As enthusiastic as Christina Gibson was about forging a new career in education nearly 20 years ago, she never truly envisioned becoming a superintendent, calling the position “really daunting.” Some districts can be tougher than others.
That is especially true of Eastpointe Community Schools, where Gibson landed after 17 years as a principal and educator in Port Huron, Mich. It is located in the Detroit suburbs along 8 Mile Road, an area profiled in the film of the same name by Eminem, who went to nearby Lincoln High School. Once the “crown jewel of Macomb County,” Eastpointe has undergone a massive demographic transformation–from majority white to now 87% students of color–that was further divided by the introduction of Schools of Choice. White students have left to attend schools in more affluent areas and the freefall has been severe. Five schools eventually were shut down. Eastpointe was the only one to survive an economic redesign by the state, and only because teachers were willing to take a 25% pay cut.
Gibson arrived during those dire moments. She saw the way teachers and administrators fought for Eastpointe and wanted to be a part of it. “How do you walk away from people who have survived an economic takeover, who have survived schools of choice, have survived charter schools, have survived a state takeover?” she asked. “How do you try to make it better for the future?”
Answer: By becoming superintendent. After a change of heart and a rise through the Eastpointe system, against the odds Gibson decided to accept an offer to become the next district leader. On July 1, she takes over for the retiring Ryan McLeod. “I started looking at other superintendents and thought, I could inspire people to do better for kids,” Gibson said. “I don’t want to have somebody [in the position] who doesn’t care for kids the way I do.”
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She hopes her enthusiasm and creative work lifts Eastpointe from the ashes to become a district of choice for students and teachers. Four of its schools already have been removed from the state’s persistently low-achieving lists. They are also slowly building a pipeline of new teachers, using ESSER III funds to train up dedicated paraprofessionals.
“We try to find the right attitude,” Gibson says. “There are three things I’m looking for when I’m looking for a teacher. Do you like children? Are you smart? And are you willing to be better tomorrow than you are today? If you are, then I’ll teach you to be a teacher. The goal is that they move into our community, stay in our community and invest in us in the future.”
Preparing for the future
Gibson knows that gaining new ideas to empower her district is important, so she decided to attend the recent National Superintendents Academy from District Administration in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to hear perspectives from others across the country. Collaborating with a cohort of leaders and aspiring superintendents on communication and skill-building–and listening to their stories–will be helpful as she shifts into her new role.
“It was right now, right on time. It was exactly what I needed to learn as I’m navigating moving into the superintendency,” she says. “The diverse group was amazing. What drew me to it was the opportunity to go through a process. Sometimes when you are only around your people in Michigan, you only get exposed to the ideas that are kicking around in your state. All of the training was fantastic. The big takeaway from the group was how to really craft a great story to share with any stakeholder group that helps them better understand my orientation to service.”
What will be Eastpointe’s story under Gibson? There are myriad challenges still facing the district, which serves a much more diverse, high-risk, low-income population and special education population than it did decades ago. Teachers are “hot commodities” and often bail rather than stay to fight. In fact, Eastpointe had to shut down a middle school this year after half a dozen teachers resigned. But Gibson, still the assistant superintendent for another three weeks, is helping to change the dynamic.
She introduced a hybrid model of learning during the pandemic that Eastpointe is keeping, a move that makes sense given the income struggles of families who often need their teens to work to make ends meet. And she oversaw the technology charge, ensuring kids not only have internet and devices but is pushing to become uniquely 2-to-1 for many students because they toggle between homes.
“I don’t think high school has to be in school, five days a week, seven hours a day,” Gibson says. “Public education looks the same as when I was in school a few decades ago. When have we ever radically taken the time to redesign the way that we engage in learning? We’re starting with hybrid, but we also recognize children and families need consistency, continuity, and they need to know what to expect.”
Among the strong features the district boasts is a preschool early childhood center that is now five times bigger than it was when Gibson arrived. Eastpointe also has eight Great State Readiness Program classrooms and free preschool with daycare for staff and families. It continually works to build community partnerships. Even with improvements, there’s so much to overcome, including navigating the everyday complexities of the new position, the charter school surge driven by the DeVos family and getting students acclimated again socially to in-person learning. But there’s always hope, and Gibson believes strongly in her staff and her teachers because they put children first.
“A former superintendent and mentor told me, the superintendency is about the ability to get children what they need, and to leverage your political network to make rules and advocate for what children and families need to be successful,” she said. “It’s easy to get hung up in, how am I going to navigate that? How do I set the tone in my organization? Thinking about serving the needs of families and children, and assuming a role of advocacy, is really helping me to get excited about the superintendency.”
The District Administration Superintendents Summit offers cutting-edge professional development to school district superintendents and other senior education executives to inspire innovation and leadership excellence in K-12 education. Upcoming events in this series:
- July 20-22: Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva, WI
- Nov. 9-11: Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, Carlsbad, CA
- Dec. 14-16: Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, Ponte Vedra, FL