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James Hager: Beyond Gamesmanship in Reno

by Jay P. Goldman


When business leaders in Reno, Nev., last summer were courting a medium-size software developer to relocate its headquarters from Emeryville, Calif., they turned to someone who’s become their chief sales agent to clinch the deal: Jim Hager, superintendent of the Washoe County School District.

Hager accompanied a handful of other county officials on the recruitment trip and wound up answering the bulk of the questions from the firm’s anxious managers and staff. Three months later, the company confidently made its move. “They tell me I’m their best spokesperson,” says Hager, who has been part of two other recruiting pitches in recent months, organized by the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

Salesmanship doesn’t show up among the sundry skills on Hager’s impressive professional vitae, but it might as well. His zesty leadership of the 62,000-student school system is turning plenty of heads in Washoe County’s direction. The district has gained 10,000 students since his arrival in 1999 and plenty of newfound respect as Reno sheds its reputation as simply the state’s No. 2 gaming center.

Hager, an Iowa farm boy through his teens, has been capturing attention from the start of his career. As a 25-year-old in just his third year of teaching, the faculty in St. Mary’s, Kan., elected him president of the teachers’ union. But before he could assume the union leadership, a building principal resigned unexpectedly in mid-summer, and the district superintendent appointed Hager to the job effective immediately. For the past two years, he has chaired the Nevada Association of School Administrators, and last month his colleagues nationwide honored him as one of four finalists for the 2004 Superintendent of the Year Award co-sponsored by ARAMARK ServiceMaster Facilities and AASA.

“His credibility comes from his background,” touts Fred Boyd, a retired business leader, pointing to Hager’s previous experience running school systems in Kent, Wash.; Beaverton, Ore.; and Boulder, Colo. “This is an individual who prepares, studies and organizes and emphasizes not the political aspects but rather the day-to-day development of his staff. Plus he knows the value of having the broader community on his side.”

In Reno, Hager’s generally affable manner has served to rally diverse forces behind his campaign to raise all achievement levels. The director of the teachers’ union, Virginia Doran, noting the superintendent’s “gift of gab, humor and great personality,” considers herself a major ally and a confidante. Even a couple of members of the school board whose political views stand far to the right of the majority have rallied behind his leadership. The fact that all 30 individuals in the district and community who were asked last fall to complete a lengthy evaluation survey of Hager did so—and with decidedly upbeat marks—is especially telling.

Hager raised expectations for all parties, none more so than building principals. But he’s only done this after pumping new resources into a principals’ academy to elevate the instructional leadership skills of these administrators. Academic gains have followed. Under his tenure, the dropout rate has declined from 8 percent to 3.7 percent and the number of schools on the state’s watch list has plunged from eight to two while a dozen others have gained “exemplary” or “high achieving” status.

During the past year, Hager has been an especially mighty force in Carson City—by his count spending almost 120 days in the state capital during the legislative session and another 30 days in special session leading an unprecedented coalition of education groups and the united front of all 17 county superintendents.

“For somebody to come along as a new guy on the political scene … to pull all these people together is truly phenomenal,” says Doran.

Washoe County leaders, well aware that Hager’s national recognition last month only intensifies the superintendent search consultants in their pursuit of an elusive gem, are preparing to ward off all suitors. Quips school board president Jonnie Pullman: “We will not tolerate any efforts by anyone to come in and take him from us.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

Bio Stats: Jim Hager

Currently:
superintendent, Washoe County School District, Reno, Nev.

Earlier:
superintendent, Kent., Wash.; Beaverton, Ore.; and Boulder, Colo.

Age:
62

Greatest Influence on Career:
Jim Reusswig, a retired superintendent under whom I did my administrative internship in Iowa City, provided the courage and leadership to make sure schools were sanctuaries in which all children would be safe to live and learn. He once gave a talk, “A Child’s Garden of Values,” that guides me in my professional life.

Best Professional Day:
The day I received a letter from a former belligerent student who thanked me for being there when he needed help and who wanted to let me know he was preparing to become a teacher.

Books at Bedside:
Good to Great by Jim Collins; Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee and Richard E. Boyzatis; and Oh the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

Biggest Blooper:
On a winter day in my first year as a superintendent, it began to snow in the early morning. I called my assistant about what to do. He replied: “Jim, we never close schools!” So we opened school, but the snow kept falling with whiteout conditions. We decided to close early and send students home but some didn’t arrive until evening. I closed school the next day and by noon it was bright sunshine and beautiful conditions. Students were quite pleased, but employees and parents were not amused.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
AASA is a highly respected professional organization that speaks for me at the national level and is highly influential in policymaking circles. I also appreciate the quality of the professional meetings and the collegiality it provides.