Forty or so years ago it wasn't far-fetched to consider school administrators as the glass-office workers they may have been, cloistered away from the voices of parents, students and staff they governed. But that's certainly not the scenario in Spokane, Wash., where Brian Benzel ensures daily that there's no communication breakdown on his watch. "Communication is a two-way process: information giving and receiving," says this son of a Ford Motor Co. salesman. And boy does Benzel take communication to a whole new level. Through letters, words, classroom visits, technology and monthly educational house-party coffee-klatches, his near constant contact with Spokane's students, parents and staff hit the crux of Spokane's needs and wants for the kids in his district. "When building relationships with people you can sort things out; communication ... and respect, build trust."
Communication has its privileges: Benzel's work has resulted in better cross communication among educational entities that would normally be mum: union leaders and school board members discuss district priorities; high school principals facilitate study groups based on books the staff reads to help solve Spokane's achievement gap; and principals have been trained to be more instructional leaders, in part by spending two hours a day inside a classroom.
Lets his fingers do the talking: In every one of his employees' monthly paycheck envelopes, Benzel sends a one-page letter updating folks on district news, initiatives and messages to the people he credits with making Spokane's district successful. Benzel also sends a weekly e-mail message for more up-to-the-minute account of the week's events.
Reading is more than fundamental: Reading is Benzel's fave pastime, and he brings it into Spokane's classrooms. "Even though our students of color purportedly could be viewed as small, we have some issues with student achievement," he says. Instead of just holding "administriva meetings," as he calls them, his staff reads books like Young, Gifted and Black to gain perspective on Spokane's issues. "That's one way people gain understanding. It's not a complete way, but it's one way."
Interview with a superintendent: On any day, inquiring Spokane minds can submit queries to Benzel on the district Web site. Benzel answers all questions by the first Tuesday of every month. "It helps me learn," he says.
Political prep: Benzel has logged 33 years of public service in Washington 8 as a superintendent in districts across the state. But before entering ed he was in Washington State's Legislature for three years as a staff person for the Senate Education Committee. Benzel: "I got very interested in education, and both the business aspect and the pedagogy" in college. His school activities led to internships in public policy; later applying everything he learned to his roles in education.
Jennifer Esposito is a freelance writer based in
Superintendent, Spokane, Wash.
Education: BA in business from Washington State University; Master's in Public Administration from University of Washington, Seattle; Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Gonzaga
Tenure: 5 years
On his nightstand: Eric Loo/Lewis/Louis "Guiding Lights: Who inspires us and how do we share it with others?" and a bio of Red Sox great Ted Williams.