Spotlight

Lonely at the Start: A First-Year Superintendent

Fresh out of college, I was fortunate to land a job as a math teacher in one of the most progressive districts in Michigan. Home to upper-middle-class students, the school district was nationally recognized through the Blue Ribbon Schools program. The school district had high test scores, dominating athletic teams and extraordinary fine arts programs.

The challenges before me were academic in nature. Students and parents demanded and expected a rigorous curriculum, captivating lessons and high marks (for all).

When an opportunity presented itself in school administration, I grabbed it. I handled an array of assignments as a middle school administrator for three years. I discovered it’s easy to become comfortable in the right environment, one where widespread involvement by parents with means and influence makes a difference.

While continuing on this career path probably would have led to promotions within the school system, prestige, higher salaries and greater respect, I found myself becoming complacent. I needed a new professional challenge.

A Sundry Situation

In October 2002 I accepted the superintendency of a small school district. If there is such a thing as two opposite school districts, this was it. High poverty (89.5 percent of students were eligible for federal assistance), highly diverse (38.5 percent non-white), rural (460 square miles) and low test scores were the circumstances facing my new district.

 

My first three months as a superintendent went as follows: a) Discovered a district employee was a convicted felon; b) Learned that a teen gang was controlling high school students; and c) Was forced to trim $600,000 from a $7.2 million budget, roughly 8 percent. I now understand that all school superintendents face similar challenges regularly. I considered my first days on the job a calamity!

In the midst of such turmoil, I needed several things to get me through: faith, family and support. I discovered the superintendency is a lonely profession, unlike any other position I’d filled on my way to this spot. People look to you to solve problems quickly and when you have not solved them to their liking, they are aggrieved. Closing the office door and venting face-to-face with a colleague was no longer an option.

I am convinced that without the love and support of my family, specifically my wife and mother, I would have thrown in the towel. Perhaps the lowest point occurred when I personally delivered a layoff notice to an outstanding 5th-grade educator on her 25th birthday. A happy birthday it was not. Traveling home I was wrought with despair. Knowing something was amiss, Darcy, my wife, did not say anything. She simply hugged me. That embrace spoke volumes about her support and encouragement.

A Noble Vow

At times, the high-minded question that I thought should drive my actions—“What is best for the kids?”—would get distorted through the eyes of contract negotiations, financial constraints and political agendas. My vow of being the district’s instructional leader, the superintendent in the classroom and on the ground floor where the real work was being done, slowly gave way as I testified before the state House of Representatives finance sub-committee about restoring funding for vital programs.

 

I must admit, in the midst of the crisis, not once did I regret becoming a superintendent in this district. As demographically different as these two school districts may be, children are children. Students daily need hugs, support, encouragement and leadership. They need to know you care about them and their learning. Whether you are a superintendent, teacher, custodian, bus driver or classroom aide, your purpose is resoundingly clear: You are needed to make a difference.

With faith, family and support I feel lucky to have survived my first year as a superintendent. I am honored to serve the students, parents and staff of our community. My only regret is not sharing the experiences sooner.

Nick Ceglarek is superintendent of the Baldwin Community Schools, 525 W. 4th St., Baldwin, MI 49304. E-mail: ceglaren@baldwin.k12.mi.us