Sometimes even the smartest people can outthink themselves. That's what happened to Rochester (N.Y.) City School District Superintendent Manuel Rivera. When Rivera went to Washington, D.C., earlier this year as one of four finalists for the American Association of School Administrators' Superintendent of the Year award, he thought he bombed during his interviews. Because he didn't expect to win, the 53-year-old superintendent went to the annual conference in February without even having sketched out a speech. After his wife convinced him he really should have something to say, he put some words together about 15 minutes before going on stage in front of thousands of his peers. By now you've guessed the end of the story: Rivera was indeed named the group's 19th national Superintendent of the Year, his off-the-cuff speech was well received, and the only flaw anyone seemed to find in him was why he thought he did so poorly in the first place.
Feet on the ground: Rivera seemed poised to take this big honor in stride. During his speech, he reflected back to how a decision of his to keep schools open during a recent windstorm had brought him much scorn. "One parent asked if I was on crack, a student cursed me out, and someone else called me an unconscionable jerk," he said at the ceremony.
Second act: Rivera was first named Rochester's superintendent when he was 39 in 1991. He left three years later to become executive vice president at Edison for eight years. In 2002, he returned to become interim superintendent and has since dropped the interim tag. When he left, Rivera admits there were "too many dynamics I couldn't control," one being that the city's new mayor, Bill Johnson, disliked his Board of Education and cut district funds. For his second tour, Johnson is still mayor, and Rivera says he's still critical of the district. "It was very hostile the first few months," he admits. "Some of the political garbage won't go away. You can't let it bother you. I'll stand up to anybody in this community who tries to discredit efforts that are yielding good results."
Big changes: When Rivera returned to Rochester, he says the board told him not to make any drastic changes until it decided on a permanent superintendent. He agreed, but came back three months later and said, "I know what we agreed to, but I really think we should eliminate all the district's middle schools." Three months later, the district was composed solely of elementary schools that ran K-6 and high schools that went 7-12. Other major changes include: creating seven smaller high schools, partly from a $5 million Gates Foundation grant; giving parents the ability to choose any public school for their children; and creating an early college high school model.
Keeping pace: Instead of viewing these radical changes as an overwhelming task list, Rivera says one change naturally led to another. "It seems like there's an awful lot (of initiatives). It's been very exciting, but it can be exhausting. ... Some days I feel like a punch-drunk boxer going into the 11th round. Visiting schools and classrooms keeps me going."
Openness: Rivera says one of his keys to gaining trust in the community has been to be open with everyone, from his union officials to the press to even the mayor. Sometimes consensus building comes down to the smallest details, Rivera admits. "I build and maintain relationships. I return phone calls. ... We take hits from the media, yet we have to rely on them" to get district information out. "Some superintendents say you start with a bag of chips and you have to be careful where and when you spend them. I view it the opposite," he says. As the district shows performance gains and improves teaching and learning, it can ask the community to support more changes.