School & District Management

Answered Prayer

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 20, 2006 2 min read
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Position: Superintendent, Benton Harbor, Mich., public schools since July 2002

Former job: Vice president of global marketing, AT&T, in Omaha, Neb.

Broad Superintendents Academy, 2002

Benton Harbor, Mich.: Paula Dawning, a former AT&T executive, was the first Broad Superintendents Academy graduate hired as a schools chief. This year, she was named Michigan’s superintendent of the year.
—Left: Photo by Erika Dufour/Right: Photo by Mark Bialek for Education Week

Benton Harbor, Mich.: Paula Dawning, a former AT&T executive, was the first Broad Superintendents Academy graduate hired as a schools chief. This year, she was named Michigan's superintendent of the year.

Paula Dawning wanted a new career, a job that would let her “give something back.” Working for a cancer foundation, she thought. Or the American Diabetes Association.

“But something quite unusual happened,” said Ms. Dawning, 56. “On the same day I was praying and fasting over what to do next, a friend sent me an e-mail about the Broad program.”

So Ms. Dawning, who had not considered becoming a superintendent, applied. Six months later, she was in the Broad Superintendents Academy’s inaugural class and had already landed her job, besting six other finalists who were all career educators.

Ms. Dawning arrived in Benton Harbor, Mich., a district of 5,300 students who are poor and mostly African-American, in July 2002 and immediately went to work on moving the low, stagnant test scores.

The proportion of Benton Harbor 4th graders who scored at the proficient level or higher in language arts has risen from 38.8 percent in 2001 to 77 percent last year. In mathematics, the figure rose from 45.6 percent to 71 percent in 2004. In 2003, the former telecommunications executive steered the district to its first successful vote for a property-tax increase in 17 years, which will raise more than $6 million for building repairs and improvements.

The Michigan Association of School Administrators named Ms. Dawning state superintendent of the year for 2006, cementing her status as one of the Broad Academy’s success stories. In fact, she was the first graduate to be hired as a superintendent.

Ms. Dawning said in an interview that the academy exposed her to “some of the smartest people in the field” and to the latest research—resources she said she has tapped repeatedly.

Ramon C. Cortines, a former schools chief in New York City and San Francisco, is her Broad-assigned “executive coach.” The foundation helped Ms. Dawning pay the district’s costs for joining the Cambridge, Mass.-based District Management Council, which is offering management advice to her team.

Last year, she was one of four finalists vying to become the superintendent in St. Louis. But she is circumspect about her next move, saying only, “I am committed to the children in this district.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Answered Prayer

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