Leading Sensibly

Leading Sensibly

This California superintendent uses a measured approach to education while creating highperforming s
By:

Gail Anderson Uilkema knew when she took her job as superintendent of the 2,600-student Piedmont (Calif.) School District in 1987 that this job would different from those she held previously.

For one, her son began in kindergarten that same year, giving her a wonderful perspective of how children, and parents, how well the district does its job.

Although she didn't know at the time that she would be staying in this job for at least 15 years, she says that many of her other district jobs were short stints, making her feel like "a sort of cleanup person." But when you stay in one place for such a long time, "You start cleaning up what you created. It's like a family, there are strengths and weaknesses."

Anderson Uilkema must have handled this transition well, because she was named the 2002 Superintendent of the Year at the American Association of School Administrators conference this February.

Anderson Uilkema must have handled this transition well, because she was named the 2002 Superintendent of the Year at the American Association of School Administrators conference this February.

"I am still riding on cloud nine," she says weeks after winning. "The award is so thrilling because it is a validation of the work that I and others have done over a long period of time. It is wonderful to be recognized by your colleagues and it is wonderful to be able to share the award with everyone with whom I work-faculty, staff, students, and community members."

The award's winner is selected by a blue ribbon panel convened by the AASA, which chooses from the 51 nominees submitted by each state. The program is in its 15th year; last year's winner was Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

While this job has been different from Anderson Uilkema's wide-ranging experiences, in a way it was a bit of a homecoming. She had completed her student teaching in the same district in the 1960s, and upon returning, she found she still knew many of the more tenured teachers in the district.

In between stints at Piedmont, she had made educational presentations in Africa, Australia and Asia while serving on the board of directors of the Association for the Advancement of International Education.

She recounted an experience in Nepal where a small girl led her by the hand to the local school. She was amazed by the lack of proper chairs and desks, but struck by the enthusiasm for learning present among all the students.

Solving Funding Problems

Although her current district is an affluent suburb of Oakland, it faces its own funding problems. "Funding is a huge problem in California," she notes. The state's system gives the district just about $5,000 per student per year. And because her district is totally residential, she knew that any additional tax dollars would come right from residents, only one-third of which have children in the school system.

But by working with the community, the district has managed to pass a $30 million bond for school renovation and construction. Last year, 78 percent of residents passed a $4.2 million parcel tax to lower class sizes, add art classes and offer extra curricular activities.

While her district boasts the top test scores in the state and 98 percent of students go onto college, Anderson Uilkema says she has "concerns about the over-emphasis on testing. I'm for accountability, but I like to focus on creative teaching and learning."

Piedmont takes a somewhat different strategy when it creates its curricula, she says. First, she looked at the district's strengths and incorporated them into the coursework, then she made sure the curricula matched the state standards.

With all of the accomplishments of her district, perhaps it is best known as the district whose students are featured in the bird calling contest shown annually on The Tonight Show Students study various bird species, than work hard to imitate the various noises they make. "It teaches poise and confidence and it's one of the most meaningful times of their life here," she says.

"Although our students get into all the major colleges in the country, when they return to visit they never talk about standardized testing," she adds.

Wayne D'Orio, wdorio@edmediagroup.com, is editorial director.


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