Lincoln Napton

Speaking Softly But Packing a Punch by JAY GOLDMAN

In the remote northwestern corner of North Dakota that many would consider out of touch, Lincoln Napton feels well connected to his profession and solidly grounded in the movement to improve student performance.

Rather than toiling in obscurity, the soft-spoken Napton serves as a dynamic force for good in the lives of 200 children in the Eight Mile School District No. 6 in Trenton, N.D. Since 1987, he has worked as the district’s superintendent, as well as director of federal programs and of migrant education.

The latter positions command much attention since nearly two-thirds of the students are Native Americans, which last year qualified the district for $1 million in federal funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Given the district’s location 90 miles from the closest reservation in Montana, Napton had to lobby effectively with federal officials in Washington, D.C., over four years to gain approval.

The additional money, representing about half of the school budget, is allowing the tiny district to make major inroads in technology. By this spring, Eight Mile will have a T-1 connection to the Internet, 32 Internet terminals, and one personal computer for every two students.

Under Napton’s direction, the district has added 15 minutes to the instructional day, expanded the curriculum, and set higher standards. Students must complete three years of math, three years of science, a year of computer applications, and a half-year of speech to graduate. Through shrewd hiring, Napton’s teachers offer an array of 20 elective courses, three times what the state requires.

The results have been remarkable. Since 1991, 76 percent of the district’s graduates have gone on to two- or four-year colleges, and last June all but three of the 19 seniors continued their studies. Student attendance ranges annually between 96 and 98 percent, and teacher absenteeism hovers around 2 percent.

"It’s a function of higher expectations as well as follow-through," he says. "I lived in the hallways the first few years to move the staff out of the comfort zone."

Napton, who once spent two years as a salesman for a personal motivation company, models self-improvement and personal growth among students who typically have few role models. He expects to complete a third master’s degree this summer at Columbia’s Teachers College, this one in computing in education. On his own, he has been studying the works of Stephen Covey and Peter Senge because of the way they connect system leadership to the effectiveness of the individual.

"I do set the pace and provide an example," he says. A man of deep faith, Napton also finds instruction in particular books of the Old Testament and New Testament. The superintendent’s personal letterhead carries the visage of an eagle, a character he draws from the Book of Isaiah. An eagle soars alone, taking in the whole panorama with a fix on keeping a focus on what matters, he says.

That spiritual element is apparent to outsiders, such as Nancy Bakewell, who directs the nearby Williston Area Chamber of Commerce. "He’s quiet, most of the time observing and cataloging ideas in his mind," she says. "He’ll contribute when he has something worthy to say—not like politicians running at the mouth."

Napton concedes he appreciates time alone, saying, "I prefer it actually, being by myself to read and contemplate."

Larry Klundt, executive director of the North Dakota Council of School Administrators, finds much to emulate about his colleague’s performance leading a small, rural school district. "The work he has done to elevate self-esteem and increase test scores due to higher achievement is just short of awesome," he claims.

While his work has garnered some significant personal honors—state superintendent of the year in 1991 and the Leadership for Learning Award (cosponsored by AASA and the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association) in 1995—Napton expresses doubt that he could be as successful in another setting.

"I touch every kid, teacher, and staff person in a district this size. "You can really make a difference."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: