April 24, 2002 1 min read

An Iowa First

Being the “first” is a common experience for W. Ray Richardson.

Throughout his career in Iowa, as a teacher, a principal, and a district administrator, Mr. Richardson has turned heads by becoming the first African-American to hold some of those positions in local schools.

Last month, when Mr. Richardson was named superintendent of the Ames Community School District, his appointment again broke new ground. Mr. Richardson appears to be Iowa’s first African-American school superintendent.

“I can’t ignore it, and I don’t want to ignore it,” Mr. Richardson, 54, acknowledged. “I have been the first a lot in my career. But, at the same time, I’ve worked hard to get noticed by virtue of my abilities and skills. I didn’t get the job because I was black.”

While the enrollments of most Iowa school systems are predominantly white, the fastest-growing segments of the student population are African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics.

Mr. Richardson’s appointment as the state’s first African-American schools chief was a revelation for some in the largely agricultural Midwestern state.

“I can’t tell you how many people expressed surprise,” the Iowa native said. “People saw African-Americans in some high positions within districts, but they never realized that [blacks] were not in the top position.”

Mr. Richardson worked for 27 years with the Waterloo, Iowa, school system before spending five years as Ames’ deputy superintendent. He served one year as the 4,700-student district’s interim superintendent before getting the job permanently in March. About 16 percent of Ames’ students are minority children, with roughly 3 percent being African-American. The superintendent said the community, which is home to Iowa State University, prides itself on its openness and works diligently on diversity issues.

The 32-year education veteran hopes more administrators of color will be tapped to lead Iowa districts. Minority educators outside Iowa have called Mr. Richardson expressing interest in exploring opportunities to become school superintendents in the state. Mr. Richardson hopes his appointment will give minority administrators statewide the incentive and chance to run a school system.

“It’s always been my goal to make sure and help others who want to make that attempt,” he said.

—Karla Scoon Reid

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week