Larry Nyland, meet your long-lost twin: Don Quixote. Only an out-of-touch romantic would charge in to lead a district boasting a divisive 49-day teachers' strike (a state record), abysmal test scores and plenty of backbiting. Yet the Marysville, Wash., community of 18 schools doesn't view Nyland as a dreamer. Rather, they've fallen more into the role of his beloved Dulcinea.
"Larry is a healer," says Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller. "He's giving the staff back their energy."
Like most knights in shining armor, Nyland shrugs off his deeds. "Scratch me and this is what you get. I bring together people who are passionate about student learning."
Nyland knows the upheaval a strike causes. He was on the front lines in Pasco, Wash., when teachers walked in 1979. Reportedly, a Pasco board member still cries when recalling his leaving in 1994 after a decade as superintendent.
Relationships are now the Marysville focus. Upon his July 2004 arrival, Nyland distributed a 3 x 5 card with the question: What should we do to get better?
He also shared photos of his backyard garden shed--a simple home project that became a fenced-in cottage-style shed (with French doors and a front porch) that doubles as a playhouse. "[It shows] who I am and how we're going to together create fun things here," Nyland says.
Miles to Cover
Staff and parent input helped form Nyland's 1,200-word work plan to:
Maximize student learning results
Strengthen relationships, communications, recognition
Invest resources in learning
Lead with respect and service
Building a successful school system is something he tackled on paper when developing a superintendent preparation program for a Seattle university. It covers the need for positive relationships among staff and in the community. The job is "about conversations [and] working together. It's not about getting slick publications out the door," he says.
The lengths some of Nyland's teammates have gone to for him are remarkable. Miller and Executive Director for Student Achievement Cindy Clauson, both former colleagues, moved families to the area to join Marysville. "I've never worked for someone so phenomenal," says Clauson, adding that even the bargaining teams "see this as a new day in Marysville."
Chuck the Wine and Roses
Two months into the job, Nyland learned his human resources director failed to give staff timely evaluations, then fudged dates to hide it. He reprimanded and removed her-not exactly what folks expect from a Mr. Rogers billing.
He's politely mum on the details. "I struggle with ... the balance between mercy and truth, between results and relationships," he muses. "I had to deal with it because of the respect component." A poster in his office counsels, "Wisdom is knowing what path to take next, and integrity is taking it."
Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based writer.