AASA Superintendent of the Year
SUPERINTENDENT KRISTA PARent begins her weekday workouts at 4:30 a.m., although as superintendent of the South Lane School District in Cottage Grove, Ore., she gets plenty of exercise in the morning. The energetic leader doesn't allow herself to completely relax at her desk at work during the day. A former physical education teacher, Parent now uses an exercise ball as her desk chair, which gives her muscles an excellent workout throughout the day. Some staff members have followed suit.
"I think we spend way too much time in the office, unfortunately," says Parent, who was named the 2007 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators and ARAMARK Education, which co-sponsor the Superintendent of the Year program."This [exercise ball] gives us a way to exercise while doing that."
When AASA officials were reviewing candidates for the award, they were struck not only by Parent's accomplishments but her unusual career path. Unlike other superintendents, who typically work at several districts throughout their careers, Parent began teaching at the South Lane School District in 1985 and stayed there, becoming superintendent 16 years later.
Her long tenure in a single district gives Parent insights that superintendents who have been in districts for only a few years may not have, says Darlene Pierce, director of the National Superintendent of the Year program.
Parent, 45, earned the honor for demonstrating excellence in the areas of professionalism, communication, community involvement, and "leadership for learning," defined as creativity in successfully meeting the needs of students. Moreover, a national panel of educators, business leaders and government officials selected Parent for increasing student achievement and bringing staff together to change the way they do their work," says AASA Executive Director Paul Houston.
The spirit of teamwork is familiar to Parent, who coached the women's basketball and volleyball teams at Lincoln Middle School in 1985 when she began teaching after earning her bachelor's degree in physical education. She played softball at the University of Oregon and in her youth devoted much of her time to volleyball, basketball and track.
"I think that everything about my athletic life, whether it was being an athlete or a coach, has helped me as a superintendent," she says. "Things like being incredibly organized, being very disciplined ... seeing the big picture of where you want to go to but putting the steps in place to get there."
And since Parent became superintendent in 2001, the district has made enormous strides. The district's high school in the past four years has seen a dramatic improvement in student performance.
In the 2002-2003 school year, 38 percent of the school's students met state reading standards on assessments. In 2005-2006, after Parent implemented new reading programs, 63 percent of students did. And the district has seen similar gains in math with a program funded by a National Science Foundation grant that allows teachers and principals to be trained by Oregon State University faculty in math teaching strategies.
Parent, who grew up in Central Point, Ore., knew she wanted to be a teacher from the age of 5, when she would come home from school and teach 4-year-olds what she learned in school. "I've just been a teacher all my life," she says. "I was kind of one of those natural leaders. I like sharing information with people."
As Lincoln Middle School's coach of both the women's basketball and volleyball teams, she was tough, possessing high expectations of her students. All coaching is about putting the right people together to be the most effective and get you to the ultimate goal," she observes.
Rising Up the Ranks
Parent has always loved teaching, but by 1990 district administrators had recognized her talents and offered her a promotion to assistant principal and athletic director of Cottage Grove High School. The district superintendent later asked her to leave the school for the central office as district curriculum director.
Although she was worried that she'd miss working directly with students and teachers at Cottage Grove, she agreed to take the curriculum director position.
"This was a hard decision for me because all the action was in the school and working with the kids," says Parent, who also holds a master's degree in educational administration and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Oregon.
After her promotion to curriculum director, Parent rose through the ranks of the 3,000-student district, becoming assistant superintendent and, six years ago, superintendent.
It was as assistant superintendent of the South Lane district that Parent helped break the district's losing streak with a bond measure. Voters three times had rejected a measure to raze the outdated Cottage Grove High School and construct a new one.
Parent helped steer the district toward a new approach for persuading the voters. The district had been targeting high school parents in its bond campaign. She and other administrators decided to expand their targeted message to elementary school parents to explain the benefits of a new high school. By building a new high school, the district would save money on maintenance costs, which could free up money to be used for other purposes, district officials explained. "The campaign had a much bigger meaning to people," she recalls.
The new strategy worked and in 2000, the $25.9-million bond measure passed overwhelmingly, and the district was able to use the maintenance savings to fund the painting and carpeting of the district's elementary schools.
High School Reading Programs
As superintendent, Parent has instituted several innovative changes at Cottage Grove High School that her assistant superintendent, Peter Tromba, feels have been instrumental in the school's improvement in student performance.
All teachers, including those in math and science, incorporate into their instruction such reading strategies as summarization, vocabulary techniques and note taking, Tromba says.
Additionally, Cottage Grove has modified its schedule to create a mandatory 25-minute study period for freshmen and sophomores. (Juniors and seniors meeting a certain GPA requirement can opt out with parental permission.)
During these study periods, students are sorted by reading ability, and those having the most difficulty use the time as a reading class, Tromba says. Those with moderate difficulties brush up on their skills, and students not having problems use the time to study for other classes.
Struggling readers also are placed in remedial reading classes in addition to their regular English course and study period sessions, he says. Previously, such interventions were left to the teachers' discretion, but they were too burdensome for the teachers, Parent says. "It can't be up to the individual teachers. Our teachers are already working hard," she explains.
The study periods have the advantage of lessoning the stigma for low-performing students, Pierce observes. Because higher-performing students also attend the study periods, the low-performing students don't feel singled out for help.
Parent is a voracious reader whose interests extend beyond education books to include works on leadership and management. When principals and administrators meet, the books serve as starting points for discussions and activities.
Parent participates in most of the same training sessions that the teachers receive. She also often trains her staff members to use some of the same techniques that she has learned from books or conferences.
Love for Teaching
The AASA selection panel was also impressed with Parent's listening skills and her ability to connect with and help her staff . According to Pierce, Parent models leadership for others by her unique approach to staff development and her willingness to become directly involved with teachers' and administrators' work.
Pierce recalls an incident that illustrates just how involved Parent is: She once received a cell phone call from a teacher seeking advice on the inclusion of a class textbook. "I thought it was amazing that a teacher would call a superintendent" for advice like that, Pierce says.
Parent's attention to instruction is a product of her love for teaching, says Ali Nice, Harrison Elementary School principal. "She spent years working with kids, and kids remain her focus," Nice says.
And Parent says that instilling excitement is key. "It's always about," Parent says, "being with the kids and seeing them learn, being able to share my experiences, and creating the spark in them that turns them on to learning as well."
Kevin Butler is a contributing editor based in Los Angeles.