Foundations Seek To Expand Pool of City School Chiefs

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A plan to increase rapidly the number of candidates ready and able to seek jobs as urban superintendents has attracted the support of five major foundations.

"Superintendents Prepared," a joint project of three Washington-based research and consulting organizations, is designed to move 90 highly qualified educators and other professionals into positions as urban school chiefs over the next three years.

It will be supported with more than $2.3 million in grants from the DeWitt Wallace Reader's Digest Fund, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Ford, Prudential, and Rockefeller foundations.

The program, whose announcement was scheduled for this week, is a response to a precipitous decline in the pool of people willing to lead big-city school systems. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991 .)

In 1990 alone, almost half of the nation's large urban school districts had superintendent vacancies. The average tenure for such chief executive officers is now about two and a half years.

"Unless things change drastically and quickly," leaders of the Superintendents Prepared consortium maintain, "the pipeline [of talented superintendents] will remain almost empty and those in it will remain ill-prepared for the job."

Launching the initiative are the Institute for Educational Leadership Inc., a nonprofit leadership-development and research group; the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, one of the country's premier think tanks for black leaders; and The McKenzie Group, an education-consulting firm.

'Jump Starting' Candidates

The new program is designed to recruit and train up to 30 people a year for executive posts in urban districts.

The organizers say that most of those to be selected now hold jobs as assistant, associate, or deputy superintendents in large school districts, or as chief executives in smaller ones.

But the consortium also intends to recruit as many as six "non-traditional candidates" a year from such fields as business, law, and the military.

And it will place a special emphasis on attracting women and minority candidates to lead large-city school systems, many of which have enrollments made up mostly of minority students.

The goal, according to Floretta D. McKenzie, the president of The McKenzie Group and a former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, is to prepare such candidates in "quick time" through the use of individually tailored professional-development programs.

"We are talking about jump starting' strong candidates," she said. "We want to help those people [who are] ripe and ready for the plunge."

A Broad World View

The consortium plans to rely heavily on its contacts in the education, political, and other public sector communities to recruit nominees and help pave their way.

The group also plans to write personally to the superintendents of school districts that serve 5,000 or more students to solicit nominations from within their staffs.

After a rigorous application procedure, the candidates will spend two weeks this summer in an intensive training session focused on identifying gaps in their leadership skills and on introducing them to some of the key issues facing urban superintendents, such as politics, finance, and management.

All of the candidates will be expected to remain in their current, full-time positions while completing a yearlong, "tailor made" program that might include formal coursework, specific skills training, on the-job assignments, and short-term internships.

The candidates will convene at least twice more during the year for continued professional development and to establish a network with their Superintendents Prepared colleagues.

All participants will also receive a small amount of professional-development money for travel, materials, and other purposes that are approved jointly by the candidate, his mentor, and program staff members.

Each participant will be assigned a mentor or sponsor to help him over the course of the year. These might include urban superintendents, heads of statewide education organizations, college professors, or business and civic leaders.

According to its creators, what differentiates the initiative from traditional training programs is its emphasis on experiential learning and its insistence that educators engage in activities that expose them to the broader world.

"We want to help them get experience that traditionally prepared school administrators are not getting," said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the I.E.L., "in city government, in state government, in human-service and social-service agencies. So it isn't the traditional, limited, professional education perspective."

"So many of the people who have urban experience don't even know where their state capitals are, and that's dysfunctional," Mr. Usdan added.

Most of the internships that professional educators enrolled in the program complete, for example, will be outside education, including time spent in private industry or in corporate training programs.

In contrast, non-traditional recruits will receive an intensive exposure to the life of a school district.

"We'll try to give them the kinds of experiences at the teaching and building and central-office levels that obviously can't be extensive within the timeframe," said Mr. Usdan, "but that at least will give them an exposure to the culture."

Visible Results Expected

As candidates appear ready to move into top leadership positions, the consortium will work with search firms to recommend the prospective superintendents for job openings or to help them move up the administrative ranks, said Ms. McKenzie, whose firm has been involved in a number of superintendent searches.

"We're going to be very accountable in this program very quickly," Mr. Usdan noted. "The funding sources would like to see a very good number in major superintendencies, forthwith."

To help finance the program, the consortium plans to seek release time and in-kind contributions from participating districts as well as money from local foundations and firms.

In contrast to the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program, which has a similar purpose, Superintendents Prepared is a non-degree program. It is also geared toward individuals who could move into top positions almost immediately.

Some of the Harvard candidates include principals and mid-level managers who may have to move into intermediary positions before assuming big-city superintendencies, Ms. McKenzie said.

'Intense, Volatile Politics'

To help design the program, the consortium relied on a planning committee that included school administrators, board members, professors, policy analysts, and representatives from the private and nonprofit sectors.

It also interviewed veteran educators about the training needs of leaders for big-city school systems.

What they found, Ms. McKenzie said, was a remarkable degree of consistency about the kinds of training that most urban leaders lack.

These include the ability to solve conflicts between different segments of the community or among special-interest groups; to communicate effectively with the news media and the general public; to work collaboratively with staff members and motivate people to meet common goals; to manage the business and financial sides of complex organizations; and to coordinate efforts with municipal leaders and human service providers.

In addition, most respondents said superintendents were not prepared to conduct their jobs in the highly politicized environments that big-city systems have become.

One of the program's solutions will be to emphasize case studies, simulations, and other exercises drawn from the real-world experiences of superintendents. Respondents also cited superintendent-board relations as an area that is critical to a superintendent's success, but often underplayed or overlooked in traditional training programs.

"Theoretically, you're looking for people who can walk on water," Mr. Usdan said. "Kind of God on a bad day. But we're under no illusions that we're going to find renaissance people who can do all of these things."

'Got To Get involved'

According to Ms. McKenzie, the gaps in the training of traditionally prepared candidates have made school boards willing to look farther afield for applicants, including nontraditional recruits.

Last spring, for instance, the Milwaukee school board chose Howard L. Fuller, a veteran social-services administrator, to head the 98,000 student district. The move required state legislation exempting the Milwaukee post from a teaching-experience requirement. (See Education Week, June 5, 1991.)

Ms. McKenzie acknowledged that the consortium would have to seek waivers of state-certification rules or make other alternative arrangements to help place its non-traditional candidates in leadership positions.

A more immediate benefit, she predicted, would be to get superintendents and school boards focused on issues of succession.

"Sometimes, you'll have a very bright candidate who doesn't see himself as a superintendent," she explained. "Somehow, we've got to get superintendents to start pushing some of these good people out and helping them to see themselves in the role."

"As I talk to some of my friends who are in major superintendencies and I say, 'Who is ready to take your place,' "Ms. McKenzie added, "they can't identify anybody. They're not developing the talent, and they've got to get involved."

The program will begin accepting applications immediately. It expects to start notifying individuals of their acceptance early in May.

More information is available from Superintendents Prepared, c/o The McKenzie Group, Columbia Square, 555 13th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004; telephone (202) 637-6479.

Vol. 11, Issue 20, Pages 1, 17

Published in Print: February 5, 1992, as Foundations Seek To Expand Pool of City School Chiefs
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories