Professional Development

National Program Preps Novice Schools Chiefs to Lead Districts

By Corey Mitchell — January 20, 2015 6 min read
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With an 18-month training course nearly complete, the first graduates from a new national superintendents’ certification program are set to navigate the political minefields and manage the often harsh financial realities of leading school districts.

The certification was created by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and joins a small number of specialized training programs that draw from a pool of national applicants and aim to prepare them to deftly manage the complex demands of running school systems.

Guided by mentors and guest instructors who are all current or former schools chiefs, the 28 novice superintendents in AASA’s program have been steeped in finance and business-management practices and have reviewed case studies on effective communication and school board relations.

To develop the program curriculum, AASA surveyed 150 former state superintendents of the year to determine what education schools were failing to teach aspiring schools chiefs about leading a school district.

“Superintendents, by and large, have a great deal of education. This [program] provides them with the realities of being a superintendent,” said AASA Executive Director Daniel A. Domenech, who spent more than two decades as a superintendent in districts in New York and Virginia.

Serving as a superintendent requires balancing intense and often competing pressures, experts on district leadership say.

“This job is incredibly important and tremendously difficult,” said Christina Heitz, the managing director of the Broad Academy, a training program for urban superintendents founded more than a decade ago by the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. That program selects both educators and noneducators for its leadership training; AASA’s program focuses on career educators already in the superintendent’s office.

“If we are going to adequately prepare and support system leaders and aspiring system leaders around the country, we need more high-quality preparation and support programs,” Ms. Heitz said.

‘Didn’t Feel Prepared’

Traditionally, the path to the superintendent’s office includes stops in the classroom, the principal’s office, and then a district’s central office before an aspiring district chief finally lands in the top spot.

But people don’t always follow that progression. And even when they do, few new superintendents say they have acquired the managerial experience or the political savvy necessary.

By the time Nathan McCann took his first superintendent’s job, he had completed his doctoral dissertation on school board-superintendent relations. He made the leap from working as an assistant principal to become the superintendent of the 700-student Altar Valley district near Tucson, Ariz.

“I still didn’t feel as prepared as I should have,” said Mr. McCann, who now leads the 2,150-student district in Ridgefield, Wash. “I love my work, but there is a sense of loneliness. You don’t have one person you can commiserate with.”

Mr. McCann will be among the first cohort of leaders to complete the national certification program. AASA will honor the group during the association’s national conference in San Diego next month.

Of the 28 superintendents, five, including Mr. McCann, have already taken jobs in larger school districts since starting the training program. Superintendent-search consultants looking to fill vacancies are trying to snap up others, Mr. Domenech said.

Organizers and participants say the camaraderie has united colleagues from California to Connecticut.

Third-year superintendent Lillian Torrez of the 3,200-student Taos, N.M., district said the in-person training sessions forced the leaders to “think in depth about why you’re in your job.”

The second group selected for the program began last summer with meetings on the East Coast. A Midwest group will begin its training at the upcoming AASA conference.

Less Control?

All applicants submit recommendations from three references and show evidence of strong leadership skills, said Dennis Dearden, AASA’s associate executive director. Hundreds of applicants vied for the 25 to 30 slots in the latest group. As word of the program spreads, he expects even more competition.

“We want diversity and the very best we can find,” Mr. Dearden said.

Most school boards cover the program’s $6,000 tuition for their superintendents, who are responsible for their own travel costs.

Reports from AASA and the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools show the average tenure of superintendents has increased during the last decade, but the position still tends to burn through leaders at rapid rates, especially in urban districts.

And though length of service has improved some, it doesn’t mean the job is getting any easier. As the federal and state demands have ramped up, it can seem that superintendents have less control at the local level than ever before.

“We see tremendous pressure on superintendents,” Mr. Domenech said. “The person at the top is the fall guy. You can’t fire the team, so you fire the coach.”

AASA’s training program comes as districts may face a shortage of qualified and willing candidates.

A 2011 AASA survey found that 50 percent of working superintendents planned to retire by 2016. The retirement age for superintendents in most states is 55 and the average superintendent is 54.

New superintendents face a steep learning curve during their first five years on the job. While they’re often surrounded by staff members and are highly visible in their districts, novice superintendents can feel isolated or even abandoned.

“When you’re starting out, you don’t know what to ask. You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Michael Hinojosa, a mentor in the AASA program who served as a superintendent for 20 years, most recently in the Cobb County, Ga., and Dallas school districts.

Mary Grassa O’Neill, the acting director for Programs in Professional Education at Harvard University, said the realities of the job can be daunting for newcomers schooled in pedagogy but not the politics of the job.

“There’s theory and there’s practice. Putting the theory into practice could be difficult,” said Ms. O’Neill, a former superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and for the Milton public school system in suburban Boston. “We try to help people marry theory, practice, and policy. It’s not easy.”

Landing and Sticking

Winning over a school board and landing the job is the first step. Gaining the trust of the community and district staff members is just as important, said Mr. Hinojosa.

“If you lose one of the three, all you can do is survive. If you lose two, you better get a new job,” he said.

Before Mr. Hinojosa left his post in Cobb County in suburban Atlanta last year, several AASA program participants shadowed him to learn more about how he structured his days, managed his staff, and communicated at school board meetings.

Mr. Hinojosa said he didn’t feel comfortable in the superintendent’s role until his eighth year and third job. He hopes to accelerate that timetable for program participants.

“All the mistakes I made, I’m able to tell them about,” he said.

Ms. Torrez shadowed her mentor, Terry Grier, the superintendent of the Houston school district. She will now mentor the successor in her previous district in Questa, N.M.

“When I leave training, I’m so hyped up and excited. I feel like a strong, better superintendent,” Ms. Torrez said. “I’m very hopeful about the future of education.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Program Preps New Superintendents for Pressures of District Leadership

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