The first thing Terry Grant, superintendent of the Blue Sky School District in Rudyard, Mont., did this morning was unlock the doors of his K-12 school and do a walk-through. He makes sure the restrooms have enough soap and toilet paper, and he takes garbage to the dump because the school's custodian is out with a nasty flu. The fifth-grade teacher is feeling pretty peaked, too, and Grant wonders if he will have to teach her class for the day.
Doing double or even triple duty is common for this Montana superintendent. He's shoveled snow with a tractor and by hand, ordered teachers' supplies, disciplined students, and even done counseling and career planning. Last summer, he drove a group of girls to a basketball camp in Billings.
"The girls raised money for fuel for the bus," Grant says. "All they needed was a driver."
The Blue Sky School District is remote and small. It serves 100 students and employs 15 teachers. And it is academically sound. "Of this year's seniors, all but one is going to a tech school or four-year college. Only one student is going to farm," he says. The school district also has a high technology rating, with nearly a computer for every student.
Grant is not extraordinary. Like many other rural school superintendents, he has had to step into other roles just to keep the district going and meet student needs. Seth Adams, superintendent of Sunnyvale (Texas) Independent School District, supervises one school--Sunnyvale Elementary School (K-8). It has an enrollment of 472 and a faculty of 35. His district is noted for its quality academics. "We have a group of strong students," Adams says. But due to budget constraints, he has officiated basketball games, subbed as a kindergarten teacher, served food in the cafeteria, driven a school bus, and even filled in as principal when the principal was ill.
Tom Condict, superintendent of Okemah (Okla.) Independent School District 26, oversees three schools: Oakes Elementary (pre-K-4), Noble Middle School (5-8), and Okemah High School (9-12). His enrollment is larger than many rural schools, supervising 900 students and 65 teachers. Due to vacancies that cannot be filled, he has also become director of federal programs. And Condict is the new football coach this fall. "These are all temporary fixes," Condict says. "It's not good in the long term. Overburdening staff only leads to burnout and makes it more difficult to attract new teachers because of the heavy workload.
But teachers and administrators in Oklahoma have done a good job of making do with a little less." Thus, his district is not without an ad-vanced placement program, enrichment classes for gifted and talented students, and most seniors--95 percent--head to college.
Superintendent Jimmy Cunningham of Plainview-Rover School District in Plainview, Ark., has driven a school bus, coached basketball and raised money to send students to camp while he supervises two school buildings with 300 students and 25 teachers. Two converted agricultural buildings house art and music facilities, a gym and administrative offices. He supervises a preschool program that offers free childcare for working mothers. In addition, Cunningham oversees a before- and after-school program, starting at 7 a.m. and running until 5 p.m. "I'll outwork you any day," Cunningham says.
Working Smarter, Not Harder
Days become very long for superintendents like Cunningham. For Terry Pearcy, conditions at his former post as a superintendent and a junior high and high school principal overseeing 375 students, forced him to find something less exhausting. "More and more of my time was taken up with principals' duties. I was working evenings and weekends. When the custodian was out sick, I did those jobs, too." Pearcy says." In Illinois, 50 percent of your time should be on instructional improvement. The supervision of activities took me away from curriculum development and long-range planning. That definitely affects the way you work." Because he was always putting out fires, he spent less time building a stronger curriculum and nurturing professional growth in his faculty. He sought change in order to be more effective. "You have to find where you can do the most good," he says.
Today, he is the new superintendent for Sullivan (Ill.) Community Unit School District 300 with 1,100 students. Though much larger than his previous district, Pearcy feels he is now working smarter instead of just working harder. "I can now keep the focus on the district and do long-range planning in ways to include the public more and to have measurable outcomes."
According to Marty Strange, policy director of Rural School and Community Trust, doing more than one job as a rural superintendent is widespread, but not yet universal. "It's the way things have to be done, especially in smaller districts." Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, agrees. "In the current economic climate, within the parameters of funding by state legislators across the nation, it is common not only for administrators but teachers to do jobs and tasks that would normally be done by someone else," Mooneyham says.
Making Up for Budget Cuts
A tight budget is the biggest reason superintendents, principals and teachers in rural districts must do more than what job descriptions define. State budget caps, local tax caps, state and federal budget shortfalls, school consolidation, federal mandates like No Child Left Behind, and teacher shortages are straining already strapped rural budgets and over-extending school personnel.
State funding strategies have been challenging. In Texas, the so-called Robin Hood plan requires property-wealthy districts to give a specific dollar amount t
property-poor districts. It sounds good on paper, but property-wealthy districts aren't necessarily rich. Adams says the plan required his property-wealthy district to pay out $1.5 million to a property-poor district, losing 38 percent of his budget for the year.
Other reasons for tight budgets are state funding restrictions. For Condict, predicting how much the state of Oklahoma can send districts is tricky. "If the state's revenue doesn't come in," Condict says, "school allocations are reduced. We lost 8.5 percent of the state's allocations last year. This year we face a 4 percent reduction from the very beginning." Other states face budget caps, a formula set by the state that restricts the size of district budgets. Schools are then required to cut their budgets, no matter the consequences.
Some counties have their own property tax caps, restrictions on how many mils their property tax can be raised, which keeps some small districts from having enough money funneled from taxes toward education. "Small communities would be willing to tax themselves, but they can't" due to such restrictions, says Pearcy.
Many schools are being forced to consolidate because of mandates from state boards of public instruction, which group together schools under a certain size, saying they would be more efficient. In Montana, Grant says that
previous consolidation with another school had a devastating effect on his district, losing 100 students as a result. "Unless there is a reason for people with kids to stay, they will leave," Grant says. Often they move into a bigger town or large metropolitan area; sometimes they move out of state. "If we pull education away from the community, more people will leave."
According to Mooneyham, there is a prevailing mindset in this country that rural or small schools are not cost-effective due to the fewer numbers of students coupled with the same expenses to operate school buildings and pay for staff salaries, resources and transportation. "It does cost more to educate in rural schools if you go just by the numbers," he says. But Marty Strange says that graduation rates are higher in rural areas than in larger districts and more students participate in extra-curricular activities in rural areas over urban ones. "If you look at the cost per pupil, it looks very inefficient," Strange says. "But when you look at the graduation rates and the rate of participation in curricular and extra-curricular activities, it is very cost-effective."
"This is Our Town"
Why then do superintendents continue to work so hard?
"This is home," says John Edington III, superintendent of the Biggers-Reyno School District in Biggers, Ark., "This is my school." A 1967 graduate of the high school he supervises, Edington returned first to teach math, which he did for 15 years, then later to become a K-12 principal, and finally superintendent. For the past 12 years, he has overseen 210 students and 25 teachers. Edington has pitched in wherever he could. "I've done just about everything," he says. He's coached basketball, drove the bus, been a substitute teacher, taught an advanced prep college algebra class, served lunch, and done custodial work. "It's not just me at the school," he adds quickly. "Any teacher or principal will pitch in and do extra jobs, too. Everyone is invested. This is our school."
Terry Grant does his building walk-throughs not only out of necessity but because it gives him a rare opportunity to see his facility in ways requisitions and reports can't explain. If the bus driver complains the bus is breaking down and a superintendent is stuck driving the bus when it breaks down, he gets a taste of the dilemma and sees the urgency of getting repairs done or planning a fundraiser for a new bus.
Superintendents also get to know their teachers and their schedules better. After his bout as a kindergarten substitute, Adams admires kindergarten teachers who exhibit patience and creativity in the face of boundless student energy. "Not everyone is called to be a kindergarten teacher. They are saints, and I have infinite respect for them." Grant also says, "If I'm involved, I know what is coming, and I can be that much more of service to my teachers." He even finds a conference for a teacher to attend each year.
Administrators, who are working away from their desks, also get to know students in a variety of settings, and can spot behavioral changes and mood swings. "You know if a kid is hurting," Grant says, "and you are
better able to do something about it."
Rural superintendents continue to do whatever is necessary to keep their schools running. "It's just," Grant says, "everyday life."
Stopping to Smell the Flowers
It's not a matter of if they face stress, but how they face it. School superintendents face stress every day. When it gets to be too much, some take sick time or opt for a leave of absence. Others, like Superintendent Terry Pearcy in Sullivan, Ill., leave for a position with more simplified work.
Coping with day-to-day stress of multiple jobs can take its toll--physically, emotionally and spiritually. Here are some ways, garnered from published articles on the Internet and from the American Association of School Administrators, to manage stress:
Identify the source of stress Pinpoint what keeps you awake at night. Once you find where the stress is, you can make a plan to deal with it.
Delegate Superintendent Seth Adams in Sunnyvale, Texas, admits he can't keep going without help. "I have a good business manager, a good secretary, and good people in the schools," he says. Use your secretary to run interference for you so that you can have some uninterrupted time. Enlist responsible volunteers (teachers, parents, community members) who can pick up some duties that aren't in your job description.
Organize your life Start by cleaning off your desk. This single act will make you look and feel in control. A clutter-free desk clears the mind so you can focus on the task at hand. Use planners, secretaries and technology tools to manage time.
Seek support Adams looks to other superintendents he knows for advice and networks at monthly superintendent meetings for ideas and solutions. Having a colleague to talk to can help put things in perspective and can often reveal the humor that's lurking behind the crisis you are facing. Also, attending professional conferences, motivational talks and retreats will help rejuvenate your spirit and shed light on new ideas.
Take time for yourself Take breaks throughout your day. Walk around your grounds and smell the flowers, literally. Play a game. Take 10-15 minutes a day to read a good book, preferably something that has nothing to do with your professional life. Such "mini-vacations" can enliven you.
Be in the present A lot of stress comes from anticipating something happening. Focus on the task at hand. Deal with the future in daily or long-range planning sessions.
Develop a sense of humor Nothing can defuse a tense situation like laughter. Cultivate a sensitive friend who can make you laugh when you need it. Find the humor in your situation.
Take good care of yourself Slow down. Eat well. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Listen to music. Meditate. Do yoga. Do fun things with your family.
Finally, remember that you can't please everybody.There's always someone who will find fault. Take criticism in stride and try to take pride in doing the best job you can.
Janie Franz is a freelance writer based in Grand Forks, N.D.