Rookies No More

Revisiting the lives of six educators whose first year as superintendents we chronicled in 2001-02 by Donna Harrington-Lueker

Flashback to 2001: George W. Bush begins his first term as president with a pledge to improve public schools, and by year’s end Congress passes the No Child Left Behind Act. Efforts to privatize public education continue as the for-profit Edison Schools company signs a contract to manage five of New York City’s lowest-performing schools, and former Secretary of Education William Bennett starts his own for-profit venture, the online K12 Inc. And in September — dwarfing all other developments — terrorists crash passenger planes into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon, an action whose effects are still being felt.

For school leaders beginning their first superintend-ency, the Chinese proverb seems to apply: They are living in interesting times.

Candid Reflections
Six years ago, to gauge the challenges facing new school system leaders, The School Administrator tracked the challenges of six superintendents who had assumed their first superintendency in summer 2001. The story of their experiences, “Superintendent Rookies,” appeared in the magazine’s October 2002 issue. Each had finished his or her rookie year as a school system’s chief executive, and each reflected candidly on the lessons learned in that all-important first year.

The six superintendents represented school systems in diverse locales — rural Iowa, upstate New York, Washington state, western Maryland and California’s Central Valley. But despite that diversity, the superintendents’ stories shared a number of common themes. In that first year on the job, all six spoke of the importance of mentorship, of the need for good superintendent-board relations, of the difficulty of keeping teaching and learning foremost when faced with the day-to-day minutiae of a school leader’s life.

This summer, The School Administrator revisited these six leaders. Where were they now? What had they learned since we last spoke about how to take a school system from good to great? What would they do differently if they had the chance? How satisfied were they with their career choices and with their lives as superintendents?

Those questions and others seemed even more timely today. According to AASA’s “The State of the American Superintendency: A Mid-Decade Study,” released in 2007, slightly more than half of the superintendents surveyed reported they were first-year superintendents, a record percentage for the profession. Our rookie superintendents from 2001-02 certainly would have some lessons to share with these colleagues.
After six years, three of the superintendents were still working in the same school districts. One other had moved to a new school system nearby, and two had left the superintendency — one to return to academia and the other to become director of human resources in a large Southern district. But wherever they were, all six remained committed to public education, and all six spoke of the complexity of the profession in ways that are likely to resonate with the current tide of first-year school leaders.

Surprisingly, all six had something else in common as well. Most told us that they expected their first superintendency to be their last. Asked where they saw themselves in five or 10 years, nearly all spoke of spending time with grandchildren, traveling the world or starting a part-time career, perhaps outside the public schools.

In short, just as these rookies are getting good at their game, they’re also thinking seriously about retirement or moving on. Here are their stories.

Staying Put
Elaine Cash, superintendent of the Riverdale, Calif., Joint Unified School District, is one of the three rookies to remain in her original district. And for Cash and others, staying put has meant making sustained progress.

Over the past six years, the 1,600-student district has experienced some strong growth in enrollment, and Cash has overseen a facilities project every summer, including one this year to upgrade the district’s technology infrastructure and its wireless network.

The district, located 25 miles southwest of Fresno in California’s agricultural Central Valley, also remains committed to helping students achieve at high levels. Eighty percent of Riverdale’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Seventy-eight percent of students are Hispanic, many of whom do not speak English as their first language.

Former Rookies Offer Six Rules to Live By by Donna Harrington-Lueker

As rookies, they turned to others for advice on surviving and thriving as first-year superintendents. Today, these rookies have become mentors themselves, more likely to dispense advice than to seek it. What do they know now that they wish they’d known then? Their insights follow.

read more

Every year, though, the school district has been able to improve student performance. When Cash started as superintendent in 2001, 24 percent of Riverdale’s students scored at the proficient level or above in English on California’s statewide test. Today, 44 percent score at that level. Math scores also have improved as 24 percent of the district’s students scored at the proficient level or above in 2001 versus 55 percent today.

Riverdale’s English language learners have made progress. Only 10 percent scored at the proficient level or above in English in Cash’s first year. Today, 35 percent do. And while Cash acknowledges there’s still work to be done, she is proud the school system is closing the gap.

“We’re saying that every child must have a year’s growth, plus, in every subject,” the superintendent says. “And we’re building capacity [for that] one year after another.”

Marshall Marshall, who continues as superintendent of the Pulaski Academy and Central School District in central New York, also has overseen gains in student achievement.

“Research shows that it takes five to seven years for systemic reform to take place,” he says. “If a superintendent is good, the longer he or she stays, the better off the district is.

“You want a commitment to the district, a commitment to success, not just dazzle and a drive-by.”

School districts in New York face what Marshall describes as a rolling standard of success. Once a district achieves a certain level of improvement, among ethnic minorities, for example, the state may raise the bar on another measure to encourage continuous growth. In this climate, Marshall notes, the district’s three-year averages on state tests show steady growth, and Pulaski meets state standards on all exams. In a state where it’s easy to land on the needs-improvement list, he says, none of Pulaski’s schools has been on that list since he started.

Marshall also is proud of the growth in professional development opportunities in the district over his 7 years, including a structured program for new employees. Every summer, too, teachers participate in an ongoing curriculum development initiative that addresses the needs of different kinds of learners.

Has he changed personally over the years? “Do you want the grayer, fatter part?” he asks with a laugh before conceding that he’s more relaxed, more tolerant, now than he was in his first year at the helm of the 1,200-student system near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.
“I’m sure I’ve slowed down,” Marshall says. “At the beginning, I rushed to fix what I knew needed fixing. I’m more patient now.”

Moving On
For every member of the rookie class who stayed put, though, another moved on.

John Kinley served his rookie year in the South Hamilton Community Schools, an 800-student school district in central Iowa. Two years into that superintendency, a neighboring district asked South Hamilton if it would share Kinley as superintendent. The South Hamilton school board agreed, and Kinley split his time 50-50 in the districts. Among the benefits from the arrangement: South Hamilton students had more options for vocational education and access to other programs, Kinley says.

During Kinley’s tenure, South Hamilton expanded, opportunities for students in other ways, as well. High school students were allowed to take more classes for credit at the local community college, a move that expanded options for students on both the vocational and collegiate tracks. And schools became adept at using student achievement data to identify students’ needs and plan appropriate responses.

In 2005, though, Kinley moved to the Gilbert Community Schools, a 1,125-student district just north of Ames, Iowa, a college town that’s home to Iowa State University. Gilbert was bigger than South Hamilton, but personal factors played a role in the decision to move, as well. Kinley’s wife worked in Ames, and the move ended her 50-mile-a-day commute. The couple’s grandchildren also lived there. And moving closer to Ames meant a homecoming of sorts.

“My wife and I met at Iowa State, and we always said we’d love to come back here,” the superintendent says.

And though the Gilbert district is becoming increasingly suburban — new housing developments are spurring growth — Kinley says he feels the same “wonderful sense” of community that he felt in South Hamilton.

He’s the district’s third superintendent since the 1930s, and he says he doesn’t plan to move anywhere else soon. “I told them during the interview, I won’t be here for 37 years or 29 years like my predecessors, but I won’t be applying for another superintendency either.”

Michael Jones also changed districts in the last six years. A nontraditional superintendent, Jones had retired from a career in a Fortune 500 company, worked in the Seattle Public Schools and spent four years as superintendent in the East Valley School District near Spokane, Wash. There, Jones says, he was proud of his efforts to move resources closer to students and of the ambitious reading initiative he promoted.
In June 2005, though, Jones moved into the superintendency in Port Huron, Mich., only to resign a year later, in a standoff with four members of a divided board.

The scenario that unfolded is familiar. Faced with a $5 million deficit in the school budget, Jones proposed cost-cutting measures that left the teaching force largely intact but eliminated positions for five social workers and four psychologists, the Port Huron Times Herald reported. The board approved the plan, then rehired the workers using contingency funds. According to news accounts, the school board’s president at the time complained of issues with Jones’s management style and asked him to leave or be forced out, an action the newspaper called “one of the worst moments in the school district’s history.”

Jones resigned at a special meeting of the board in June 2006. A month later, a newly elected school board asked Jones to stay on, but he declined. He is now executive director of human resources for the Sarasota County, Fla., schools, a district with 42,000 students.

“I take pride in doing things well,” Jones says. “And I know that being in the middle of economic cutbacks is a difficult place for a superintendent to be. But I’m not that crazy [to have accepted Port Huron’s new offer].

“East Valley left me with the false impression that I could do anything.”

Where the Action Is
The one-time rookies also share the same conviction: For them, the superintendency is the key leverage point in school reform.

Susan Garton is no exception. Garton spent her first year as a superintendent in the Southeast Warren, Iowa, Community School District. With an enrollment of fewer than 600, the district was small enough for Garton to know every family well. She focused on instructional improvements — which she had expected — but also worked to make the district’s budgeting and transportation systems more efficient — “things I never dreamed I’d be involved in,” Garton says.

After two years in Southeast Warren, Garton left the superintendency for a position at Iowa State working with graduate students who aspired to be principals.

Garton admits that the decision to leave Southeast Warren was complicated. “I’ve learned there’s never one straightforward answer [to why a superintendent leaves],” says Garton, who had taught in academia before and now researches the superintendency. Sometimes the issue is board turnover, “which certainly contributed to my decision,” Garton says, and sometimes it’s a mix of personal reasons, a search for balance between a person’s professional and private lives.

After two years at Iowa State, Garton moved again, this time to the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Though it’s a third the size of the continental United States, Alaska has only 54 school districts, many of them accessible only by small planes equipped with pontoons for landing. (Garton colorfully recalls one flight into Fort Yukon, 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks, in the state’s vast interior. “There was no co-pilot, and I have a vivid memory of lots of duct tape,” she says.)

Still, for Garton, Alaska was the land of opportunity, a “place where one person can really make a difference.” Today that difference means teaching aspiring superintendents from across the state. One of her current students is a superintendent on Kodiak Island, just off the Alaska Peninsula. Three are from school districts along the Arctic Circle.

Wherever her students are, though, they’re on the front lines of school reform. “The superintendency is where the action is,” says Garton. “It’s the No. 1 spot to touch the lives of students and families.”

For Elizabeth “Betty” Molina Morgan, the superintendent of the Washington County, Md., Public Schools, that ability to make a difference in students’ lives is like no other. A former chief education officer for the Baltimore City Schools, Morgan described herself as a “change agent” when The School Administrator chronicled the end of her first year in summer 2002.

For Morgan, the joy of being a superintendent comes from a vision of high expectations for students — and from getting people in a community engaged and excited around that vision.

For Washington County, a semirural district of about 22,000 in the northwest corner of Maryland, it’s this vision of academic excellence that puts the district on par with some of the highest-achieving and wealthiest districts in Maryland. Over the last six years, high school graduation rates in the district have climbed from 78.3 percent in 2000 to 90.5 percent in 2006, and the dropout rate has declined to 2.2 percent. Six of the district’s high schools are listed among the best in the nation in U.S. News & World Report.

The district now has one of five International Baccalaureate programs in the state — an accomplishment for any school system, but even more so given the district’s poverty rate of nearly 40 percent. It also has developed a series of magnet schools, including a new high school for the visual and performing arts that is expected to help revitalize downtown Hagerstown, the county seat.

No More 24/7
But what does the future hold for the rookies-turned-veterans? Morgan’s contract ends in 2010, and the superintendent says this one will be her last. Like several in this group, Morgan, who has spent more than 30 years in public education, has retirement in sight. Washington County is her legacy, she says.

She will continue to work, she says, “but I don’t want to take on any heavy-duty jobs” — at least nothing that approximates the 24/7 life she lives as a superintendent.

“I guess I have a choice,” says Morgan of a work week that lasts long into the evening and deep into the weekends to include in-service sessions, awards functions, athletic events and meetings of the school board and other community groups. But doing anything less is not the way she tries to do the job.

When she retires, Morgan would like to write or consult and spend more time with family. A couple of months on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como has appeal as well. “I’ve worked really hard,” she says. “Now the time will be for me. For the first time, I’m not planning 30 years out.”
Marshall Marshall isn’t looking at a 30-year timeline, either. In five years, he expects to be either recently retired or still in the Pulaski school district. “My job is fabulous, and I’ll continue until it’s not fabulous,” the superintendent says.

In her 24th year in public education, Elaine Cash looks ahead to spending more time with her grandchildren, three of whom live just a few blocks away. “I don’t want to stop,” Cash says. “But I’d like to explore other options.”

Michael Jones is looking at a longer term. “I’m not ready to quit,” he says. The understanding is that he will stay for five years in Sarasota, and when he does retire, he says, a good friend is talking to him about doing a talk radio show — an idea that intrigues the former superintendent. John Kinley, too, has told his district that this superintendency will be his last.

And Susan Garton? For her, the lure of another superintendency remains. “Would I do it again?” Garton asks. “For the right kind of district, I would.”

Donna Harrington-Lueker, a freelance education writer, is a professor of journalism at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. E-mail: harringd@salve.edu