Feature

Ten Years in the Limelight

National Superintendent of Year Honorees Reflect on the Significance of the Award by Priscilla Pardini


Donald R. Draayer noticed that once he had been named 1990 National Superintendent of the Year everyone assumed he'd be leaving his post as head of the small, suburban Minnetonka, Minn., Public Schools for "bigger, better things." Says Draayer: "They thought I'd go to a bigger district, a different job. They'd tell me, 'Now, you've moved beyond us.’"

That frustrated Draayer, who stayed in Minnetonka for five more years before opening his own one-person consulting firm just down the road. "I've never necessarily felt the path to glory is bigger and bigger," he says. "The important thing is to make a difference."

The nine men and women who have been named National Superintendent of the Year clearly have made a difference. As a result of their leadership, student achievement—sometimes in the face of terrific odds in their districts—has improved. Teachers are being given more opportunities to do their best work. Money is being spent in more effective ways. Public confidence in public schools is up.

"Each one of these people is a living example of the talent that exists in the superintendency," said Gary Marx, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators' Leadership for Learning Foundation. "They are people with a mission—a ministry of sorts—in ensuring the well being of children and making sure they get a good education."

Now in its 10th year, the National Superintendent of the Year Award is sponsored by AASA and the ServiceMaster Company. The award recognizes outstanding leadership among the ranks of school superintendents. Candidates are evaluated on the basis of meeting student needs, communication skills, administrative knowledge, and community involvement. The program is open to all U.S. public school superintendents, superintendents of American schools abroad, and Department of Defense Education Activity schools who plan to continue in the profession. State selection committees choose the state-level superintendents of the year, and a blue-ribbon panel made up of education experts and officials chooses four finalists from among the state recipients. The finalists are invited to Washington, D.C., in January, honored at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and participate in a news conference at the National Press Club. The National Superintendent of the Year is announced at the AASA's National Conference on Education.

The 1997 National Superintendent of the Year, like each of his or her predecessors, will receive a $2,000 savings bond, a jacket and gold medallion emblazoned with the NSOY emblem, and a plaque. But many former honorees say the best thing about winning the award is the $10,000 college scholarship given in the national superintendent's name to a student attending the high school from which he or she graduated.

With the prizes also comes the responsibility to lead in a much larger arena. "The National Superintendent of the Year truly becomes the spokesperson for superintendents nationwide," says Darlene Pierce, coordinator of the award program for AASA.

To help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NSOY program, The School Administrator talked with each of the previous winners. All have continued working in the field of education, including four who remain superintendents in the same districts where they were employed at the time of the award. Each described the year as a highlight of his or her career, personally rewarding and professionally enriching. All indicated that even years after serving as National Superintendent of the Year, the honor still was mentioned whenever they were introduced publicly.

The year in the limelight can be intimidating as well as exhausting since the experience means running a school district while simultaneously taking on a national education role. "Suddenly, people look at you as someone with unusual intelligence and remarkable insight and wisdom," says Draayer. Robert R. "Bud" Spillane, who was honored in 1995, agrees. "It tends to get characterized as honoring the best superintendent in the nation," Spillane says.

In comments echoed by each of the seven other past honorees, Spillane and Draayer say the award has to be put in perspective. "It means, there are a lot of great superintendents out there, and you were fortunate enough to be chosen to represent them all," says Spillane. Notes Draayer: "The truth is, a wise superintendent never leads in a solo fashion. It's a team effort."

Still, honoring individual superintendents as examples of outstanding leadership fills a real need, says Janet N. Barry, 1996 National Superintendent of the Year. "I think the country is starved for real leaders in every field, for people with integrity, for people who are articulate and visionary, and willing to stand for genuine improvement." In turn, honoring those individuals makes them even more effective, Barry says. "I know my capacity for leadership was dramatically increased by the award. There was a new receptiveness to my leadership—almost an expectation—that I stood for integrity and that I had vision for the task that was appropriate."

Gene R. Carter

When Gene Carter, superintendent of the Norfolk Public Schools, was named the inaugural National Superintendent of the Year in 1988, an artist-in-residence in the school district celebrated the event by painting Carter's portrait, complete with the famous Time magazine "Man of the Year" background. "I have it in my office," says Carter. "And even to this day, everyone who walks in assumes for a minute I was Time's 'Man of the Year' in 1988. I always have to explain."

While being tapped as the nation's top school superintendent may not have carried quite the prestige of a Time "Man of the Year," the NSOY award—even in its infancy—carried a lot of status. Carter led a delegation to China and met with then Secretary of Education Bill Bennett.

As he traveled around the country speaking, Carter helped define the role of the National Superintendent of the Year. While given the opportunity to highlight the successes of his own district, he also was asked to speak to the broader challenges confronting public schools. This was a role each of his successors would assume in the coming years.

In Norfolk, an urban district with almost 36,000 students at the time, Carter had made a name for himself by reducing busing as a way of achieving racial balance and establishing a system of neighborhood schools that ensured equity and excellence for all students. He was described as a dynamic leader who increased public confidence in the school district and as a community hero renowned for his commitment to the welfare of all children.

Carter left the school system four years after winning the NSOY award to become executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a position he holds today. "I can't be so naive as to think the award didn't help me land the job," he says.

Carter believes that with each passing year the award becomes more widely recognized as a means of showcasing the importance of the superintendency as a leadership role. "It's a position that has the capacity to influence, to a great extent, the future of the nation," he contends. "As a superintendent, you're guiding the process by which our young people grow into the leaders of tomorrow."

James A. Wilsford

For more than 30 years, James Wilsford has been fascinated by computers. "Early on, I just knew they were going to be a big deal," he says. By the late 1970s, as superintendent of the Orangeburg, S.C., School District, Wilsford was in a position to test his hypothesis that technology had the potential to be a powerful tool in the classroom. Within a decade, he was seeing results: unprecedented increases in student achievement in his mostly minority, low-income school district. Suddenly, Orangeburg was on the map, and Wilsford was honored as 1989 National Superintendent of the Year.

Wilsford likened the experience to "winning the Super Bowl," and described his year in the limelight as "the most fun I had since I played high school basketball." He wore his new, blue athletic jacket, embroidered with the NSOY logo, with pride. He was honored by the South Carolina state legislature with a resolution and a gold medallion. And he basked in the excitement that permeated Orangeburg. In short, Wilsford says the award afforded him the rare opportunity to be treated as a "hero," which in turn inspired him to "try to do well."

Wilsford says the members of the Orangeburg school board and other Orangeburg County officials treated his winning the NSOY award as an industrial development event. "They saw it as a way of bringing positive attention to the school district, and they encouraged me to speak every time I had a chance," he says. Those opportunities, he adds, continued long after his year in the public eye.

But Wilsford believes the most significant aspect of the NSOY award comes in its annual honoring of 50 outstanding superintendents at the state level. "I always thought the best part was not that I got to be the National Superintendent of the Year, but recognizing all those superintendents—50 every year over and over—who were just sitting out there doing their jobs," he says. "That has a lot of power."

Wilsford retired in 1991 after 35 years in education. He founded MultiMeanings Company and served as president of the firm, which publishes The Star Express, interactive, multimedia software series for teaching reading and writing across the curriculum, and Curriculum On Line, a math and reading management tool for teachers.

Donald R. Draayer

At the press conference that followed his selection as 1990 National Superintendent of the Year, Don Draayer quickly realized that he was playing in a bigger arena than ever before. True, he had been in the public eye since 1973 as superintendent of the 6,000-pupil Minnetonka, Minn., Public Schools. But suddenly, tough questions on major education issues that he had been able to duck in the past now were being hurled at him by an aggressive national press corps, and his answers were being scrutinized as never before.

"The award sort of confirms in the minds of other people that you're highly qualified," he says. "In fact, in some respect, the award suggests you're more qualified that you are. Suddenly, you're supposed to be knowledgeable on every subject and be able to speak on every subject. And you're listened to and given credibility that probably surpasses what you deserve."

Draayer credits his widowed father, a farmer with a fourth grade education, for best putting the award in perspective. "When my father heard, he said, 'Wonderful. Now get down on your knees and don't get a big head,'" Draayer recalls. "When you think about it, all the wisdom of the world is tied up in those words: praise, but not too much; that there are bigger purposes to be served in life; and no matter what you accomplish, you don't do it alone."

Draayer already had accomplished a lot. He led a successful effort to pass a $6.4 million bond referendum to renovate Minnetonka's old school buildings at a time when citizens in nearby districts were defeating or reversing similar measures, and he put in place an award-winning staff development program. He was praised by his nominators for his effective leadership and caring attitude.

Over the next few months, as he rose to the challenge of his new role and embarked on an ambitious speaking tour, Draayer was forced to examine more closely not only national school issues, but also his own personal philosophy of life and education. "People wanted to know why I was doing what I was doing and to answer honestly, I had to go back and do some soul searching."

Draayer says he came away from his experience as National Superintendent of the Year with a new appreciation for the diversity that characterizes communities and school districts across the United States. "Everywhere I went I met people performing the job of school superintendent, and most of them were succeeding," he says. "That tells me that good leadership can be exercised in many different types of arenas."

Today, Draayer runs a one-man educational consulting firm, Experience Plus, Inc., in Minnetonka. He is also a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota, where he specializes in executive development programs for school administrators and works as a consultant for the Search Institute of Minnesota, doing evaluation of and research on youth.

Carol G. Peck

Carol Peck isn't one to rest on her laurels, even if those laurels include being named 1991 National Superintendent of the Year. "Anytime one receives recognition for themselves or for others, I think it makes you want to roll up your sleeves and work even harder," says Peck, superintendent of the Alhambra, Ariz., School District No. 68. "The new energy of success is invigorating and contagious."

Peck was the first woman, and at 42, the youngest superintendent, to win the award. She had made a name for herself in the 8,300-student Alhambra School District by improving student achievement in every area at every grade level despite annual increases in the number of at-risk students moving into the district. She developed a systematic plan to meet the challenge that successfully boosted parent involvement, addressed the needs of pre-school and latchkey children, and provided remedial help for struggling primary-grade pupils. Every year, Peck personally conducts workshops for new teachers on how to increase student achievement.

Peck says the NSOY award, while personally a great honor, had a wider value in helping eliminate the many misconceptions that exist about the role of a superintendent. "Those who don't know the role view it as just another bureaucrat," she says. "Just as the National Teacher of the Year program elevates the role of teachers and spotlights the importance of teaching, I think this award elevates the importance of leadership and spotlights excellence in the leadership role."

One highlight of the selection process was spending time with her fellow finalists, all of whom she described as extremely capable. She says the group grew close. "Having gone through the process together, we all gained a respect and caring for each other."

Despite being pursued by headhunters "all the time," Peck says she is perfectly content in Alhambra. "It's my 11th year, and I'm loving it," she acknowledges. She also believes her unusually long tenure is good for the district. "It's hard to be effective as a superintendent if you just bounce around." One other result of winning the NSOY award: an honorary doctorate degree in 1992 from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Donald W. Ingwerson

Don Ingwerson is quick to admit that winning the National Superintendent of the Year Award in 1992 significantly changed his life. "It did make a difference," he says. "I certainly was recognized a lot more once I won the award. I did a lot of speaking and traveled as much as I could. It gave me a lot of credibility and validated a lot of things. And I have no doubt it was part of how I got my present job."

Since 1993, Ingwerson has been superintendent of the mammoth Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he oversees 81 school districts, 1,700 schools, 64,000 teachers, and 1.5 million students. Yet Ingwerson brought more to the position than a national award. For one thing, he was no stranger to big-city school districts. For 12 years he had worked as superintendent of the 92,000-student Jefferson County, Ky., Public Schools—a sprawling district covering 375 square miles—and the most senior big-city school chief in the country.

But Ingwerson's biggest claim to fame was his success as a reformer. One measure of that success: much of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act was based on models and programs, including site-based management and non-graded education projects, that Ingwerson had put in place in Jefferson County.

Ingwerson says winning the NSOY award gave him the platform "to speak with some assurance" about ways to achieve quality education. He says he was struck by the public's quest for excellence and fascination with those named tops in their field. "Everyone's after quality, and those who reflect it in any form are going to be in demand," he says. "They want to know, 'What made you stand out? Why were you selected?' You have an opportunity to influence and do what you can to ratchet up the need for better education."

The most poignant—and humorous—moment of Ingwerson's tenure came when he returned to his home town of Bern, Kan., to announce the winner of the $10,000 Donald Ingwerson Scholarship. It went to a farm girl who long had wanted to attend college, but was struggling to raise enough money. "After the ceremony we walked outside, and her father told me the $10,000 represented 1,530 milkings. That's how she was earning her tuition."

Kenneth S. Burnley

Driving up to the school district administration building after being named Colorado Superintendent of the Year in 1993, Ken Burnley was embarrassed. The building was plastered with signs announcing Burnley's award to anyone who might not have heard the news.

"I asked my secretary if she had seen all that stuff on the building," Burnley recalls. "And I told her to take it down." That night, Burnley's wife pointed out that celebrating his award was a way for the district to celebrate its own success. "I thought about it and realized she was right," he says. "The next day I apologized and told the staff to do whatever they'd like. And they put it all back up."

Burnley, superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11, learned from the experience. By the time he was named National Superintendent of the Year a few months later, he was able to enjoy the airport welcoming party and the police escort back to his office. "I'd come to realize that as educators, we give awards to other people all the time, but that we are ill-suited to receiving praise," he says. "We aren't recognized enough, don't celebrate enough." He also has come to understand that "I represented a lot of other superintendents just as talented as I was."

Burnley was recognized for bringing stability and vision to a district that upon his arrival in 1987 had been struggling under the weight of a $12 million budget deficit and bitter teacher contract negotiations. Along with required pay freezes came contract modifications aimed at allowing principals and teachers to come up with strategies they believed would best meet the needs of their students. Burnley encouraged his staff to think like entrepreneurs, always striving to keep and attract new "customers," even if it meant taking risks and sometimes failing.

Burnley’s travels as National Superintendent of the Year took him as far as Israel, Germany, and China, experiences that greatly broadened his perspective. "America has no idea how good our educational system is," he says. "We've become soft. We complain. We take a lot for granted. We don't realize how hard we should be working to maintain what we have."

Kenneth L. Moffett

Twice before, the members of the Lennox, Calif., School District had nominated their superintendent, Ken Moffett, for National Superintendent of the Year. But Moffett hadn't cooperated. He never got around to completing the application. "It's a tremendous writing exercise and a huge time commitment," he says. "I was as busy as I wanted to be, and I simply hadn't done it." Finally, the board took a different tack. "They built it into my evaluation," Moffett says.

The third time proved to be the charm. Moffett won the honor in 1994. "It was a marvelous experience," he says. "And had they not pressured me, I never would have gone for it." Even the dreaded application process turned out to be of value. "I think anytime you have to sit down and go through an exercise like that—answering thought-provoking, insightful questions—you gain."

Moffett estimates that during his time as National Superintendent of the Year, he gave more than 150 speeches that touched on his personal beliefs and accomplishments in Lennox, as well as national educational issues. To prepare, Moffett spent more time reading and thinking about school issues than ever before. "You have a responsibility to do more of your homework and certainly to be a lot more current, so that what you say is well grounded."

Moffett retired last July after almost 20 years in Lennox, a K-8 district located in one of Los Angeles County's poorest inner-city areas. He is credited with transforming the district's once-troubled schools into safe, orderly havens for its roughly 6,000 mainly Latino students, most of whom enter school speaking only Spanish. His bilingual and discipline programs have attracted national attention; his ability to talk to anyone, even gang members, made him a kind of folk hero.

Moffett now is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University in Culver City, Calif. Although he had worked at Pepperdine off and on over the years, Moffett is sure winning the NSOY award "didn't hurt" his chances of getting the job. "I had the opportunity to go to a number of places," he says.

Robert R. ''Bud'' Spillane

As superintendent since 1985 of one of the country's largest school systems in Fairfax County, Va. and for four years before that as chief of the Boston Public Schools, Bud Spillane maintained an unusually high profile for a school leader. He frequently was sought out by the national press, traveled and spoke a good deal on education issues, served on a number of prominent boards, wrote for professional publications, and taught at several colleges and universities.

In Fairfax County, Spillane amassed a solid record for boosting student achievement and reducing the dropout rate even as the number of at-risk students increased and at a per-pupil cost that was one of the lowest in the Washington, D.C., area. Yet despite Spillane's past accomplishments, being named 1995 National Superintendent of the Year was definitely a thrill. "It's a very prestigious award," he says.

Spillane says representing his colleagues across the country was humbling and acknowledges the experience made him "a little more careful and cautious in some of my responses ... a little more statesman-like than I might normally be." Locally, the award boosted pride for Fairfax County and particularly for its school system. "It was something I hadn't anticipated," Spillane says. "But people figure this can't be a bad school system if we have the National Superintendent of the Year."

Spillane is quick to encourage superintendents who have the opportunity to apply for the NSOY award to do so. "It helps keep in perspective the concept that true leadership in education comes through the superintendency. Superintendents, more than anyone else, are in a position to do the right thing for children. We're their main advocates. Others have to be concerned with other issues as well—what's the best thing for an employee group, for instance, or in the case of elected or appointed school boards, the politics of the local economy." That makes the job of superintendent, Spillane says, "one of the most important jobs in schools today."

Spillane plans to leave Fairfax County at the end of the 1997-98 school year. "It will have been 13 years," he says. "Time for me to do some other things."

Janet N. Barry

As National Superintendent of the Year during the months leading up to the 1996 elections, Janet Barry was in a particularly good position to gauge the prevailing mood on public education. She found "the climate angrier, and people more outspoken" than in recent times. "Education is the primary topic," says Barry, superintendent of the Central Kitsap, Wash., School District. "The stakes, especially for education, are very high—and the choices, very clear."

When it came to her colleagues, Barry says she found school leaders nationwide struggling to deal with crises caused by the politicization of public education. "The political climate in which school leaders have to operate is, in many cases, desperate," she says. "But at the same time, I think there are healthy perspectives that do give school leaders hope and direction. I like to think that as national superintendent I've contributed to that knowledge about how we'll turn the corner when it comes to improving public schools."

According to Barry, that's the value behind the NSOY award—giving more voice and vision to the problems that educators are forced to deal with. But she's quick to concede that since winning the award she's reaped as much as she's contributed. "I have a stronger voice, clearer vision, and a more effective capacity for leadership because of the experiences I've had," she says. "I'm not reluctant to stand and deliver what I believe about public education. I've come home with truly rich gifts for Central Kitsap in terms of the ability to be an even better leader."

With only three years of experience as a superintendent, Barry is a relative newcomer to the field. She won her NSOY award in recognition of a school improvement plan that has helped revitalize Central Kitsap, a 13,000-student district on the western shore of Puget Sound. Central to its success was Barry's ability to change the district from one characterized by an array of isolated activities into a coherent, integrated school system.

Barry believes the publicity surrounding her winning the NSOY award helped the residents of her community better understand her role. "I think the public generally sees the superintendent as pushing paper and making operational decisions that are relatively uncomplicated—such as whether to buy another school bus or not. I think now they understand that a huge amount of my time, I hope most of my time, is spent on improving education."

Priscilla Pardini is an education free-lance writer in Shorewood, Wis.

Who Will Be Honoree No. 10

The 10th national recipient of the Superintendent of the Year honor will be announced at the opening session of AASA's National Conference on Education on Feb. 14 in Orlando, Fla.

The four contenders are:

  • Kathleen M. Brochu, superintendent, Sumter County Schools, Americus, Ga.;
  • John Hodge Jones, superintendent, Murfreesboro, Tenn. City Schools;
  • John R. O'Rourke, superintendent, Pittsford, N.Y. Central Schools;
  • Betty S. Poindexter, superintendent, Community School Corporation of Southern Hancock County, New Palestine, Ind.