School & District Management Q&A

N.C. Superintendent’s Philosophy on Being a Woman and a Schools Chief: ‘You Just Do the Work’

By Denisa R. Superville — November 15, 2016 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
Sharon Contreras is the superintendent in the Guilford County, N.C., district. Though leading her second district, Contreras says women face many obstacles to rising to the top leadership job in the nation's school systems.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sharon Contreras is a single mother raising a son. She is raising an 8-year-old great-nephew.

Few people running the nation’s school systems look like Sharon Contreras—black, Latino, and female.

In fact, only 2.6 percent of superintendents identify as Hispanic women, according to a 2015 national survey of district leaders. Contreras was 41 when she was appointed in 2011 to be the first woman to run the 21,000-student Syracuse, N.Y., district, a position she held for 5½ years before she was recruited this past summer to run North Carolina’s third-largest school system, the 72,000-student Guilford County district.

SEE ALSO: Few Women Run the Nation’s School Districts. Why?

In her first week on the job in Syracuse, a reporter called Contreras asking to see her superintendent’s license. A rumor had been circulating that Contreras, who by then had been a top administrator for a decade, was not licensed to hold the district’s top executive position.

“I remember one of the first comments written about me was that I was a triple-affirmative-action threat—a woman, black, and Latino,” says Contreras, who is raising her 8-year-old great-nephew, told Education Week in a recent interview. “The way I addressed the issue was by doing a good job, by being a strong superintendent. You don’t keep throwing in someone’s face, ‘I am equally qualified, it doesn’t matter that I am a person of color, it doesn’t matter that I am a woman.’ You don’t need to say that. You just do the work, and people will see that you are qualified.” The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

2016
Superintendent

Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, N.C.

2015
Ph.D. Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis

University of Wisconsin-Madison

2011-2016
Superintendent

Syracuse City School District, Syracuse, N.Y.

2010
Graduate

The Broad Superintendents Academy

2006-2011
Chief Academic Officer

Providence Public Schools, Providence, R.I.

2004-2006
Chief Academic Officer

Clayton County Public Schools, Jonesboro, Ga.

2003-2004
Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Personnel Services

Rockford Public Schools
Rockford, Ill.

2000-2003
Area Superintendent

Rockford Public Schools

1997-2000
Principal

Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy, Rockford Public Schools

1996
MSc. Educational Administration

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1993-1997
High school English teacher

Rockford Public Schools

In a profession dominated by women, why do so few occupy the top spot?

The thing I hear most from women is that we still see ourselves as taking care of the family and children. Women are less likely to go into administration early, and going into administration is usually a precursor to becoming a superintendent. We rarely will go into administration while we have small children. That is not as true for men.

I also believe that—and this is based on my experience in trying to promote women—we often feel that we are not ready for the position. We will prepare, and prepare, and prepare, while men will step right into the challenge whether they are prepared or not. I believe the third reason is just sheer bias. I will give you an example. I have a good friend who is a superintendent of color, who said to me he wouldn’t work for a female superintendent. This is coming from a superintendent. There are many parallels with female pastors, where people just feel, ‘I won’t attend a church where the pastor is a female.’ I think there is a lot of that, even among school board members. You have to remember it’s school board members that hire the superintendent, and even when there are female school board members, it is no easier to be appointed as a woman.

Should school boards consider diversity when they are hiring superintendents?

They should be thinking about diversity and thinking about the world that their students live in. However, I don’t want to ever get a job because I am a woman or a person of color. I want them to see me as a strong superintendent. But if my gender and race and ethnicity help to foster a world where we understand diversity better, we understand one another better, and we understand that all of us can be leaders and we can be whatever we choose to be in life, ... then I think that’s the icing on the cake for me.

That must be quite a tightrope to walk, particularly if you are the first woman or the first person of color leading a district.

Yes, very much so. When I was in Syracuse, I was told they were worried that I wouldn’t be tough enough to be superintendent. They would never question whether a man would be tough enough. To me, that’s something very specific to how we view gender.

By the time we become superintendents, we havemore years of experience and education, often more degrees [than men], but we are questioned about our ability to handle the district’s finances. That always comes up, not because of any experience you’ve had, but they just don’t think women can handle money.

People worry about whether or not we are tough enough, whether we can make snow calls. It’s very silly, but very sad in many respects.

What are some of the things that helped you along the way?

[In my first district], there was a woman of color who was the associate superintendent. I would get off work, I think at 2:50 p.m. I would go to the central office and I would work until 7 p.m. with the associate superintendent, learning the business. I did that for several years. When she went on to a different district as superintendent, I became her deputy, and I learned and grew under her.

I also made sure that I was involved in the state networks. I have always been an executive board member in every state I’ve worked, whatever the superintendents’ organization was, even before I was a superintendent. I made sure I participated so that when search firms called the executive director of, say, the Rhode Island [School] Superintendents’ Association, they said, ‘Yes, we have a [chief academic officer] from Providence who would really do a great job.’

It’s important that women participate in networking. It’s time-consuming, especially if you are teaching and you have a family, but you must do it.

I would also say interacting with board members to really learn how board members think about the superintendency, to understand what they are looking for ... was very helpful to me in interviewing.

Are you optimistic based on what you’re seeing in the field that [the number of female superintendents] will change in the near future?

I am optimistic. I think of the welcome that I have had here by the community, and I know they see me as a highly qualified educator. What they talk about the most is not that I am a woman or a person of color, but that I have done this work for 25 years, and that’s really important to me. That gives me hope that we will continue to see the contributions of women and people of color in education, and, indeed, in all fields, and continue to make sure that they are represented at the board level, at the leadership level, in the classrooms.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as ‘You Just Do the Work’

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