School & District Management

In Unprecedented Times, Which School Leaders Stand Out? Tell Us. Nominate The Next Leaders To Learn From

By Denisa R. Superville — August 26, 2020 5 min read
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Every year, Education Week seeks out bold and innovative district leaders for its annual Leaders To Learn From issue, which honors educators who are transforming the lives of the students and staff in their districts.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many district leaders have risen to the occasion. They’ve developed remote-learning plans on the fly and quickly set up meal programs to feed thousands of students. They’ve devised ways to keep tabs on all of their students and innovative ways to honor graduation.

We’re on the hunt for more of these bright stars.

But we need your help.

We’re asking you to nominate your colleagues who are doing the difficult, critical, and often unheralded work to improve their districts.

Leaders To Learn From has spotlighted superintendents, food services directors, instructional coaches, family and community engagement coordinators, equity officers, and district budget gurus.

They are often the people who are quietly putting the pieces together so that teachers and principals can do their jobs and students can have meaningful educational experiences. Over the years, they’ve inspired our readers as well as the reporters who have profiled their successes.

Take Marsha Francis, for example, one of the 12 members of the Class of 2020. A bad student-teaching experience led Francis to create the First STEP program to change the way Georgia’s Fulton County school system supports student-teachers.

“I loved getting to profile Marsha Francis, an energetic and passionate 2020 Leader to Learn From who has worked to revamp student-teaching in the Fulton County school district in Georgia,” says Education Week reporter Madeline Will, who flew to Atlanta last year to spend time with Francis.

“She does the kind of hands-on work that can be transformational for a school district but often flies under the radar. To me, that is the hallmark of a Leader to Learn From, and it’s why the report resonates with so many readers every year,” Will noted.

Four years ago, Education Week writer Corey Mitchell profiled Michael Matsuda, the superintendent in Anaheim, Calif., who is leading the school system where his mother attended when, as a 14-year-old freshman, she was sent to an internment camp after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Matsuda’s personal story and his deep commitment to the needs of long-term English learners have stayed with Mitchell.

“Like many Leaders to Learn From, Michael Matsuda has a fascinating backstory on why he was drawn to work in education,” Mitchell says. “But his story stretches back, well before he was born, to the 1940s—and an ugly chapter in U.S. history. His mother was among dozens of Japanese-American students forced out of Anaheim High School and into concentration camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. More than 70 years later, he became superintendent of that same southern California school district.”

Renee Pryor, who was recognized in 2016 for her leadership in teacher evaluation, remains one of Stephen Sawchuk’s favorite Leaders To Learn From.

“I have been blessed over the years to have profiled a number of outstanding leaders, but one reason I particularly remember Renee is because of her amazing work on teacher support, right in the middle of exceptionally fraught policy debates over teacher evaluation,” says Sawchuk, a co-editor of Leaders To Learn From.

“In Tennessee’s Lincoln County, Renee was using the state evaluation system as a way to have powerful conversations with educators about how to improve teaching. Teachers reported feeling supported and empowered by the coaching and resources she provided. Renee was also one of the kindest and most modest people I’ve ever interviewed, which leads me to this insight about leadership: Often the most effective leaders aren’t flashy, or extroverted, or the subject of splashy news coverage. They’re too busy simply getting the hard work done.”

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein has interviewed and written about a number of inspiring district leaders for this special issue. And they’ve all left an indelible mark on her.

“I loved getting to know Joseph Meloche, the superintendent of Cherry Hill School District in New Jersey,” said Klein, who traveled to New Jersey in 2017 to observe Meloche in action as he sought student advice and input on major decisions, including what kind of computers to buy as the school system was about to embark on a massive technology purchase.

“He and his team make a point of using student voice to try to pinpoint and solve problems in the district. It was inspiring to watch him talk to sixth-graders and take their concerns as seriously as he would the board president’s.”

Another leader whose work has stuck with Klein is Christie-Jo Adams, who was honored in 2019 for her innovation of intentionally infusing dance, theater, painting, and music into the core academic classes in schools in the Richmond., Va., school district.

“I was so lucky to get to tell the story of Christie-Jo Adams, the instructional specialist for fine arts in Virginia’s Richmond City Schools,” Klein says. “As a student in Richmond herself, Adams didn’t excel in academics. But music class gave her a chance to shine. She’s worked tirelessly to bring that opportunity to children all over this high-poverty district, including by helping to turnaround several schools by pairing arts with academics.”

District budget and spending decisions remain largely opaque to the wider school community. And that’s why this district’s chief financial officer’s novel approach to demystifying school finance sparked Staff Writer Daarel Burnette’s interest.

This financial officer opened to books—literally—to the community and actively pulled them into the process.

“Nolberto Delgadillo, Tulsa’s CFO, exhibited the evolving role district CFOs have in helping districts reach their academic goals and stay fiscally afloat,” says Burnette, who wrote about Delgadillo for this year’s class of Leaders To Learn From. “Delgadillo used community input, transparency and brutal honesty to lead his district through a fiscal crisis.”

We know there are Renees, and Marshas, and Christie-Jos, and Joes, and Michaels, and Nolbertos working in your school districts. And we know that they stepped up to the plate during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tell us about them. Click on the link in this sentence to nominate them for EdWeek Leaders To Learn From. We can’t wait to hear their stories.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.