Profile

Mediocrity Not Allowed in Her Domain

by Paul Riede

In one way, Susan Andrews’ childhood as a minister’s daughter in rural Harris County, Ga., was perfect preparation for a career as a public school leader.

“I’ve often said that being a pastor’s daughter is great training to become a superintendent,” she says. “When you’re the pastor’s daughter, everyone is watching what you do. It’s like living in a fishbowl, so it’s nothing new to me.”

Andrews, 51, now is the biggest fish in the bowl. As superintendent of the Harris County School District, she was named Georgia’s 2007 superintendent of the year and became one of four finalists for national superintendent of the year.

Parents and educators in her community credit her with a caring but demanding approach that is bringing excellence to the growing district, a bedroom community 25 miles north of Columbus. In the past few years she has overseen a narrowing of the black-white achievement gap, a sharp increase in SAT scores, the establishment of a performance learning center that is turning around the graduation prospects of struggling students, and the start of a Junior ROTC program that is meeting high demand. (The district is located a half-hour from Fort Benning.)

The superintendent’s decisive action on JROTC is seen as emblematic of her leadership style. “Within one year she had it in place,” Assistant Superintendent Angel Culp says. “She definitely moves. She has a great vision and everybody buys into it.”

With the expansion of the nearby Army base expected to bring some 400 new students to the 5,100-student district starting in 2009, the superintendent pushed through plans for a second middle school with groundbreaking this fall, and the district is thinking about building a second high school.
Many chalk up some of Andrews’ success to her deep understanding of the community. Andrews has traveled far in her career without ever leaving Harris County. She grew up there, lived there while commuting to Columbus State University, and served as a student teacher at the district’s Harris Elementary.

The latter school then hired her full time in August 1977, and she has worked in the district ever since, getting her Ed.D. at Auburn University along the way. She took over as superintendent in 2000. Her office is in the same space where she taught 3rd grade years ago, before Harris Elementary was converted into the school district’s headquarters.

Andrews was the first member of her family to go to college, but she says education was always stressed in her home. She knew early on how she wanted to spend her work life.

“About all there was to do was to go to school and go to church,” she says. “And when I looked around me I saw that the smartest people were all teachers.”

She admits that knowing the community so well can be a double-edged sword, saying, “Sometimes you have to make tough decisions involving people you really care about.”

Culp, who has worked with Andrews for 29 years, says the superintendent’s secret is a blending of a sympathetic, personal style with sky-high expectations. Her annual talk to new teachers has become known as “the mediocrity speech,” Culp says. “She tells them, ‘If you are a mediocre teacher, you need to find another job. We need great teachers.’”

Nancy Sills, the county’s 2006 teacher of the year and a mother of three daughters who went through the district, says Andrews’ greatest strengths are her vision, her drive and her deep credibility among the staff.

“I think unfortunately too many superintendents or principals do not take the personal approach,” Sills says. “They get up in their ivory towers and they dictate and they forget what it’s like in the classroom. ... We know she’s been in the same place we are. We know when she wants us to do something it’s been well thought out.”

Andrews says the key to her job is “to always talk about vision.” Beyond that, she says, it’s all about “working hard every day and offering no excuses.”

Paul Riede is an editor with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com

BIO STATS: SUSAN ANDREWS

Currently: superintendent, Harris County, Ga.

Previously: assistant superintendent, Harris County, Ga.

Age: 51

Greatest influence on career: After becoming a teacher, I was greatly influenced by each principal under whom I served and by the superintendents who led our district. There was not one person, but a cumulation of professional role models, along with my parents who inspired me to become the educator I am today.

Best professional day: The day I was selected to serve as superintendent of the district in my home community. I was humbled by the thought the community had enough trust in me as a person and a professional to lead our public school system.

Books at bedside:Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; Freedom Writers by the students of Erin Gruwell; and Out-of-the-Box Leadership by Paul Houston, Dennis Sparks, et. al.

Biggest blooper: I introduced a parent volunteer one night as the “most selfish person I know” instead of as the “most unselfish.” I quickly corrected my mistake, but the damage was done!

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I enjoy the networking at the AASA conferences allowing discussion of issues with superintendents from around the nation. This keeps one from being so narrowly focused and provides insight into issues that I may not think about if I stayed only within my own state’s organization.