Profile

Passionate Over Relationships

by MARIAN KISCH

Sue Zurvalec learned something important when thinking out loud with her direct reports during her first year as superintendent in Farmington, Mich. “Every dumb idea I floated, they thought I was expecting them to do,” she says.

 

An admittedly talkative extrovert, Zurvalec had to explain to the staff that she simply was looking for their own ideas and reactions, not to jump at every notion. She wanted to engage them in conversation, not dictate solutions.

Profile_ZurvalecSue Zurvalec

And that’s what Zurvalec has continued to do since her appointment in 2005 to the 12,000-student district, located about 15 minutes northwest of Detroit. The population has changed dramatically since she came to the district as employee relations administrator in 1989 when it was 95 percent Caucasian, a figure that’s now 55 percent.

After earning a master’s degree in labor and industrial relations, Zurvalec spent several years negotiating contracts for small districts through the Michigan Association of School Boards. “This taught me important leadership skills of building relationships, communication and trust,” she says. “Your word is so important.”

Zurvalec sees herself as someone who “empowers and collaborates.” She knows she can get immediate action if she barks an order, “but it doesn’t have lasting results. I want to build their capacity so they will carry the work forward. I want to support them, guide them, nurture them and watch them grow.”

That sometimes means relinquishing full control, as she did when the school district was developing a new strategic plan. The superintendent formed a committee of teachers, administrators, city managers, university staff, parents and high school students and then let them take off.

Stacy Jenkins, editor of the Farmington Observer, says Zurvalec “lets her team members do their thing because she knows and trusts them.” The school board president, Howard Wallach, points to the same, saying, “Sue has a terrific ability to look at what the vision of the organization should be and then develop a plan to facilitate us getting to that goal.”

Given the dramatic changes to the demographic and racial landscape in Farmington (22 percent African American, 15 percent Asian/Indian and 8 percent English language learners, many of whom are of Arab descent), Zurvalec has made improving race relations a personal passion.

A partnership with the University of Michigan, her alma mater, and the city of Farmington Hills focuses on eliminating stereotypes and bringing people together across the divides. It started six years ago when a team of high school students participated in a summer project at the university where they connected with students from Detroit. That led to formal youth dialogues in Farmington’s three high schools, the creation of a high school elective course and, as of this fall, a required class called Diversity and Dialogue for 9th graders in the new International Baccalaureate program.

“This is what energizes me and gets me up every day,” says Zurvalec, a native of Bay City, Mich. What doesn’t Zurvalec like about her job? Late board meetings, financing challenges and closing schools. “It’s more fun to say ‘yes we can’ instead of making cuts.”

Wallach considers the superintendent “a visionary in terms of race relations and its impact on student achievement.”

Getting into the classrooms every week is a must for Zurvalec. She recounts a visit to a 2nd-grade class when a student asked her: “Are you the one who calls the snow days? When I answered in the affirmative, he proceeded to offer me $40 if I would call a snow day for the next day!”

Zurvalec is ever conscious about being a good role model, whether she’s answering a question about closing school or pushing the capacity of her leadership team. “Everyone — students, the board, parents and the staff — need to see an effective superintendent in a challenging leadership role,” she says, admitting she feels a special responsibility because she is the district’s first female superintendent.

Marian Kisch is a free-lance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net

BIO STATS: SUE ZURVALEC

Currently: superintendent, Farmington, Mich.

Previously: deputy superintendent, Farmington, Mich.

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: My mother was a teacher and guidance counselor in my high school. My father died when I was 8, so my mother went back to school to get her teaching certificate to support her four daughters. She continued teaching and then got her master’s degree and put all of her daughters through University of Michigan. She was a true inspiration for me to pursue a career in education.

Best professional day: Any day that I am in classrooms and talking with teachers and students.

Books at bedside: Switch by Dan and Chip Heath and Drive by Daniel Pink

Biggest blooper: When leaving a visit at one of our high schools, the heel of my shoe got caught on the outdoor stairway and I took a terrible fall that required students and staff to come to my aid. The fall injured my teeth, my hand and my pride.

Why I’m an AASA member: The superintendency is one of the most challenging and rewarding professions that an educator can hold. Having a national network of superintendents to connect and learn with is why I belong.