How a Top U.S. School District Stays Excellent, Despite Budget Cuts

In an increasing climate of ever-shrinking budgets and a shortage of new teachers, the Denver County School District, also known as Denver Public Schools (DPS), is committed to making more with fewer resources. Operating more than 185 schools with a total enrollment of more than 90,000 students, the district faces one critical challenge: person-power.

“We’re dealing with a perfect storm,” says Amanda Ludwig, program manager of strategic initiatives at DPS. “There’s a talent shortage for filling vacancies in high-need teaching positions. In Colorado, enrollment numbers in teacher prep programs shrank by around 30% from last year. There are lower numbers of people going into the teaching profession at the university level and through traditional prep programs. Meanwhile, the demographics of our city are changing. Our funding pools and resources look dramatically different than they did even last year or three years ago.”


Until last year, DPS ran three recruiting teams - each focused on different role types. They had a team focused on teacher recruitment, one for volume recruiting (the staff for all the schools) and one for central office, which focused on special roles like leadership and operations. Strategic planning for the upcoming academic year and the budget climate led the school to combine these operations into one 17-person team that’s responsible for staffing the entire 14,000-person district. This planning will align more limited funding resources with one strategic vision, and set the DPS recruitment team up to accomplish aggressive goals.

“Our team, as a whole, has half the budget that teacher recruitment alone had last year,” explains Ludwig.

Despite these challenges, DPS remains committed to student excellence and fostering a culture of learning. Ludwig and her team are confronting budgetary challenges and the teacher shortage head-on.

Here’s how they’re working strategically to tackle a national issue, and keep student experiences intact.

Making the most out of every team effort

Shrinking budgets didn’t come as a surprise to DPS, as districts throughout the United States have been struggling to make do with fewer resources. Anticipating fiscal challenges to arise in 2016 and beyond, the DPS recruiting team prepared with strategic changes during the previous year. Starting by joining forces across their recruiting silos, all recruiting staff are lead by one mission - bringing the best talent to DPS. Here are a few areas where they’re activating their new seamless recruiting strategy:

 Focusing on the school districts that need the most attention. The DPS team has been working on a strategy, “universal targeted support,” which provides a unique recruiting service model to every single school in the district, rather than a “one size fits all” approach.

“In the past, we didn’t have direct contact with schools—we would work with our HR school partners who would let us know when they had a particular need,” says talent acquisition supervisor Lauren Agee. “We saw an opportunity to shift that model and allow for more direct contact with classrooms. Coupling this with our sourcing strategy [more below], we saw a decrease in time to fill and an increase of quality of candidates that were filling teacher positions.”

“Even though our recruiting team has been stretched thin, we’ve managed to strengthen our relationships with the schools that need our recruiting team’s support most,” says Ludwig.

Making data-driven decisions. “We regularly look at data to measure the outcomes from the strategies we’ve implemented over the last several years,” says Ludwig. “For example, we see a correlation between our teacher effectiveness ratings and our phone screen model. Digging deeper, we’ve realized that hiring effective teachers comes from being able to screen for cultural awareness and specific personality traits.”

Keeping a high-touch candidate experience. “We use LinkedIn to focus on candidates in our highest need areas,” says Agee. “For instance, we conduct personalized outreach around our bilingual positions and in the maths and sciences. We’ve been experimenting with personalized InMails, targeting based on zip codes, and searches based on specialized qualifications.”


Tackling the candidate gap: revolutionizing sourcing strategies

When DPS realized that they weren’t going to have enough teachers to fill the roles needed, they made moves to diversify their sourcing strategies. Career fairs and local college pipelines aren’t cutting it anymore, so they’ve had to start using innovative pipelines and tools like LinkedIn to expand their search.

They’ve made many efforts to broaden their candidate pool, including:

  • Forming partnerships with Teach for America, Generation Teach, and national Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  • Working directly with local universities to build a pipeline for in-demand roles like high school STEM teachers
  •  Running a recruiting program with the city of Denver to attract more teachers to the area
  • Using LinkedIn to search for and reach out to qualified candidates in other geographical areas, inviting them to attend local events
  • Broadening their view on what qualifies a candidate. Helping staff and volunteers without traditional qualifications go through certification and training to qualify for working at DPS

“For teacher recruitment, we’ve compartmentalized our operations to focus on sourcing, cultivating, and placing talent. Our sourcers focus on getting candidates in the door and finding the right quality of talent—we aim to build a diverse talent pipeline. From there, we comb through our talent pool to identify the rockstars, who we connect to schools to make their own independent hiring decisions.”

Lauren Agee, Talent Acquisition Supervisor at Denver Public Schools

As director of talent acquisition Kathryn Clymer shared, “We’re constantly trying to find ways to engage passive candidates, to create as much of a talent pipeline as possible. Whether it’s sending out a regular newsletter or posting content to our LinkedIn page, we are very vocal about what’s happening at DPS, to create a magnet to us.”

Keeping a high level of service despite constraints

DPS hires over 1,100 teachers per year, in addition to all the principals, custodians, school bus drivers, and cafeteria workers to service more than 185 schools. The DPS recruiting team goes into each year knowing that they are responsible for finding the people who make the best experience for their students.

“Our number one core value is to always put the needs of our students first,” says Victoria McBurney, recruitment staffing and sourcing manager at DPS.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve been stretched thin,” says Clymer. “But with LinkedIn, we’re now able to provide a high level of service to every candidate throughout our recruiting process. LinkedIn fits into the picture of maintaining longer term conversations and helping us keep track of top candidates.”


Looking forward

Teacher and education recruiting is not getting any easier. By being incredibly proactive, innovative, and resourceful - DPS leading the way by meeting their recruiting challenges head on.

“LinkedIn has been key to amplifying the work that we’re doing,” says Ludwig. “Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to get through our budget challenges. In the spirit of entrepreneurship, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what our future looks like. LinkedIn is helping us prepare for future generations.”

Districts across the country are each taking their own approaches to tackle the challenge. By sharing strategies and innovative risks, school recruitment teams can learn from each other, and ensure that students get the support they need. The future of education depends on it!


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