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Look, Listen, Learn

Advice for new superintendents about to start their jobs.
Meria Joel Carstarphen, above center, who started her superintendency in 2006 in the St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, is now superintendent in the Austin (Texas) Independent School District.

When Deborah Jewell-Sherman began to lead the Richmond (Va.) Public Schools in 2002, she faced a board of education that had voted 5-3 to hire her. And with that, the board stipulated that she increase the number of accredited schools from 10 to 20 within a year. If she couldn't, her contract would be terminated.

Jewell-Sherman's contract was one of the first in the state and one of only a handful nationwide that tied a superintendent's job security to student scores on standardized tests. Jewell-Sherman met the demand, and the district showed gains on the state's Standards of Learning tests each year. As of the fall of 2008, just after she resigned, 92 percent of Richmond schools met full accreditation, and two schools were selected as national Blue Ribbon Schools.

Jewell-Sherman, who is now a senior lecturer on education and director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has this advice for new superintendents seeking jobs: "I don't think anyone should take a superintendent's position on a 5-3 or 5-4 vote unless they are very knowledgeable of the district and have a plan of action," she says. "You're already defeated before having a chance."

Starting your first job as a school superintendent can be daunting, and Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, points out that the job has become even tougher now because new superintendents don't have the luxury of expanding successful programs or reducing class sizes given the struggling economy. "A new superintendent coming on board has to be incredibly savvy and a communicator to survive long enough to bring about change," he says. "It's best to move slowly and cautiously and build support within the community and then move forward to implement [a plan]."

Showing his commitment, Durham (N.C.) Public Schools Superintendent Eric Becoats released and signed last January the district's new strategic plan entitled, "One Vision, One Durham."

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, believes communication between the superintendent and school board members during a transition is crucial. "Trouble happens when there is no clarity," she says.

The board works with the NSBA's stateaffiliated associations to ensure goals and expectations are clear before a superintendent starts a job. In most cases, the school board chooses the new superintendent based on the recommendation of a private search firm or a state-affiliated school board association.

Determine a Personal Legacy

Several superintendents, including Jewell- Sherman, agree that establishing a personal legacy—starting with answering the question "Who are you and what do you want to accomplish?"—is key. "The question is not what kind of superintendent will they see, but what kind of person will they see?" says Eric Becoats, who became a superintendent in July 2010 in the Durham (N.C.) Public Schools, which has 54 schools and 32,566 students. "My personal legacy is one in which I want to be very transparent, be open. I firmly believe you have to work hard, and in the end, you have to play hard, as well. Make sure the job gets done. My calendar of what I'm doing on a daily basis is on the district's Web site. And you have to balance your work with your family life. That's important. You can't serve your community well if you're not balancing your time."

Superintendent Heath Morrison spends the first day of school with students and staff members at various schools.

Meria Joel Carstarphen started her superintendency in 2006 in the St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, which has 64 schools and 39,298 students, but is now superintendent in the Austin (Texas) Independent School District. She recommends "soul searching and self-reflection on what made you the person you are today." "As new superintendent, I wouldn't enter a diverse urban school setting unless your core values and beliefs are aligned to a quality education for all students," she says. "Be sure about the match between your core beliefs and the job that the board expects you to do, because it will be tested every day."

What is most remarkable about Carstarphen's tenure in St. Paul is that after just three months on the job, she gained the support of the community to pass a $30 million six-year referendum, which spanned the longest period of time of any referendum the community had passed for programs and services for schools and students. The funds were designed to better prepare students entering first grade and to better prepare secondary students leaving high school. Carstarphen says she was successful in getting strong community support for the referendum because the district presented a clear message that conveyed what the community could expect if the referendum passed.

Learn Your District, Community

Some call it a "listening and learning tour," which is exactly what it is. New superintendents starting out need first to listen to their staff and other stakeholders— from their administrative cabinet or staff and district-level leaders to business leaders and community members. But even before they start the job, Becoats advises, new leaders should study three important Web sites: the school district's site, in part to review the "points of emphasis," such as testing and demographics; the town's "most visible blog," particularly the debates; and the local chamber of commerce site for the community growth rate, largest employers and future building plans.

Becoats says he enhanced the Superintendent's Business Advisory Council, a group of representatives from 30 businesses who meet with the superintendent quarterly to discuss the ways businesses can support schools. When Becoats started his listening and learning tour, he held a series of town hall meetings. He suggests that such meetings be held in the cafeteria so community members are forced to sit at tables together. "I provided an open-ended question for which each table would brainstorm a list of responses," he says.

Jeffrey J. Smith, superintendent of the Balsz Elementary School District, a K8 district of 2,800 students in Phoenix, Ariz., with four elementary schools and one junior high school, says that when he started his first job as superintendent in 2008, he knew communication itself was not the only important feature, but that how ideas were communicated and with whom were also key.

Staff members and community members, including parents, will often give their opinions about how to make things better in a district, he says, and it's best to ask them, and other stakeholders, some important questions: What is your role in the district? What are the greatest strengths of the district? What are the biggest obstacles to success in the district? What do you believe we can do to make the district the best it can be? What is your one piece of advice for me?

The last question, Smith says, catches people off guard. "The question leads to fascinating advice," he says. "Some would say, ‘Trust your teachers. We have highquality teachers here, and they need to be respected.' Or parents would say, ‘Preserve our neighborhood and community; schools are a part of that community.' Others would say, "We have the best administrators; we need to support them.' Those pieces of advice have carried me through."

Lay Out a Strategic Plan

After a few months of collecting information, spend the next three months working with your leadership team to compile the feedback and to draft a strategic plan for the district, Becoats suggests. Set a date for the launch of that plan and make it a community event, with the media invited, he says. The plan should lay out specific goals to move the district forward.

In August 2009, Heath Morrison became superintendent of the Washoe County (Nev.) School District, which has 99 schools and 63,310 students; but a few weeks earlier, he began to meet with school board members and cabinet members. Over the first 90 days of his tenure, he visited 102 schools and met with 3,000 community members. From that, he compiled his 90-day "entry plan," which included initial targets and goals for Morrison's four A's: alignment, accountability, accessibility and achievement.

In her first job as superintendent, Deborah Jewell-Sherman led the Richmond (Va.) Public Schools from 2002 to 2008.

In August 2010, Morrison launched his strategic plan, "Envision WCSD 2015—Investing in Our Future," which includes specific goals and targets. In addition to developing a strategy to address the district's issues and challenges, Morrison knew that inclusion would be a huge factor in whether or not he was successful. He says superintendents must include underserved and often overlooked groups, and in his district's case, Latino advocacy groups (38 percent of the student body is Latino) such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Latino media. Morrison recalls, "The day we announced our strategic plan, we almost canceled the press conference because the Spanish version of the plan was not done and I wasn't going to release it until it was translated in Spanish."

John Barry started his superintendency in 2006 in the Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools, which has 56 schools and 36,967 students, after spending 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and retiring as a two-star major general. He says he had a simple goal when he started his new stint: to have every student graduate and then enroll in college without needing remediation.

With that goal in mind, he and his team conducted a 90-day listening tour with stakeholders, after which they developed a 16-page strategic plan that connected ends (vision) with means (goals and objectives). The goals and objectives were organized around four areas: people, achievement, community and environment (PACE). "By keeping the big picture that can be explained on the back of a napkin, you allow teammates to fill in from the bottom rather than be directed from the top," Barry says.

The five-year strategic plan, called "VISTA 2010," focused on accelerating student achievement and closing achievement gaps. From there, Barry and his team developed the next strategic plan, "VISTA 2015," which focused on supporting seamless education from preschool to college. "My advice is to develop your own strategic plan that everyone can understand and support with their ideas. Then review the data each month - so it stays a living and breathing enterprise," Barry adds.

Challenges Rear Their Head

Every superintendent, no matter how popular, will have critics. The best plan is to not take anything personally. Barry of Aurora, Colo., schools, who was named the 2011 Colorado Superintendent of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives, recalls a lesson he learned the hard way.

In 2008, Barry thought the district could use unspent funds in the employee dental insurance program to begin a student scholarship program. Barry's team put out a survey asking employees if they thought this was a good idea. Barry recalls that the survey only allowed participants to agree with the idea, not vote yes or no. "People thought we were framing the questions to get a specific answer," he says, which he learned never to do in the future. In the end, after Barry acquired additional feedback, the scholarship idea was dropped. Barry worked with employees to create another solution for the excess funds. Employees received a dental holiday, a time when they didn't have to make contributions to their dental plan.

If You Had a Do-Over

A few superintendents admit to being so focused on the students and community that they ignore the people right in front of them. "Do not forget about the people who work within central office," says Becoats. "I think it's easy to have somewhat of an external focus, and you sometimes lose the internal focus. I would suggest a balance of the two."

Becoats says that when he learned of this problem, he responded. During a professional development event he provided for managers, senior managers and executive leadership team members on understanding different operating styles, he took part in a dance routine to Janet Jackson's song "Control." "We had some fun, just being silly," he recalls. "People have to see you are human."

Morrison also admits that he didn't spend enough time getting to know his central office staff members. "The people who work in the central office are probably among the most impacted by a new superintendent, and there is a lot of nervous [energy]," he says. "I didn't sit in my office until October," he adds, which was about three months after he started the job. "It's all about time management."

Barry says he has learned many valuable lessons. "Among the top lessons I've learned is the value of transparency and developing a sense of urgency for high expectations," he says. When he started, the district was in the bottom 10 percent in the state in terms of literacy and in the bottom 18 percent in math. "Most parents, staff and community members didn't know what the real state of the school district was," Barry says. "By being transparent with this low student-achievement data, we helped staff and the community realize and understand the significant challenges we faced, and how important it was to change current practices."

Becoats adds that he would have been in more contact with certain board members when it came to relaying information about ideas. Some board members thought at least one decision was rushed and didn't have all the details of a particular plan as it developed over time. "I [now] try to provide more board members with more information and check in periodically. I'll probably call them more," Becoats says.

Jordan High School science students in the Durham (N.C.) Public Schools show Superintendent Eric Becoats an experiment they are conducting during one of his visits to schools.

Know When to Run Away

Jewell-Sherman, who was named Virginia Superintendent of the Year 2009 by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, left Richmond about seven months after then-Mayor Doug Wilder tried to move the school district offices from City Hall to another building. One night in September 2007, Wilder hired movers to pack up administrators' and board members' computers, desks, file cabinets and files, and to move them out. The mayor had criticized Jewell-Sherman and the district for years and had wanted to take over the education system.

Jewell-Sherman advises superintendents with critics to surround themselves with supportive, inspirational people and with objects that "give you a sense of accomplishment." Wilder was forced to allow the district offices to stay in City Hall, but the damage was done. In April 2008, having accomplished everything she had wanted, Jewell-Sherman quit.

"[Wilder's move] was devastating. It was like having someone beat you up publicly, in the biggest arena, and you still had to hold your head high. I knew I couldn't fight back," she recalls. She points to the lyrics of the Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler" for advice: "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."

Angela Pascopella is senior editor.