Harvard Program for Urban Superintendents Offers Tough Training for Tough Job

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The ivy-covered halls of Harvard University have seldom seen the effects of poverty and blight that afflict many inner-city classrooms.

But an unusual program here is attempting to produce school superintendents who are adept at dealing with dropouts, disciplinary problems, and children raised in poverty.

The Urban Superintendents Program was established two years ago by the Harvard Graduate School of Education to offer tough training for a tough job: the management of a big-city school district.

Taking a cohort of 8 to 12 experienced educators--mostly women or minorities--the program buries them in books, sends them into schools, and subjects them to an academic regimen described as being so intense it could leave the fittest undergraduates burned out and begging for coffee.

The resulting product, the program's administrators hope, will be superintendents who can improve schools while negotiating contracts, balancing budgets, and hanging onto an office that routinely gets the better of their more-experienced peers.

When it comes to the urban superintendency, "there are no miracle workers. There can only be well-prepared, thoughtful, capable people,'' says Robert S. Peterkin, the program's director.

Superintendents need to be visionary to bring about improvement, Mr. Peterkin says, but they will not stay in office and realize their vision without "the skills to bring that vision through.''

'168-Hour-a-Week Jobs'

While many education schools offer training for administrators, the Harvard urban-superintendents program is unusual in that it requires a full-time commitment from students and focuses specifically on the superintendency, as distinct from the principalship and other posts.

David Kuechle, chairman of the department of Administration, Planning, and Social Policy within Harvard's graduate school of education, says his department decided to establish the urban superintendents program in 1990 after it began examining the role of superintendents in education reform.

The faculty members, he recalls, quickly discovered that "the superintendent in the urban districts had become much more than an educational leader.''

"Rather,'' Mr. Kuechle says, superintendents "were expected to take on tasks that spread well beyond the schools, into the families, into the welfare agencies, and into the justice system.''

"These had become 168-hour-a-week jobs,'' he says.

Mr. Peterkin, who formerly served as superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, adds that the position has become stressful and "isolating,'' and notes: "We have watched a couple suicides in the job in the last five years.''

The planners of the program also were concerned with the high turnover rate
cx31p el-39lamong urban superintendents. The average rate among big-city chiefs is now less than three years, down from five years in the 1970's. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990)

With the assistance of an advisory panel of urban superintendents and financial resources from the Ford Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, the Harvard department set out to create a program whose graduates would succeed in the superintendency and bring about needed educational reforms.

The program's designers defined the well-prepared urban superintendent as someone who would be an instructional leader, who could build coalitions with business and community agencies, and who would be able to better the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.

Blending Ideals With Politics

The Harvard program consists of three basic parts: an intensive, accelerated year of study; a six-month internship in an urban district; and an analytic paper on a problem of urban educational leadership.

The curriculum is "a very deliberate attempt to bridge the gap between theory, practice, and research,'' Mr. Peterkin says.

The first year of study covers about two academic years of course work in the fields of administration, planning, and social policy, with the topics addressed including urban school law and microeconomics.

Unlike other higher-education programs for superintendents, which tend to stress "nuts and bolts''--such as how to balance a budget or manage a building--the Harvard program also addresses broader issues, such as how to act responsibly while surviving politically.

"It would be foolish for somebody to take on the superintendency today who did not know how to think politically,'' says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard who sits on the program's steering committee.

"You have to blend ideals with politics or you are not going to make it'' adds Jerome Murphy, also a professor of education and a steering committee member, who says he tries to teach "politics in the pursuit of noble ends.''

The program makes extensive use of case studies, with instructors throwing difficult hypothetical problems in the laps of their students and asking them to come up with the best realistic solutions.

Through such case studies and lectures by outside experts, the students learn, for example, how they should deal with student protests, or maintain good relations with the school board and city hall, or even leave their jobs when they think they cannot be effective any more.

The students put their newly acquired skills to the test through internships, where they take experienced superintendents as mentors, become heavily involved in the operation of their mentors' districts, and attempt to help bring about positive educational change.

A member of the first cohort, Douglass Ann Kinkade, who interned under Peter Negroni, the superintendent of the Springfield, Mass., school district, says her internship gave her a chance to sit in on labor negotiations, work with state committees examining school finance, and take tips from Mr. Negroni on dealing with the media.

"My internship hit on all of the areas that I needed to work on,'' Ms. Kinkade says.

Mr. Negroni, who went from being a principal to being a superintendent without having any formal training for the superintendency, says that he wishes a similar program had been around to prepare him for the growing complexity of his job.

"Most of us have not been trained to be transformational leaders,'' Mr. Negroni says. "We have been trained to be status-quo leaders.''

"There are very few systems in America--I don't know of one--where you can go in and say, 'Everything is okay, you don't have to change anything,''' Mr. Negroni asserts. "Every time you enter the superintendency, you know you have to go in as a change agent.''

'A Solid Group'

More than 70 percent of the students in the Harvard program are women, and almost 80 percent are minorities, a reflection of the program's express commitment to increase the representation of these groups in the field.

Nationally, by contrast, women and minorities, respectively, hold fewer than 8 percent and 5 percent of superintendencies.

"The reality is that many places are not ready for women or people of color'' to be their school superintendent, contends Janice E. Jackson, one of the second cohort of students to enter the Harvard program.

Ms. Jackson and her cohorts acknowledge that their graduation from Harvard will not guarantee them jobs. But they predict that their degree would significantly speed their rise through the ranks of urban-district administrations.

When the first graduates of the Harvard program enter the field this year, they hope to stay in contact so they can swap advice and help each other's careers.

Mr. Peterkin says the program deliberately encourages each cohort of students to form a support network as they deal with the tough criticisms and the pressures of becoming a full-time student in mid-career.

"It is not usual procedure to call on another superintendent,'' Mr. Peterkin says. But the graduates of the Harvard program, he said, "will be unafraid to discuss the biggest success or the most critical problem with each other.''

"We are bonded,'' says Virginia Lawrence Mayo, a member of the first group of students to go through the program.

"We are a solid group,'' she says. "We will always have this network to draw on.''

Vol. 11, Issue 30, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: April 15, 1992, as Harvard Program for Urban Superintendents Offers Tough Training for Tough Job
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