December 1999. Justin Colonna, a 23-year-old college student from Eugene, Ore., died in a snowstorm while hiking 12,300 feet up on a Colorado peak.
For his family, it was a crushing blow. His father, then-superintendent of Redmond (Ore.) Public Schools, refused to be defeated by loss. He grieved and channeled his energies toward improving the lives of all kids. And from the bleakness of that mountain slope came a glimmer of goodness and hope.
Now leading the Beaverton School District farther north in the state, Jerome Colonna--or Jerry, as he's known by friends--helps others look toward the greater good. "It is a moral imperative for him to ensure that every child is given the opportunity for a great education," says district spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler. "He is really inspiring."
Looking for Blessings
"Really good leaders use crisis to improve" themselves and their organizations, says Colonna. "I have needed to learn that there is a blessing here. ... I don't take anything for granted. We don't know how many days we have left on this earth. If we knew, we would live differently. We would love a little more and hate a little less. I don't want to let his life be seen as some random incident. I want to use his life as a force for good."
To Colonna, education is more than just a job. "It is a very noble purpose [and] ... the number one thing that has made America great. ... It is more of a mission. It is missionary work," he says.
The student message: Schools can be a place where different values and beliefs are celebrated. "What we are trying to do here is show that the diversity in the district honors all people," Colonna says.
Last winter, Colonna's goal was put to the test. A high school photography class created a display of various versions of "family"; one featured same-sex parents. Despite the pressure from some parents, Colonna stood his ground. The display now hangs in the central office. "I think you have to deal with what reality is. You speak about it and discuss it openly. You do it in a respectful, professional way," he says.
John Costa, editor of a local newspaper, has also experienced the education leader's respect for others. Over time, Costa's presence has evolved from simply a face at editorial board meetings to another colleague. Now the men meet up for long conversations over good meals with red wine.
From budget issues to a controversial murder involving students from the district, Colonna has faced the media, never asking for mercy from his newfound friend. "We wrote multiple stories I am sure he didn't want," Costa says. "Never once did he suggest that we shouldn't be doing what we are doing."
Over his decades in education, including 20 years as an administrator, Colonna has developed guiding principals of leadership. Leaders should, for example:
Select service over self-interest
Welcome complaints as an opportunity for improvement
Stop doing the unimportant things. Do the few most important things better than any other school district in the nation.
Adding to the List
Colonna says he can't take credit for his newest, possibly most important tenet: "Abraham Lincoln once said, 'I would rather be criticized for the right reasons than liked for the wrong reasons.' "
Steven Scarpa is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.