Modernizing the Human Resources Department
How Suffolk Public Schools took hiring, onboarding, absence management, and professional development into the 21st century.
At a Glance:
- Suffolk, VA
- K-12 Enrollment
- Teachers & Staff
Frontline Solutions Used:
- Frontline Recruiting & Hiring
- Frontline Central
- Absence & Substitute Management
- Frontline Professional Growth
When Dianne Whiting joined Suffolk Public Schools’ Human Resources department 20 years ago, fewer than 1,200 employees worked there. Now, that number is over 2,000. A medium-sized district with over 14,000 students, SPS adds a new school every few years as people move into the district — requiring more staff.
As the district evolves from a rural district into one that is much more suburban, they’ve also been on a journey to modernize how their HR department recruits, hires, onboards, and supports the growth of their employees.
A Changing Hiring Landscape
“When I came here, we could find teachers around the corner. We didn’t have a shortage. Every year we filled every single teaching position,” Dianne said. But as fewer teachers have entered the profession, it became obvious that they needed to be more aggressive in their recruiting. “When I talked to the new teachers, I said, ‘How many of you are coming straight out of college?’ It was maybe two out of the teachers that we hired.” A lower number of graduates of teaching programs is making it harder to fill those positions.
The HR department realized that not only would they need to look outside their immediate area for candidates, they also needed to focus on retention. “We have to retain our teachers. We’re working more to do that, to try to retain them. We know we are not going to be able to just recruit our way out of this.”
They began offering teachers incentives like more planning periods, hiring additional staff to help monitor the lunchrooms, and removing other extra duties from teachers’ plates. And feeling the pressure of staffing a growing district with an HR department that remained much the same size, they began evaluating their technology to see how they could be more efficient.
Out With the Old
In 2001, tech-savvy applicants who wanted to apply online to Suffolk Public Schools (SPS) were out of luck. “They would ask, ‘Do you have an online application?’ ‘No, you’ve still got to fill out a paper one. Professional development is not online yet…you’ve still got to turn in your certificates.’”
Positions were categorized by applications printed on paper of different colors. Dianne would take stacks of applications home to review. “It was very cumbersome, time consuming. Half the time when somebody said, ‘I put in an application,’ you couldn’t really find it. You’re looking through stacks of paper, trying to figure it out. ‘Okay, do you mind putting in another one for me?’ That kind of thing, because we didn’t have an online system.”
That was true with a lot of things. Onboarding was entirely offline, and new employees would come into the office, sit at a table, and fill out their paperwork. When substitutes were needed, principals and assistant principals would spend time on the phone the night before, hoping people would pick up the phone and agree to teach. It was clear that an online system was needed.
Not all systems are created equal, though, and SPS went through a brief stint using another not-so-user-friendly system. “We went with a different system first… and then we came to our senses and went to Frontline.”
“We went with a different system first… and then we came to our senses and went to Frontline.”
The Beginning: Absence Management
The early 2000’s, you might remember, was before everyone carried the internet around in their pockets. Amazon was where early adopters bought books (but nothing else); Google was hardly a household name. And cloud services were so new that when SPS first began using Frontline’s Absence Management, it took their staff some time to acclimate. Dianne said that Frontline’s training made the difference. “It was fantastic. It got me through. I’m not a computer person, and it got me through it. Everybody said, ‘Oh, you know it so well. I had a good trainer.’”
Finding substitutes got much easier. “The principals and the assistant principals love it. They don’t have to call anymore. It works. And our finance department, they use it to pay the subs. Finance probably wouldn’t let us change even if we wanted to. They love it, too.”
Because they had had such a good experience with Absence Management, when the HR department decided it was time to look for a new recruiting and hiring system, Frontline was the natural choice.
A New Recruiting & Hiring System
Moving away from paper was the most visible change. The HR department can see when candidates stall or miss a step in their application process and can remind them to go back and complete it. If Dianne needs to take time some evening to review applications, she can access them at home rather than staying late at the office.
And Frontline shines compared to their old system. “It’s really a simple, user-friendly system,” Dianne said.
As they serve a growing district, Dianne said Frontline enables the HR team to keep them with increasing needs. “We have a small staff and that has helped us with that. I think we’re able to do a lot more.” How much time do they save using the system? “I’m thinking hours in a day. It helps us daily. If we had to sit down and pull out a piece of paper… we probably save hours in a day pulling something up online and going through it quickly. It’s just invaluable to be able to do this.”
A Broader Recruiting Base
Suffolk Public Schools is outside of Norfolk, Virginia, the largest naval base in the country. People — including teachers — are constantly moving into the area. Now, SPS can recruit teachers before they even arrive, as well as seek people who may not have even had the district on their radar. “It has allowed us to do more recruiting of teachers outside of this area, because people can go online right now and pull up information about us and go into Frontline and say, ‘Oh, there’s an application! Here’s a little bit about Suffolk.’ It’s allowed us to broaden our base as far as staff members.”
“It has allowed us to do more recruiting of teachers outside of this area.”
Onboarding for Retention
Dianne agrees that onboarding is key to retaining teachers, and SPS works hard to include a personal touch with the onboarding experience. With in-person sessions (complete with food, instructional sessions, information about where to go for various needs in the district) and a small-town mentality, the HR department doesn’t just distribute information, they strive to get to know their teachers. “My director is out at the schools right now. She’s talking with the principals about retention. We’ve got to retain our teachers. We are taking it seriously. ‘What’s happening with your teachers? Any issues? Any concerns?’”
Offering an easy way for employees to fill out paperwork online and access files and documentation is another aspect of the customer service that HR offers. SPS purchased Frontline Central when the pandemic exposed the need for greater online access. “I know it’s been more efficient to have it online, that’s for sure, to go through [employee forms] with them, and have them sign it and return it. Because it’s online, the record is already there, as opposed to making copies. So it’s been making things more efficient for us.”
And last year, the district used Frontline Central to handle contract renewals for the first time. “Last year we sent out the actual contracts for the first time through the system. Finance used to always handle that. So they love it, because they don’t have to do it.”
Frontline Central also functions as the hub for all the Frontline systems the district uses: Absence Management, Recruiting & Hiring, and Professional Growth, which allows the SPS to manage and track professional learning online. Data flows between systems, so there’s truly one central location for employee information.
Because each system is set up similarly, employees are comfortable with them. “I think it’s great to have one platform. I’ve found, starting with Absence Management and going to Recruiting & Hiring, they’re very similar. So you don’t have much of a learning curve going from one to the other like some systems. And they talk to each other — a lot of times, going from Absence into another system, the information is there for you already, you don’t have to go back and put it in from scratch. I think it’s wonderful that everything is the same. I wouldn’t do it any other way, personally.”
“You don’t have much of a learning curve going from one to the other like some systems.”
An Outsized Impact
If schools exist to serve students, the HR department powers that mission by serving the teachers and staff who interact with students every day. Hiring great teachers is one way HR has an outsized impact. “The staff members we’ve hired, the folks that influence students the most, they’re spending all of their time with the students. So [hiring online] allows us to broaden that, to be a bit more selective, because we have a broader base to look to.”
Never Going Back
Dianne said that while making the switch from paper to an online system wasn’t easy, they wouldn’t go back to the way things were, and joked about preferring retirement over returning to paper processes. “It would not just be me. Finance would be upset. Our principals, remember, that took a load off of them when they were calling substitutes. They go right in, look at applications at night at home and don’t have to look at paper. I don’t know… we couldn’t make it. This way has worked so well for so long, we would be devastated, pretty much at a standstill. I don’t know what we would do.”
“It’s been a great working relationship over the years. I would not want to work with anyone else, quite frankly. I’d recommend Frontline to anyone.”
About Frontline Education
Frontline Education is a leading provider of school administration software, connecting solutions for student and special programs, business operations and human capital management with powerful analytics to empower educators. Frontline partners with school systems to deliver tools, data and insights that support greater efficiency and productivity, enabling school leaders to spend more time and resources executing strategies that drive educator effectiveness, student success and district excellence.
Frontline’s broad portfolio includes solutions for proactive recruiting and hiring, absence and time management, professional growth, student information systems, special education, special programs, Medicaid reimbursement, school health management, inventory control and asset management, payroll, benefits and financial management, and analytics solutions that help district leaders tap into their data to make more informed decisions for the benefit of their students and communities. Over 10,000 clients representing millions of educators, administrators and support personnel have partnered with Frontline Education in their efforts to develop the next generation of learners.
Learn more at www.FrontlineEducation.com