School & District Management

Nation’s Top Superintendent Talks About Leadership in Tough Times

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 17, 2022 5 min read
Curtis Cain, Wentzville School District, Wentzville, Mo.
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Curtis Cain, the superintendent of the Wentzville, Mo., district, has won the most prestigious award for district leaders: National Superintendent of the Year.

He was honored for overseeing the district’s rapid growth, his commitment to returning students to in-person learning, security updates, and for prioritizing students’ and families’ mental health—including via the creation of an online mental-health hub last summer.

He spoke briefly to EdWeek after the announcement, crediting his wife, children, and his late brother, who died shortly before Cain began the eligibility process for the award in 2017, for their support.

“I was like, I’m not sure I have the energy to do it right now. But I knew what he would say: ‘We don’t tap out; we don’t quit.’”

Winning the award “was a shout-out to him. I can see a smile, he would literally have said: That’s all right. That’s all right.”

AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association, made the announcement Feb. 17 at its conference in Nashville.

Cain has served as the superintendent of the 17,000-student district since 2013. In that tenure—unusually long for a superintendent—the district grew significantly, adding two new high schools.

More recently, the district has been caught up in debates over the teaching of race and specific books that have emerged from coast to coast. Its school board, in a divided January vote, removed Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from high school libraries; two students and the state ACLU chapter sued the district over that decision just a day before the award announcement. (Cain has not weighed in on the specifics of the board’s book-removal decision, but has defended the district’s process to convene a committee to review the book after some parents objected to it.)

Speaking at an AASA forum for the award finalists in January about the hot politics facing superintendents, he said: “I think we have to be the steady hand at the tiller ... when things are heated, we have to be the ones who model the professionalism and dignity we expect our staff members to engage in on a daily basis.

“It’s not always about you as a person, it’s about the seat and a position you’re filling at the time. And we take a lot of the good and we take the appropriate amount of the challenge that comes with it, but that is the chair. That is the chair of the superintendency.”

Cain is soon to face a new challenge, having accepted earlier this month the stewardship of the Rockwood district, also in Missouri. He’ll begin the new job July 1.

What does the top superintendent see as the biggest issues for district leaders?

At the January meeting, Cain detailed some of the biggest challenges district leaders are facing—and how he thinks district leaders can react. (You can watch the video embedded below.) Here are some of his thoughts on the deep challenges facing K-12 education.

The school staffing crisis: “It really forces us to lean in as a team, and do whatever it takes and if that means cabinet-level officials, including the superintendents, are in a classroom or the hallway, that’s what’s going to have to happen. My fear is the [challenges] we’re experiencing when it comes to staffing are going to be tomorrow’s pipeline [problems]. We have to do something that’s going to look different and that’s more than just what the profession can do. It’s going to take legislative and other changes to open up new avenues because the bodies are just not there. … If you consider some of the feedback our educators are experiencing on a daily basis, ask yourself: Would you want to go into education?”

The importance of in-person schooling for student mental health: “It’s one of the reasons keeping school doors open is so important. It’s not just for the staff to work together but for us to be able to put our eyes on our kids and make sure they’re OK. It’s the reason staff greet students at the door: You can quickly assess how a kid is doing literally from class session to class session. And it’s critical that we keep those efforts, keep moving them forward.”

Dysfunctional school board meetings: “These are business meetings, and there needs to be a level of decorum and professionalism engaged in by everyone in the business meeting. Flat out, our kids are watching. And to be frank, some of the behavior that’s happening in some places is simply not allowed in schools.”

If you consider some of the feedback our educators are experiencing on a daily basis, ask yourself: Would you want to go into education?

“Decision fatigue” for superintendents: “It feels like it’s a never-ending snow day. ... There’s a weight to that … and it’s not that we’re looking for sympathy out there. We just need people to understand it’s nonstop. We have to do the job necessary to make sure we’re unplugging, finding a way to unplug so we can recharge. We can’t pour into people if our vessel is empty, and we have to be humble and honest enough with ourself to say, ‘You know what? I too am going to have to step away for a little while. I can come back in 15 minutes; someone else can mind the store and we’ll be OK if that happens.’”

Remote learning’s tenuous future: “I think it’s potentially a viable choice option we can deploy within our school operations. We can’t talk about meeting the needs of all students and [then] lock [remote learning] into a certain box we’re most comfortable in. … Kids are having to master technology at the next level whether that’s the world of work, the military, college campus, a community college. We need to provide them with the space to master that domain area as well.”

District leadership awards pile up this week

Finalists for the award are chosen from among the winners of the state superintendent of the year contests. Their accomplishments are weighed against four criteria: how their creative leadership meets students’ needs, communication skills, professionalism, and community involvement.

It’s a rigorous selection that requires the finalists to sit for interviews with AASA leaders in Washington before a final decision is made.

The gleaming AASA prize comes on the heels of another prestigious award in district leadership: Education Week’s own Leaders To Learn From project, which unveiled its 10th class of Leaders earlier this week.

Leaders To Learn From is Education Week’s marquee solutions journalism feature. It profiles 11 district leaders, their innovative work in their districts, and highlights the leadership lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Images of Derek Richey, Jenna Monley, and Ben Thigpen.
Credits clockwise from above: Dustin Franz, Michelle Gustafson, and Alex Boerner for Education Week

And there’s a nice connection between the two recognition projects. Quincy Natay, a finalist for this year’s National Superintendent of the Year, was a Leader To Learn From in 2021. One other state Superintendent of the Year, North Carolina’s Valerie Bridges, was also featured in 2021.

AASA’s other finalists were Kamela Patton, of the Collier County Public Schools in Naples, Fla., and Noris Price, of the Baldwin County Schools, in Milledgeville, Ga.

Cain thanked AASA for its work networking superintendents during some of the rockiest years on record.

“Right now, the most dangerous thing for leaders is isolation. There is realization and identification of the fact that we need each other, especially right now,” he said. “It’s really, really important.”

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