Alaska’s Lower Kuskokwim School District is roughly the same size as West Virginia.
In her three years leading the school system, Superintendent Kimberly Hankins has faced challenges that match its massive scale: 29 schools spread over 22,000 square miles of largely roadless terrain. A typhoon hit. A school caught on fire. Erosion threatened the very ground another school sat on.
All the while, Hankins had to work to build trust with villages only accessible by airplane or snowmobile.
“When you learn to be a superintendent, there is no class about what you do during a typhoon,” Hankins said, reflecting on her bumpy start leading the Bethel, Alaska-based district during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You can never really anticipate what it’s like to be in that role until you are, so to surround yourself with people who can support you when you need the help is critical.”
Fortunately, she had a phone-a-friend: Sean Dusek, a retired Alaska superintendent who partnered with Hankins through a formal statewide mentorship program he helps lead.
Like other states, Alaska is concerned that the stressful work of leading a school system has contributed to a revolving door of first-time superintendents, just as districts take on academic recovery, a student mental health crisis, and uncertain finances. The mentoring effort, created by the Alaska Superintendents Association, pairs veteran and newbie superintendents for a formal two-year program that, leaders say, is starting to pay dividends.
The aim is to give new leaders a fighting chance of staying on long-term, said Dusek, who previously led Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
“The superintendency is an incredibly isolated position, and the demands are monumental,” Dusek said. “With fewer and fewer people getting into the profession to begin with, we have to strengthen our current superintendents as much as we can and provide them with support so that they have job satisfaction and want to stay.”
States concerned about superintendent turnover
Alaska’s efforts reflect what has become a burgeoning conversation nationwide about the strength of the superintendency in the face of volatile politics, controversy over coronavirus response, and workforce challenges.
There is little national data about superintendent turnover, but recent research and news reports indicate that concerns about churn in educational leadership are felt around the country.
Turnover has accelerated in the nation’s largest districts: 49 percent of them changed leaders between September 2020 and September 2022, a higher rate than right before the pandemic, according to the ILO Group, an education strategy firm.
The superintendency is an incredibly isolated position, and the demands are monumental.
But it’s not just in urban districts. In Missouri, about a fifth of the state’s 519 traditional public school districts lost their superintendents in both of the last two school years, the Springfield News-Leader reported, and for several years the majority of new hires have been first-time superintendents.
In Wisconsin, two state lawmakers filed a bill this month that would eliminate a state superintendent licensure requirement with the aim of expanding the pool of potential applicants. That state, too, has seen an influx of brand-new leaders at the helm of its districts.
In Alaska, three-quarters of the state’s 54 school districts have had at least one leadership change since the 2018-19 school year, Dusek said. And some of them have seen repeated shifts at the top.
Those patterns are what the Alaska mentorship program aims to shift.
The state’s mentorship program started as a periodic meeting for rookie superintendents in 2014. In 2019, it evolved into a formal pairing of retired district leaders with superintendents who are new to the role or new to their districts.
Mentor administrators are paid by the new superintendents’ districts, who contribute $2,000 to $3,000 for their leaders to participate in the two-year program. Participation includes professional development and site visits, and is stipulated as a requirement in the mentee administrators’ contracts.
The program includes webinars on specific topics, like board relations and budgeting. Cohorts of new leaders have regular meetups to build camaraderie. And mentors meet with mentees both online and in in-person site visits.
One reason for the layered support is that the concerns endemic to the profession—politics, human capital, cost of living—are frontier-sized in Alaska. Its districts deal with the added hurdle of recruiting and retaining teachers in an isolated state. And, while a rising cost of living is a concern everywhere, it can cost as much as $15 to buy a gallon of milk in parts of rural Alaska, Dusek said.
And even a school system with just 35 students must meet the same state and federal accountability and operating requirements as its larger counterparts.
“As a superintendent [of a small district], you still have a full school board to work with, but you don’t have a director of special education or a finance director,” Dusek said. “You may be the principal and you may be the custodian as well.”
Professional mentoring programs are not unusual, but Dusek said his state has seen promise in making its superintendent program a formal part of new leaders’ employment, and by making the relationships more structured and intentional.
Leaders have seen some early signs of success. All of the superintendents who started the program this year are returning for the 2023-24 school year. About 80 percent of the leaders who just finished their two-year mentoring period are expected to return next year, Dusek said, and some have opted to continue their mentoring beyond the original program length.
Making mentoring relationships work
Alaska administrators were inspired by a similar effort in Washington state. There, the Washington Association of School Administrators uses a state grant to provide train its mentors, who are current veteran superintendents.
In the first hour of the cohort’s monthly sessions, the mentors meet alone to practice the sorts of strategic conversations that help new leaders thrive, said Kim Fry, WASA’s professional learning coordinator and a former district superintendent. In the second hour, mentors and mentees meet together to unpack challenges. In the third hour, mentees meet as a cohort to compare notes and offer emotional support.
“Isolation isn’t healthy,” Fry said. “When people have connection with other people in the work and competency in the technical aspects of doing the work, that really is the combination of things that lead to long-term satisfaction.”
Washington’s mentorship model follows the framework for teacher mentoring designed by authors Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman. Mentees may consult with mentors by asking for specific, sometimes technical advice, Fry said. The pairs may collaborate, combining the experience of the mentor with the more recent training of the mentee to discuss challenges, like the COVID-19 response.
Or they may have coaching discussions where mentors ask thoughtful questions to help mentees identify a path forward in a particular area.
Helping talented superintendents stay on the job
Dusek said it’s rewarding to help districts retain talented leaders like Hankins, the Lower Kuskokwim superintendent.
“School boards don’t want to spend five figures on recruitment every three years,” he said. “When somebody new comes into a leadership position, it takes them time to transition and they may come in with another set of goals and strategies that take time to adjust to. That can lead to a loss of learning in our world.”
Hankins said Dusek helped her prepare for core parts of the job that often aren’t formally taught—tasks like testifying before state lawmakers and interacting with the media.
And Dusek was one of Hankins’ first phone calls in times of crisis, which have been unfortunately common during her short tenure.
Hankins had 17 years of experience in the district—working as a teacher, site administrator, and assistant superintendent before the school board hired her as superintendent in February 2020.
It has been a critical component for me in this role.
The next month, the school system rushed to make remote learning available to students without internet as schools around the country quickly shuttered to contain the spread COVID-19 pandemic. Educators distributed lessons on thumb drives and in paper packets. Some teachers even offered lessons over VHF radio in more remote areas.
In recognition of those challenges, first lady Jill Biden visited one of Lower Kuskowkwim’s schools in May to discuss federal efforts to expand broadband access to Native communities.
“I look back and think, ‘Wow, that was rough,’” Hankins said of standing up the impromptu remote learning strategy.
In late 2021, the district opted to demolish part of a school building in the Yup’ik village of Napakiak. Climate change had intensified erosion on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, just 63 feet from the school and inching closer by the day.
As the entire community planned to relocate further from the river banks, Hankins advocated for state funding to build a new school and increased media attention on the crisis.
She used footage from a high school drone class to show the river’s growing encroachment and interviews conducted by middle school students to show the impact on the community.
It worked. Napakiak was featured in a 2021 article in the Washington Post. Last year, the state listed a new $60 million school building for the community as its top construction priority.
Through it all, Hankins said the mentorship relationship—and the networking with her fellow new superintendents—helped her feel less alone.
“It has helped me be successful,” she said. “It has been a critical component for me in this role.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as ‘Incredibly Isolated': A State’s Effort to Keep Superintendents Connected and in the Job