Hiring for Equity at Sun Prairie Area School District
How Director of Human Resources Chris Sadler builds applicant pools to meet equity goals and improves retention with first-class onboarding.
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
Teachers & Staff
Product & Solutions
Chris Sadler thinks a lot about equity — specifically, equity in hiring. As the Director of Human Resources for Sun Prairie Area School District in the suburbs of Madison, Chris is working with his team to hire teachers and staff that reflect student demographics.
“We work hard to walk the talk of equity when we talk about making sure that all students are performing at high levels and that all of our systems have a focus on equity,” Chris says. “Our community as a whole used to be very white, and now it’s much more racially diverse. We’re taking a hold of that and trying to make sure that we are meeting everyone’s needs.”
This takes different forms. Sun Prairie has built relationships with universities and teacher certification agencies, and especially tries to connect with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other schools that graduate teachers of color, which often means recruiting from out of state. The district also has a Grow Your Own program focused on current classified staff who are working toward teaching certification, and works with a network of Listservs used by Latino teachers, African American teachers, and others.
Chris says that if the applicant pool demographics match those of the student body, it will translate to hiring outstanding teachers who do as well. “The best strategy is to build your applicant pool so you have the ability to hire people to match your student demographics. Because if you’ve mitigated bias in the hiring process, whatever’s in your pool should match how you’re hiring. There shouldn’t be a drastic change in percentages as we’re hiring who we consider the best people for our students.”
“If our candidate pool and the interviewees match our student demographics, then the hiring should too.”
– Director of Human Resources
But, he says, that requires keeping a close eye on equal opportunity data from applicants to make sure that they’re progressing toward their goals.
Shooting in the Dark
A few years ago, looking at that data was impossible. “Shooting in the dark would be a good way to describe it. Because with the posting tools we had at that point, we couldn’t even get equal opportunity data from them,” Chris says, explaining that many posting sites don’t allow for the screening questions he wanted to include on applications. “We really didn’t know what our applicant pool looked like.”
Chris also needed a way to advertise open positions to teachers outside of Wisconsin. He says that across the state, there are more teachers leaving their schools than there are newly certified teachers graduating from Wisconsin colleges and universities. “We needed to expand our reach. We can’t have zero reach outside of our state.”
So, in 2019, Sun Prairie began using Frontline Recruiting & Hiring to recruit more broadly.
Switching to Frontline
“With Frontline, we knew it was a nationwide reach. We needed to do that, not only for this idea of matching student demographics, but there’s a teacher shortage in general,” says Chris. When Sun Prairie needs to hire for a given position, they post it on Frontline and include a link to the job on other posting sites as well.
Chris can customize applications to ask optional equal opportunity questions, which give him the data he needs to make adjustments to hiring efforts. “We’re looking at that equal opportunity data coming in on a monthly basis and especially on an annual basis, because we have to report that data to the board and say whether we met our goal of increasing the percentage of people of color applying to our positions. From there, we do a lot of follow up with applicants through Frontline.”
“Frontline allowed us to do a much better job of looking at data and actually seeing if what we were doing was making any difference so we could change if we needed to.”
– Director of Human Resources
Sun Prairie also offers a referral bonus to teachers when someone they recommend to the district is hired. “Once you start gaining steam, your people are your best recruiters. So, you give them the postings so they can send it to the people they know.”
Once a candidate is hired, the information from their application automatically populates their employee file in Frontline Central, Sun Prairie’s employee records and onboarding system.
Because it’s so close to Madison, Sun Prairie borders numerous districts that are within walking distance. That puts the pressure on Chris to hire quickly.
“With recruiting now and the teacher shortage, anything you can do to make it easier and more efficient gets them into your system faster, and you don’t have to worry about them getting poached by somebody else in the middle of it all,” says Chris. “Because that happens if you’re not quick enough, or if they get frustrated with your paperwork and stuff like that.”
Frontline helps Chris bring people into the district quickly. “Central and Recruiting & Hiring have made things amazingly more efficient. Because before, we had paper employee files, and we still do with the people that have been in our system for a while. But when we got Recruiting & Hiring and then we layered Central on top of it, we were able to go away from paper files.” Moving away from paper may seem like a minor thing, but it’s not. “It’s not the most exciting, it’s mundane, but from an HR perspective, that’s awesome, because there is no shuffling of paper. It’s just, ‘You applied, you got recommended for hire. Now all that stuff that we send you gets automatically put in your electronic file and we don’t have to touch it again.’”
Onboarding for Retention
Chris believes that a good onboarding experience is vital for retaining employees. If a district makes a great first impression and employees can quickly get up and running at work, that will help smooth out any bumps in the road that come. “We understand that if we can make their experience efficient and relatively pain-free and they’re able to understand what they’re supposed to be doing, that already is going to increase your retention, because when something does go wrong, which it will, they’re going to rely back on their first experience and say, ‘You know what? For the most part, everything’s going well here. I’ll be patient with whatever’s happening right now.’”
It’s working. “Our retention rate is usually around 90%, which is great. Teacher retention rates across the country have been showing around 80-85%, so 90% is great. And we’ve been able to stick there,” Chris says. “If we didn’t have Recruiting & Hiring and Central, I really do think that we wouldn’t have been able to maintain that, because we wouldn’t have been able to get our staff the information they needed that fast.”
“I think the reach has allowed us to bring in more applicants, and the efficiency allows for the experience to way be way better, for both us and them.”
– Director of Human Resources
Previously, Sun Prairie handled teacher contract renewals on paper, which took months. Now, they send out the contracts with the click of a button in Frontline Central. Typically, in a few days most teachers have signed and returned them. Chris’s team sets up automatic email reminders to jog the memories of any who take too long.
Because Wisconsin requires teachers to sign contracts by June 15, they can easily pull a list of any teachers who haven’t signed their contract and let them know that if they don’t act immediately, the district will start hiring for their positions. This tends to motivate people!
The big question is, is all this helping Sun Prairie meet its equity goals? Are they building the applicant pools they need to hire quality teachers who reflect student demographics?
Sun Prairie has a goal to increase their applicants of color by 5% each year. In 2022, 19.4% of applicants to Sun Prairie were people of color, across all positions. In 2023, that percentage rose to 30.29% — nearly an 11% uptick.
That’s certainly due to the way Chris and the Human Resources department strategically structure their hiring process. But, he says, “Frontline platforms in general have allowed us to have a larger reach in a much more efficient way.”