employed more men than women, Bush said. But women make up two-thirds of the work force.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bush said.
Behind the scenes
Carolyn Carr, who teaches future administrators at Eastern Washington University, says three times as many women as men fill the desks in her principal preparation classes. More than twice as many women than men completed Gonzaga University’s administration program last school year. Whitworth College’s classes typically have as many women as men.
What’s happening to all those women once they graduate? Carr doubts they’re shying away from those jobs when they finish school.
“Women are generally higher educated and better trained,” she said. “Despite them expressing aspirations to be in principalships, women find themselves behind the scenes. They’ll be in the jobs with long hours and less pay. Assistant principals, but not principals.”
Those who do become principals end up in elementary schools, where the pay - and some say the prestige - is lower.
Other women turn to midlevel central office jobs, often curriculum positions routinely held by women.
Geoff Eng lists a string of reasons women vanish from the career ladder. “Comfort levels. Culture. Old boys’ network. When men are sitting there making decisions, by and large, their closest confidants are men.” Eng, a member of District 81’s citizens equity committee, suggested the group tackle the issue this year, but so far it hasn’t.
Most people aren’t even aware such wide gender gaps remain in public education, said Margaret Crocco, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.
“One of the problems of the younger generation coming up is there’s a sense that all the battles have been won and there aren’t any of these problems anymore,” Crocco said.
Mark Anderson, who has overseen hiring at District 81 for three years, said his priority is finding the most qualified applicants for administration jobs.
That in mind, he said, he keeps an eye out for experienced women candidates. “For the record, we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” he said.
In the past two years, Anderson said, about 60 percent of administrative hires were women. But more men apply for top jobs, giving them an edge.
Sandra Fink was the district’s sole female high school principal last year. When she retired, 17 people applied for her job at North Central High School. Only five were women.
Thirteen women and 41 men applied for four vice principal positions at Spokane high schools. The jobs went to three men and a woman.
The district has also created a position in larger schools - eight elementary schools and one middle school - to help people get administrative experience, Anderson said. Six of those administrators are women.
Anderson maintains that society - not the school system - perpetuates the stereotypes that keep women from moving up.
He supposes fewer women apply for administrative jobs because they don’t want to leave the classroom or because they don’t want the long hours.
“Many of our women are homemakers, too. If you’re a female and have school-age children, it is a very demanding job,” he said.
But many female teachers stay because they don’t expect other doors to open for them, said Corrine McGuigan, dean of education at Gonzaga University.
“There is something subtle saying to the women, ‘This is not something we expect of you.”’ She doesn’t buy the theory that many female teachers are too busy raising their families to aspire to administrative jobs.
“Men are busy raising kids, too, and they do it anyway. Most of us have lives that are very demanding.”
High energy and a crockpot
Fran Mester occupies an office in District 81’s Central Administration building partly because she’s married to someone who understands her ambitions. Mester, 47, is director of instructional programs; her husband, Bill, is superintendent of the Mead School District.
The pair juggled their college studies, then their climbs through the education ranks, while raising Gretchen and Josh, who are now 22 and 25.
She found the challenges addicting. Now she’s working on a district-wide literature policy and a plan to make it harder for thousands of students to advance without proving they’re ready.
Across town at Chase Middle School, Alison Olzendam sits behind the principal’s desk.
She never would have believed it possible 20 years ago.
“Women don’t see themselves as administrators ‘til someone mentions it to them,” said Olzendam. But the seed was planted and flourished.
“When it gets down and dirty, I want to be making the decisions,” she said. “I’m comfortable with that.”
Occasionally, she encounters someone who’s not. One male teacher was immediately skeptical of Olzendam’s disciplinary skills when she was vice principal. “I bet you don’t even spank your kids,” he chided.
“I got in his face,” Olzendam recalled.
Through the years, she’s picked up leadership skills big and small. She tries not to end sentences with “OK?” as research shows many women do. She doesn’t apologize habitually, another feminine trait.
Supervising 940 kids with three at home and a husband who coaches requires creative living. She skips TV, did all her Christmas shopping in a day.
“I’m blessed with high energy,” she said. “And I have a crockpot.”
For Cynthia Lambarth, the transition from teaching to administration was tainted with a “huge, huge sadness” at leaving the classroom. But she was quickly captivated by the broad impact she could make on children’s lives from District 81’s central office.
“The challenge of administration is always changing. That to me is what is exciting,” she said.
As associate superintendent, Lambarth makes decisions on everything from science curriculum to harassment complaints. With an annual salary topping $85,000, she also makes more money than anyone except Superintendent Gary Livingston. She’s the sole woman in the four-member cabinet who reports to the school board.
Lambarth worked hard, and harder still when a divorce left her a single mom with two kids. But she considers herself fortunate.
Several mentors, both women, grasped her hands and pulled firmly upward.
Mentors are to future leaders what crampons are to mountain climbers.
Studies show it. Leaders know it.
But in many school districts, people usually are left to attempt the climb barefooted.
“We need to be aggressive in mentoring people for leadership positions who are currently underrepresented - women and minorities,” said O.J. Cotes, who helps staff Spokane schools.
“I think sometimes we’re scattered in doing so many things, we don’t always stop and work out a plan.”
Carr, who this year became the first woman to run EWU’s principal training program, said mentors were key to her success. Most were men, because few women held the jobs she wanted.
That meant playing by a few extra rules, to ward off gossip. “If you go to lunch, someone else goes with you,” she said. “If you have a meeting, the doors are always open.”
But opposite-sex mentoring paid off in unexpected ways, she said. “What we’re learning from relationships today is we both need to learn from each other. We’ve been socialized in different directions, but there’s kind of a double strength when you can master both.”
Educators who want to promote women can also give them opportunities for practice, said McGuigan.
“They can actively encourage women to enter administration programs,” McGuigan advised. “Give them leadership roles in schools while they’re still teachers. Get them to run faculty meetings. Give them experience with the budget.”
Opening those doors is critical, said Bush. Behind them are potential female leaders.
“We just need to make sure it happens,” he said. “Boys and girls need to see that.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color) Graphic: As pay increases, fewer women reach top
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