LaTanya McDade became superintendent of Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools in July 2021, while the district was still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
A veteran district administrator who’d served as the chief education officer in Chicago, McDade is also the first woman and African American to lead Prince William County schools.
While the local school board has been supportive, districts and companies often don’t know what they don’t know when they have to accommodate the first woman or the first woman of color, she said.
McDade spoke with Education Week as part of a series of interviews on women in education leadership.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said there’s no ‘playbook’ for how to support women leading school districts. Should there be one?
I think there should be some framework, and I think there should be some training for boards that are hiring superintendents.
One of the things that was so disheartening to me when I was going through the process of applying for the superintendency was that a close friend of mine was also applying for a superintendent role. She had a child who was still in high school, and she let them know she would be moving to the region but her daughter was going to stay in school where they were, with her dad, until she graduated from high school. [Then] they would move with her.
The school board, literally, during the interview process, discussed it, and one person said that was a deal breaker for her. So today we are still dealing with the gender roles and stereotypes of what women can and can’t do if they’re a mother, if they’re a wife.
So I do think a framework is necessary. I also think there’s training that needs to be provided to hiring managers and school boards when they are looking for the best candidate and they hire a woman, [around] the tools that are symbolic of unconscious bias that need to be addressed.
When I said a playbook, it actually may be a framework that companies and school districts can use to say, “When you hire a leader in this role, what needs to be in place to support them ... beyond the standards that govern their evaluations?” Because right now, I think that’s the only thing we rely on.
Tell me about your experience as the first woman and the first African American superintendent in Prince William County.
The school board that hired me has been very supportive, so you do have to have a supportive governing body. That’s No. 1. I think my school board was fully aware [of] the challenge I would be faced with coming into this role during the pandemic, coupled with the fact that it was a historic appointment, with me being a woman and a woman of color.
That was a difference from what I heard from some women going into the role being the first—it’s that I have to say the support of my school board was there.
But even with that, they don’t always know everything I have to deal with as superintendent, especially being a woman.
What they [did] was give me the freedom to be able to do professional development, to join organizations, to network. Those were things that were put in my contract—that they would support my development. I think that’s critically important.
But the other thing I think that is probably lacking across the country, is that there is no “playbook,” if you will, for how to support a woman or a woman of color coming into this role, and everything that we are faced with beyond the job—emotionally, socially, the gender stereotypes that exist for women when you have a family. That’s the way it’s been.
I’ve just had to lean on the system of support that I already had coming into this role.
They were women who were leading in the role already, who were serving as informal mentors to me. There was nothing built out to say, “OK, LaTanya, you are coming in as a woman, as a woman of color, here are all the things we have set up for you.”
I think we’re a little bit further behind. In the business community, you’ll see literature about how to support women in leadership, especially women of color. I’ve just not seen it [ in K-12]. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that’s been very readily available in the K-12 space.
What are you doing to raise the next generation of female leaders, both in school and in general?
This is where it starts. We have our young women in our schools, that’s where we have the opportunity to cultivate a mindset of leadership, where young women see themselves as worthy of these positions.
I remember having a great conversation with one of my mentors, Dr. Janice Jackson, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. She said, “When you go into the superintendency, do not walk into that role to just be happy to be there. We deserve to be in these roles. We are worthy. We should be valued. We have the capabilities. We have the competence. We have the acumen and the skills for this job.”
It’s important that we are cultivating leadership, especially in our young women, where they see themselves as highly capable and they don’t continue to perpetuate the confidence gap that exists, where women don’t even apply because they don’t see themselves as worthy.
That starts in our classrooms today.
So making sure that there are programs that exist so that [young girls] can pursue leadership opportunities—whether it’s student leadership classes, which are some of the things we have here in Prince William County, or leadership roles, like student representatives on the school board, or the student senate, or the student voice committee, or our ‘Grow Your Own’ program for future teachers.
I put in place a college and career advisor in every single high school to make sure that every student can sit down with a trusted adult who is knowledgeable and can support them with their postsecondary goal, so that they have a plan for when they graduate in their back pocket, and that includes talking about career choices.
We have partnered with [businesses] to create STEAM events, specifically for girls. There is nothing wrong with that. We can walk and chew gum. We can support all students, [including] male students, but also prioritize the need to make sure that our girls see themselves in education as leaders.
We have an Educators Rising student leadership conference where our students compete as part of our ‘Grow Your Own’ program. Recently, girls in our school district placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd at the state level in the Educator Rising leadership conference. We have a student senate here in Prince William County where students use their voice to serve as partners in education and help to provide feedback on policy and practices.
That all starts in the K-12 space, long before they go into teaching. Because even if they don’t go into teaching, we should be preparing them for leadership roles both in education and other sectors.
What can K-12 do to support women to see leadership as a viable option outside of the classroom?
The beauty in education is that we’ve already got the pipeline. We’re not just developing it. If three-quarters of the teaching force are women, we have no excuse for not having more women in leadership. So it begs the question, “What are we doing with this robust pipeline of women in education?”
That means a couple of things. No. 1: We have to make sure that teachers in the field know the various roles that can lead to the superintendency. We have to make sure we are providing them with the kinds of leadership development—not just training—but opportunities to advance and be promoted in the organization. Being very transparent and making visible what the career pathways look like to the superintendency, and then making sure that women who are our teachers are having fair opportunities to lead.
Especially now, with the teacher shortage, you see really high-quality teachers in the classrooms. Everybody wants to keep them in the classroom, but that’s not the way to go. This is where we have to create layers of leadership opportunities in the organizations so that teachers can step into leadership roles and understand what the pathway could be for them, and then [we need to be] transparent about the positions when they arise.
Sometimes your teachers are head down, doing the work. They are not necessarily online searching and looking for postings. In organizations, especially in the K-12 space, how do we advertise, market, and prepare teachers to go into these different roles at a systems level, which would prepare them for the superintendency?
And then starting early, making sure that we have strong programs for career exploration at the middle school and the high school level, at the secondary level.
I think the last two things I would say: Revamping hiring practices to make sure that we have fair and equitable hiring practices. Panels that interview for key leadership positions should be diverse both in gender and backgrounds, making sure that we have structured protocols for hiring and training for hiring managers, looking at how our job postings are inclusive, knowing that women are going to count themselves out based on a word or the way the language is written in the job posting.
Once women get into the job, this is where it can all fall apart.
If you get in the role, “You said you were qualified, now sink or swim"—that’s the way it is, that’s the expectation. So what has to happen is that there has to be an established network of support of women in leadership and in the K-12 space. We can create that. Just like we have a mentoring program for teachers, we also have to have mentoring programs for women who go into leadership where they have someone—whether it’s an executive coach, whether it’s a peer—that’s been in the role that can mentor them.
There has to be a part of that leadership development where women in leadership understand the different organizations they can become a part of so they can build their network beyond their current districts. Part of me being able to land the role that I am in was having a network that was nationwide.
How does being a first in your district affect young people?
It’s a huge responsibility to be a superintendent, no matter who you are. But [I have] the added responsibility of knowing that now I serve as a role model for all for all the young women who have never seen themselves in that senior role.
When I came into Prince William County, I visited one of our high schools. There was a group of young ladies of different age ranges—high school students. They asked me to come over, and [whether I] can I take a picture. One of them, I could see that she was a bit teary; she was a little emotional. I said, “What’s wrong, what’s going on?” She said, “Nothing’s wrong. I’m not crying because I am sad. We are just so happy to see you because we have never seen woman in this role, and now I know I can be a CEO. I know I can be a boss.”
That is a direct quote from one of my students. Every time I tell this story, I get so full, and I get chills because I know that representation matters, and so that is the weight that I carry as a woman in leadership: Understanding that I have to be a model for those who will come after me, as well as honor those who have come before me, who have allowed me to be able to have this opportunity. It’s not a responsibility that I take lightly.
We hear over and over about this notion that representation matters. If it matters we have to be willing to do something about it, and my responsibility is to not just live out the expectations of me as a superintendent in Prince William County. What matters is what I do to change the narrative for women in this space, what I do to create sustainable practices that will allow young women in this school division to matriculate through a system, whether it’s Prince William County and beyond, and land the role that I’m in today.
When I leave here I want another woman to be a viable contender for this role.
A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as Cultivating the Next Generation Of Women Leaders in Schools and Districts