Profile

Leland L. Dishman


As superintendent of North Slope Borough School District on the northernmost fringes of Alaska, Leland Dishman ran a public school system so expansive you could fly 300 miles in any compass point from his office and not cross a district boundary. Dishman didn’t exaggerate when he quipped he was "on top of the world."

BY LIZ GRIFFIN

Although sad to leave Alaska this summer after 18 years, including five in North Slope, he was pumped up about his appointment in Georgia where he expects to help a district facing difficulties he had tackled successfully elsewhere. Additionally, he relishes the chance to reconnect with colleagues in a state where he landed his first superintendency and a place where he and his wife still have family.

Dishman will serve 3,333 students in the Franklin County School District in Carnesville, Ga., a remote setting on the state’s northeastern border. But remote, of course, is relative.

As superintendent in four Alaskan school districts, Dishman was well accustomed to working in far-removed outposts and serving students who never ventured beyond their own village, much less into the lower 48 states.

In his most recent Alaskan position, Dishman oversaw a sparsely populated district that serves nearly 2,300 students in 10 schools in eight villages.

Two years ago, he suspects he set a record in someone’s book by speaking at nine graduations in 11 days. "I flew more than 3,000 miles and did not leave the district," he says. "[The extra effort] pays dividends as measured by the positive atmosphere in the schools."

Those travels lend themselves to some captivating stories, and Dishman is much in demand as a speaker. "Above everything he has a keen sense of humor. He can make a motivational speech, as he does often, that will lead to profound commitments on the parts of students and staff," says Darroll Hargraves, executive director of the Alaska Association of School Administrators.

Dishman’s imagination and energy make a winning combination when he visits a classroom to lead a model lesson. Teachers in North Slope appreciated the superintendent’s close contact despite the miles, and many envied his ability to capture students’ attention when he takes over their classrooms. The superintendent shrugs off such praise.

"I tell those teachers, ‘You could keep their interest too if you only came in a few times a year,’" says Dishman.

Unlike many Alaskan districts, the North Slope Borough Schools have a significant tax base because of oil production along the coast. While this may help compensate for the extreme isolation, the district faces an enormous challenge educating impoverished Eskimo children, many of whom speak limited English at home with parents.

A native of Tennessee, which he calls his "humble roots," Dishman takes considerable personal satisfaction when disadvantaged students show progress.

"My dad was a Cherokee Indian who could not read or write and never earned more than $2 per hour in his life," says Dishman. "He always worried I would not be able to escape the poverty of the Tennessee Mountains."

He began the first of his Alaskan posts in 1982, taking charge of the Pribilof School District, composed of two small Aleutian islands. Over his three years, he was credited with raising student achievement by more than a third on the statewide assessment, for which he received a legislative citation.

Dishman probably confronted his most trying professional challenge in the Copper River School District in Glennallen, an 800-student district on the brink of bankruptcy. Dishman cut his own pay 5 percent and asked teachers to do the same, but they balked--even though their salaries were the state’s highest. So began several months of unproductive confrontations.

"We cut everything possible and it wasn’t enough," Dishman said. "Mediation didn’t work. Finally, in order to keep the schools open, I asked the board to take the district into Chapter 9."

On reflection, Dishman notes that after the financial crisis eased and the focus shifted to academics, "The end result was good for students." When he left five years later, student performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was near the top in the state, and the district was one of the state leaders in technology. He earned the Alaska Superintendent of the Year award in 1992.

Liz Griffin is managing editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: lgriffin@aasa.org

BIO STATS: