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A Year After Columbine Tragedy, Hard Lessons For Administrators

"If it can happen at Columbine, it can happen anywhere."

Those were a few of the sobering words Jane Hammond, the superintendent of the Jefferson County, Colo., schools, had for superintendents and other school leaders gathered here for the annual convention of the American Association of School Administrators.

In a packed session at the conference, Ms. Hammond talked about the day last April when two students walked into the suburban high school near Denver and started shooting, killing 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Don't be fooled, the superintendent warned, into thinking that everyone in a school is safe, or that tragedy can be prevented through traditional safety measures.

"I have had to admit," she told a silent audience, "that I could not ensure the safety of every student at all times."

Ms. Hammond said one lesson she had learned from the tragedy is how caring and supportive people can be. She recalled her own telephone calls to superintendents across the country who had been through similar tragedies, and said she received similar support from colleagues that day.

And Ms. Hammond said she had emerged from the ordeal with a better understanding that safety may be more about relationships with students than about security officers or metal detectors. "I have learned about how people can be—the kind of empathy we need to have in people," she said.

And when parents and alumni formed a human chain as students returned to Columbine last fall, the superintendent said, she felt reassured that a place of peace would rise again, despite the heartbreak.

Columbine's name derives from the state flower, "which grows and survives through harsh winters," Ms. Hammond said. "It's just the right name for that school."

In another packed session at the March 2-6 conference, the filmmaker Steven Spielberg presented his Shoah Visual History Foundation's videotapes and materials that teach students to respect people who are different from them.

The director of "Schindler's List" said he hopes schools—beginning with several pilot districts announced at the convention—would make use of his teaching materials and video interviews with Holocaust survivors to help schools teach the importance of respecting people's differences—and the horrible events that can happen if they don't.

To "build a more tolerant and a more humane generation ... those are my prayers and dreams," Mr. Spielberg told the crowd of several thousand people.

The materials, which eventually will be available through the Arlington, Va.-based AASA, can open doors for broader conversations with students, Mr. Spielberg said. "You can't teach about the Holocaust without teaching about slavery and the Native American experience ... [or] discrimination against homosexuals," he said.

At a session on surviving the urban superintendency, superintendents told of their experiences juggling the demands of a big-city school district with the needs of their families.

Gerry House

Memphis, Tenn., Superintendent Gerry House agreed that it's important "taking care of yourself, so you can take of other people's children."

Ms. House, who has headed the 112,000-student district for eight years, has announced that she will leave the district next month to head a New York City institute on at-risk youths. In her experience, she said, people who want to become effective superintendents must have three important characteristics: the ability to look past a student's or school's appearance and realize the goals that can be achieved regardless of circumstance, a belief in the district's capacity to solve its own problems, and a belief in one's own abilities.

Betty A. Rosa, the superintendent of Community District 8 in New York City, one of 32 subdistricts within the 1.1 million-student system, told of combining work and family time.

"My son is in my district," she said. "The district becomes a family to him—they all feed him" at the district office after school.

To make more time for her family, Ms. Rosa said, she asks school board members to leave her alone during weekends except for emergencies. During the week, though, she works extended hours.

F. Donald Saul

The AASA also announced the National Superintendent of the Year at the gathering. He is F. Donald Saul, of the 14,000-student Thompson school district in Loveland-Berthoud, Colo., north of Denver. Mr. Saul was recognized especially for his expertise in school finance and for helping the district create academic standards and effective career programs. He is a former chairman of the Colorado School Finance Project and has been a consultant for the Colorado Department of Education.

During a discussion on how to adapt the curriculum to meet changing times or circumstances, the subject of frogs came up.

"We have to give up the frog sometimes," said Rexann L. Beverly, the director of curriculum and instruction in the Trotwood-Madison city schools outside Dayton, Ohio. Her comment, she explained, was about making sure teachers aren't focusing on subjects or experiments—such as dissecting a frog—that are no longer aligned with tests, or that derive from a teacher's whim rather than what students must learn.

Her 4,000-student district, Ms. Beverly said, has eliminated classes aimed at "below average" students, has begun requiring all students to take algebra in 9th grade, and has created extra work for some students who demand honors-level instruction.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Page 14

Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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The incorrect location was given for the organization that Memphis, Tenn., Superintendent Gerry House is leaving to run. The Institute for Student Achievement is based in Lake Success, N.Y.

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