Randolph Nichols has been showing up at Chesapeake School District for 44 years, first as a high school teacher and track coach and now as superintendent. As school board chairman Barbara Head says, the now 66-year-old Nichols “could stay home and read his paper every day.”
Instead, Nichols stays in his office long after others have left. He’s at board meetings, sporting events and lunches, most of the time carrying his “little black book”—a planner he uses to keeps track of projects. When he writes something in that book, “you know you’re going to get a response,” says Nat Hardee, principal of Deep Creek High School and a colleague of 32 years. “Agree or disagree, he will get back to you.”
Nichols is, in a word, steadfast. Unwavering, he methodically approaches any problem and sees it through to a solution. “He’s very organized, he’s very thorough, he’s very focused,” Head says.
Nichols was one of four finalists for AASA’s 2003 National Superintendent of the Year. Behind his success: hard work and preparation, says Ed Hughes, his administrative assistant and longtime colleague. “He wears me out. He’s a worker. And he also loves what he does.”
Known by most as “Dr. Nick” or just “Nick,” Nichols treats Hughes like a peer and the staff like family. He also sets high expectations. “I see myself as involved,” Nichols says. “I have an excellent staff, and I’m good at delegating.”
This leadership approach, combined with his practice of open communication, has helped Nichols maintain an enviable relationship with the Chesapeake Education Association. In 1999, the collaboration was one of six in the country recognized nationally.
In 1995, when Nichols assumed the district’s top post, Virginia had just announced the new program Standards of Learning. It was “like a culture change,” as teachers adjusted to new instruction and a standards-aligned curriculum. When the CEA wanted to meet, he headed over to their offices. The members were floored. “ ‘This is unheard of,’ they said, ‘that a superintendent would come to us,’ ” Nichols remembers.
In 2001, when several teachers were charged with aiding students on standardized tests, what Nichols didn’t do earned him further respect. “I never made any type of public statement to embarrass those involved,” he says.
Nichols’ well-thought-out plans have earned public admiration, too—such as the time he sought input on a sevenpoint improvement process. “I really underestimated the impact that would have,” he says. “As a result, we have more people behind us.”
It’s no surprise that others want to replicate Chesapeake’s success, and Nichols is ready to share. Last year, when the superintendent in Petersburg, a struggling school system 120 miles away, contacted him, Nichols freely handed over Chesapeake’s curriculum and offered his teachers for training. He has since shared the curriculumwith two other districts.
Nichols has also been a major contributor to facility planning. “You don’t normally find people in this field who are ambidextrous—good at building projects and a good instructional leader,” says Hughes. Plus, Nichols is a “financial genius,” raves Hardee, squeezing teacher supplies and a recent 6 percent salary increase out of a lean budget.
Chesapeake has gotten so many accolades, in fact, that it’s facing major overcrowding as more families move in. The 39,000-student district has 215 portable classrooms parked outside its buildings and expects to add another 300 in the coming years. There’s no budget money for a new high school.
Nichols is frustrated, but he’s also steadfast. He’ll confront the challenge with the same approach that’s worked for him time and time again. “I don’t do much without having a type of plan or strategy in mind,” he says.
Jennifer Covino, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a contributing editor.