The Road Runner’s Persistent Push


When Rob Saxton sets a goal for his school district and vows to achieve it, his school board members believe it will happen. After all, Saxton has a pretty impressive track record.

The superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District just outside of Portland, Ore., has run 11 road marathons and two 50-kilometer “ultra” marathons over the past five years. He ran the New York City Marathon in November at what he calls an “easy” pace of three hours and 31 minutes — about eight minutes per mile. He ran Boston in a personal best: 3:15.

Rob SaxtonRob Saxton

On most weekdays, Saxton rises by 4:30 a.m. and runs between six and 11 miles, then showers and gets to his office at 7:30. Such discipline focuses his mind — a focus that transfers readily to the workplace.

“If we’re intentional about something, we’re going to make it happen,” says Saxton, who at 6-foot-3 is a former high school quarterback, basketball player and football coach. “It doesn’t feel good sometimes, but you said it was what you were going to do, and you do it.”

School board chair Jill Zurschmeide says Saxton’s “marathon attitude” is apparent. He once told her that mile 22 was his favorite part of a race. “He said, ‘This is where it comes down to are you going to keep going or are you going to quit.’ ”

As leader of the 12,000-student district since 2005, Saxton has focused on narrowing the achievement gap. The district’s minority population, mostly Latino, is growing at a rate of about 3 percent a year and now stands at 36 percent.

Saxton says the district’s disaggregation of data by race uncovered sharp differences in expulsions and other discipline meas­ures, as well as student performance. The district hired the Pacific Educational Group, which launched some eye-opening conversations about race, leading to refinements in teaching and expectations.

“It’s embarrassing to say, but for me this was the very first time I realized that there are things we do as educators that cause our students of color to underachieve,” the superintendent says.

In the last four years, the percentage of white 10th graders passing the state’s English language arts test increased from 78 to 88 percent. The percentage of Latinos passing increased from 31 percent to 52 percent.

Not all of the district’s academic changes have gone smoothly. Saxton, a secondary math teacher for 12 years, and the school board introduced College Preparatory Mathematics in fall 2008. Within a month, parents began complaining about what they saw as a lack of rigor, and some demanded a return to traditional math instruction. The debate grew heated, and Saxton and the board finally agreed to bring back the traditional program, supplemented by the new format.

“It was a painful process,” Saxton says. “But what a fabulous experience it was for our board meetings to be focused on what’s the best way to teach kids math.”

The district has developed expertise in the Response to Intervention approach to teaching struggling students — so much so that it has trained about 40 other districts in the approach over the past five years. While RTI was in place when he came aboard, Saxton brings his determination as a long-distance runner to keep working toward better outcomes.

“The one thing I think I brought to the district was the resolve and intentionality that caused that work to function at a much higher level,” he says. “I do think it has made a difference in how teachers teach.”

Paul Riede is a staff writer with The Post-­Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail:

BIO STATS: Rob Saxton

Currently: superintendent, Tigard-Tualatin School District, Tigard, Ore.

Previously: superintendent, Sherwood, Ore.

Age: 51

Greatest influence on career: While working toward my superintendent licensure at Portland State University, Jim Carlile, who had recently retired as a superintendent, was one of the cohort leaders. He had taken an interim job in the Sherwood district, and at the end of the class, I was lucky enough to follow him as superintendent. Jim brings a wealth of knowledge, yet is always humble and self-deprecating.

Best professional day: What stands out most are high school graduations. Graduation day is such a wonderful culmination of effort and celebration for the entire school community. We get to celebrate students’ accomplishments through their speeches, the music they provide for the ceremony, the recognition of awards and by handing students their diploma. The carnival atmosphere following the ceremony is something to behold.

Books at bedside: Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris; Learning From Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success by Harvey Alvy and Pam Robbins; Advanced Marathoning by Peter Pfitzinger; Stretching the School Dollar by Fredrick Hess and Eric Osberg; Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson; and The Schooling Practices That Matter Most by Kathleen Cotton

Biggest blooper: I’m always worried about sending e-mail to the wrong place as I race through the volumes I receive every day.

Why I’m an AASA member: As an organization, AASA supports me professionally. AASA provides me with access to professional development in the areas where I need it and with a rich network of like-minded colleagues who have experiences with challenges similar to mine.