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Insights from the 15 Superintendents Shaping the Future

By Philip Cutler, Founder & CEO of Paper — April 11, 2024 5 min read
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Headshots of 15 superintendents that Philip Cutler interviewed

The 2023-2024 school year represents a critical inflection point for K-12 education in the United States. With the expiration of ESSER funds on the horizon and the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into teaching and learning processes, educators and administrators face a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

I recently sought insights from 15 of the most forward-thinking K-12 superintendents across the nation and listened to their perspectives on the critical issues facing America’s educational systems. Below are some of my top takeaways:

1. Innovate from within.

The concept of fostering innovation from within your organization as a response to systemic challenges was a recurring theme. Dr. Curtis Finch from Deer Valley Unified School District in Arizona shared how his district tackled the teacher shortage crisis by establishing its own Teacher Academy. The program turns individuals with a bachelor’s degree in any field into skilled educators, which helps address the immediate need for teachers and serves as a model of self-reliance and creativity that other districts are now following. “The solution was not outside,” he said. “The solution was inside.”

Similarly, Dr. Theresa Williams from Plano Independent School District in Texas highlighted their teacher preparation program, which provides a direct pathway for high school graduates to return as educators after completing their credentials. This initiative ensures a steady stream of educators while fostering a sense of belonging and commitment to the community.

2. Focus on impact: Strategic prioritization in a post-ESSER era.

Navigating the expiration of the pandemic relief funds is a challenge facing almost every school district in every state.

As ESSER funds wind down, districts are strategically evaluating which programs to continue. As Jill Broussard, Superintendent of Pinal County Schools in Arizona, said, “We need to look at which programs or initiatives we put in place with those dollars and see which ones were effective.” Many districts were also using long-term planning to ensure the programs they retain are those that will best serve their strategic goals—keeping the programs most beneficial to the future and phasing out those that served a short-term objective.

Dr. Carmen Balgobin, Superintendent of Volusia County Schools in Florida, shared that her district is also getting creative by exploring cost-sharing with other districts to purchase licenses in bulk for a discount.

3. Embrace AI to make students future-ready.

The integration of AI in education, just like in most businesses, is inevitable and, if approached correctly, highly beneficial. Erin Kane, Superintendent of Douglas County School District in Colorado, wisely noted, “AI will not replace humans. But humans who can leverage AI will replace humans who cannot.”

The emergence of AI, as with most technological leaps before it, should prompt us to think: What fundamental skills do we need our kids to have to succeed in a world that is changing much faster than we can imagine?

As Michael McCormick, retiring superintendent of Val Verde Unified School District, California, said, “This year’s kindergarteners will graduate high school in 2036. How do we prepare students now—not just to survive—but to thrive in a future that we will never see?”

In reflecting on the transformation within the agricultural sector in Visalia, California, Superintendent Kirk Shrum highlighted the shift from manual labor to AI-driven processes. This example is a microcosm of the broader global shifts towards automation and intelligent systems.

This highlights the need to modify our educational practices and adapt them to prepare students for a wide array of future scenarios—including those in sectors not traditionally associated with complex technology.

4. Listen to and learn from students.

Quite a few superintendents host regular feedback sessions to create connections with students and foster open dialogue.

Cory McIntyre, Superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin Schools in Minnesota, hosts listening sessions at each of his high schools three times a year to meet with students. He says, “They are not shy. They are very open and honest about what we can do better. You can’t put a price tag on what they tell you.”

Dr. Joe Gothard, Superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, started a boys’ club to help unburden students’ “emotional backpacks,” fostering a safe space to discuss their challenges. “Students want to be heard,” said Dr. Gothard. “They want to be supported, and more than anything, they want to be believed in by adults. They want high expectations. But with high expectations, high support also needs to be in place.”

5. Invest in literacy.

Many districts are seeing exciting progress in literacy development. Dr. Anthony Mays at Alief Independent School District in Texas is working to build a culture of literacy through programs like the Million Minute Challenge, where each campus is challenged to read one million minutes.

At Deer Valley Unified School District, Dr. Curtis Finch and his team are one of only eleven districts nationwide using Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that put teachers into groups using data to identify gaps and connect students with intervention systems as quickly as possible.

Kirk Shrum’s team at Visalia Unified School District introduced a phonics program this past year to address a significant gap in literacy. All students from kindergarten to second grade receive a 30-minute daily lesson on phonics. “We’re already seeing that impact our reading scores. We’re seeing our students apply those strategies, not just in reading but across all subject areas.”

Cory McIntyre shared that his team at Anoka-Hennepin has been focusing on improving literacy as their top priority this past year and has also seen positive improvements. Discussing the Read Act, Minnesota’s new legislation, which emphasizes the science of reading, superintendent McIntryre pointed out that 1800 staff members need to get trained in their letters program, which is a big undertaking. But the results they are seeing make it worth it—happier kids who are no longer struggling to read.

Reflecting on these discussions, it’s clear that collaboration, innovation, and a steadfast commitment to students will empower us in education to navigate today’s challenges while actively shaping tomorrow’s landscape. My team at Paper is passionate about supporting educators who are driving the future of education.

Watch the interviews with all 15 superintendents for a more in-depth look at their strategies and advice on