Donna Cranswick

A Brash and Witty Advocate by A Brash and Witty Advocate

Even as a first-year kinder- garten teacher, Donna Cranswick had the makings of great leadership written all over her. Her matriarchal principal in West Hartford, Conn., in the early 1970s recognized Cranswick's self-assurance, her skill as an organizer and her unrelenting advocacy for children's needs and suggested knowingly that the 22-year-old would make great superintendent material someday.

"I had no idea what she was talking about," quips Cranswick, now midway through her fifth year as superintendent of Creighton Elementary School District 24, an 8,500-student inner-city system in Phoenix, Ariz. "I was always sure at every stage of my career that I would never want to leave what I was doing at the time."

The ambitious drive and confident manner that surfaced so early has propelled Cranswick to the top of her profession. She is the reigning superintendent of the year in Arizona and immediate past president of the Arizona School Administrators' Superintendents Division. She even receives glowing reviews from the statewide teachers' union, which hails Cranswick's commitment to collaborative problem solving of workplace concerns and community issues.

Suzanne Schweiger-Nitchals, a Creighton school board member, captured Cranswick's excellence this way in a recent award nomination letter: "A leader is a person who looks ahead and sees a place in the future, a person who looks around and deals with the reality of the present, and a person who looks back and learns from the past. [She] does all these things."

She and her fellow board members continue to marvel at the superintendent's stupefying feat, twice performed in the last three years, at assembling multiple parcels of land in the inner city to build two critically needed new schools. One of the 1,200-student schools, which opened just last month, required the assemblage of 57 tiny parcels—and amazingly it was accomplished by Cranswick's staff without the use of costly Realtors.

"I sent out the guy who buys pencils (for the school district) with a teacher's aide who was bilingual to knock on doors to ask, 'Could we buy your house?' We learned to make friends with the owners," says Cranswick, who was one of the first superintendents to receive funds from Arizona's School Facilities Board for new school construction.

She has consciously modeled principled leadership in several creative ways. In her first year as superintendent, Cranswick created the I Care Corps, a program of volunteer service that places non-teaching personnel, including herself, in a classroom for at least one hour a week. She hosts lunches with students in her office and popular book discussions in her home four times a year to demonstrate that "we're all about learning as adults, too." She has learned to speak Spanish to communicate with the three-quarters of her student population who are of Latino background.

"But my skills are at a 6th-grade level," she admits. "My Spanish is not really good enough to be called bilingual. I understand everything but speak with limited ability due to lack of practice."

In a state whose elected leadership has been known to spew anti-public education sentiments, Cranswick is viewed as a forceful advocate for society's underserved youngsters. She considers her work a cause and a crusade, and her public has taken notice.

When a lone member of the Creighton school board two years ago moved to shorten the superintendent's contract, district teachers, parents and community residents mobilized rapidly and packed the one-agenda item meeting to recite a litany of praises of Cranswick's work, according to a newspaper account.

She also is known for her timely wit and self-deprecating humor. Once when Cranswick was compiling her resume packet, she noticed that every letter of recommendation about her referred to those qualities. One of those personal references, Linda Schmitt, who now works for the Arizona School Boards Association, says Cranswick often will interject a light-hearted crack at gatherings of superintendents that "totally eases the tension for all of us. It's great to have that sort of person around."

While she admits to being less guarded in public comments than she ought to be at times, Cranswick, in characteristic form, shortchanges her own comedic talent.

"On my deathbed," she says, "I want to be known as a little funnier than I am."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:

Donna Cranswick

superintendent, Creighton Elementary School District 14, Phoenix, Ariz.

director of curriculum and associate superintendent, Creighton district


Greatest Influence on Career:
Several excellent administrative role models, the biggest being a Connecticut school principal, Elizabeth Richter, from my first years as a teacher.

Best Professional Day:
The grand opening of two new schools where our commitment to a tough vision got the deals done. One was an 18-piece assemblage to get the inner-city land purchased. The other was a 57-piece assemblage to get the 15 acres.

Books at Bedside:
I keep Jonathan Kozol's books close to me all the time. He helps me keep my edge on behalf of our children.

Biggest Blooper:
I make a million mistakes all the time. I must recover from my mistakes quickly or I block them out of my mind so as not to distract me from my next goal.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
The key reason is my commitment to executing my responsibilities at the "best practice" level on behalf of our young citizens. AASA provides the support, relationships and professional development that enables that goal.