Navigating Your Entry in a New Community

by Nadine Binkley

For a superintendent, a positive entrance into a new position and community is critical. You can raise the likelihood of accomplishing your goals with a well-crafted entry plan that lays out a process for learning about the school system and its surroundings.

As I entered my second superintendency (somewhat wiser than during my first), I wanted to begin with knowledge of the community, an awareness of the politics and an understanding of the citizenry’s hopes for its public school system. It also was important for staff and community members to begin to know me. I wanted to meet teachers and administrators and learn ways I could help them educate our students.

I needed all of this information before I could begin to make important decisions that affected students. I wanted to understand the norms, values, traditions and aspirations of the community. An entry plan would help me to begin to develop a deep understanding of the community, which I could then use as the basis for my decisions.

Solid Groundwork
An entry plan can turn what could be a precarious beginning in a high-level administrative position into a successful foundation upon which to build the future. It allows for an understanding of both the internal and external communities and lays the groundwork for doing a future strategic plan. It helps to establish positive relationships by asking questions and listening carefully to experiences and opinions.

Speak to the right people.
Carefully prepare a list of people with whom you intend to speak. Your list should be organic, continuing to grow as your information grows. Whether new to the community or not, people need and want to be heard by you.

Interview school board members to establish positive working relationships. Interview administrators to understand their roles, to develop strong professional relationships with each and to assess their strengths. Ask administrators to discuss the data and analysis that informs the direction of their work.

Meet with each association president in your district to discuss interests and concerns and to begin a collaborative relationship to move the schools forward in a way that is fair and inclusive.

• Visit stakeholders on their own turf.
Visit each principal, tour the schools, visit classes, discuss their vision and work toward that vision. Discuss how student achievement data have informed their planning. Meet with staff to help them understand that you value their opinions and that you intend to talk with them and listen to them. Meet with students to collect candid and important information about what they value about their schools and what they think should be addressed.

Attend PTO meetings, school councils and neighborhood coffees to discuss parents’ views of important issues affecting their children’s education and how they envision their schools in the future. Meet with parents who have selected not to send their children to public schools to learn why they made that decision.

Contact the mayor to understand the schools and community through the eyes of the elected leader. Discuss the vision for the community and how the schools fit into that vision.

Meet with other elected officials to discuss how the schools fit into decisions they make in their official capacities. Meet with the chief of police, the fire chief and the director of public works to learn how you can share information each of you need. This is an opportunity to establish a working relationship so that when an emergency occurs, you are ready to call on each other for assistance.

Meet representatives of religious, social, business and service groups. Meet with local and state political leaders and establish means for regular communication.

As you speak with others, always ask whom they suggest you speak with. You will get important information from people who are the unofficial leaders in the community.

Ask the appropriate questions.
Questions must be directed enough to keep the interview focused on the issues of education, but open-ended enough to allow the unexpected to emerge. You may want to share your questions ahead of time to give people the opportunity to think deeply about the issues they want to discuss.

A carefully developed set of questions should explore the subject’s knowledge of the school system, as well as ascertain his or her hopes, limitations and the needs of schools. Allow your sources to give you advice.

A Public Airing
Analyze what you’ve gathered.
When interviews are complete, do a careful analysis of the responses by creating a list of issues that arose. Group the issues around naturally developing clusters in order to identify trends. It’s the latter you will want to report back to the community.

Because it is easy to make inappropriate assumptions, discuss your findings with trusted individuals or groups prior to sharing them publicly. Use your leadership team to clarify what you have heard and to sample your subsequent goals before going public.

Report back to the community.
Sharing what you have learned about the school system and its environment lets the community know you value their input, you have listened and you are using what you have collected to inform your decision making.

Discuss your results publicly at a board of education meeting or at a parent, faculty or community meeting. Post what you have learned and your goals on your school district’s website. Talk with the editorial board of the local newspaper about what you learned and how you hope to use the information.

The more exposure you give to your plan and what you have learned, the clearer understanding the local residents will have of how you plan to proceed. An entry plan can be a first important step to building trust in the community.

Nadine Binkley is superintendent of the Leominster Public Schools, 24 Church St., Leominster, MA 01453. E-mail: