A Superintendent’s Hand in Promoting 21st-Century Skills


How do we prepare students to excel in a complex, interconnected changing world? What real-life experiences can we provide for our students to apply critical thinking, effective communication, collaboration, problem solving and innovation? And what role can the superintendent play in promoting real-world learning connections?

In my first year as superintendent of a 3,800-student district in a Syracuse, N.Y., suburb about five years ago, I had an opportunity to put words into practice. In midyear, I received a request from a high school senior to meet with him and three classmates, all of whom were enrolled in the Syracuse University Public Affairs 101 course taught at our high school. The students wanted to discuss the possibility of a districtwide recycling policy.

Donna DeSiatoDonna J. DeSiato

In response, I set up a meeting with the students at the high school and invited the deputy superintendent, who oversees policy development, and the buildings and grounds superintendent, who oversees recycling efforts to join us. I wanted the administrators responsible to hear the proposal.

Exploring Feasibility
The four students presented the problem as they viewed it, with some facts to show our district’s recycling tonnage had been declining over recent years. They shared their research on the importance of improving these efforts for both the environment and as a source of revenue for the district. The team proposed a solution and suggested we consider a district policy.

I encouraged the students to further their research efforts with additional data and set a follow-up meeting that would include our executive director of curriculum and instruction. This meeting would enable the students to understand how the district was teaching about recycling and allow them to share their views on how to support this initiative through relevant instruction from prekindergarten through senior year.

The students eagerly accepted the challenge and proceeded to refine their data and explore the feasibility of their solution in terms of time and resources. As a next step, I invited the seniors to pre-sent their findings to the district’s entire administrative team. This opportunity to engage in dialogue with the full leadership gave them experience in presenting and receiving meaningful feedback along with questions to consider in understanding the change process.

I suggested the students prepare a single-page executive summary for their presentation to the board of education. This would help them organize their thoughts in communicating the major elements of their proposal, which included a definition of the problem, the proposed policy, benchmarking for evidence of success and the feasibility. This guidance gave the students genuine leadership development experience in their immediate environment by applying skills of effective communication, problem solving, collaboration and innovation.

The four students presented to the school board in March of that school year. Their solution involved a three-bin recycling process, which the board of education approved, with a policy outlining the expectation of districtwide recycling efforts. More importantly, the students’ education through these real-life experiences resulted in the successful implementation of change for the following school year.

Influencing Youth
Since that first year, I have asked the high school students enrolled in the university’s public affairs class to send me their requests each year for consideration. Oftentimes, their proposals are worth serious consideration, but they do not rise to a policy level. When I respond, I help the students connect with the proper staff members who can further inform their area of focus. At other times, the students’ topics are broad, such as air pollution, so I encourage the students to focus on probable change in our immediate environment, such as school bus emissions.

Each year, though, I discover at least one group that focuses on an issue to improve the world in which these young people learn and live and comprehends the process for bringing about meaningful change.

One of the greatest privileges I have as a superintendent is to influence the education and development of our youth. Now more than ever, we need to rethink how we are preparing them for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Facilitating meaningful, relevant experiences is a powerful model for learning and understanding the change process in a real-world context.

In recent years, our East Syracuse Minoa students have developed policy recommendations for recycling; a required defensive-driving class for teen drivers; peer tutoring; and environmentally friendly green initiatives such as composting. Most of all, they have realized they can make a difference in the world and leave a legacy that will benefit those who follow.

Donna DeSiato is superintendent of the East Syracuse Minoa Central Schools in East Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: