A Simple Formula for a Complex Place

by Jay P. Goldman

Brenda Dietrich keeps a notepad on her office desk that has a cute drawing of a little boy, a little girl and a dog with a catchline saying, “Life was so much simpler when it was just Dick, Jane and Spot.”

As the superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn Public Schools in Kansas, Dietrich fully appreciates the humor that attaches to the job’s mounting complexities and ever-rising expectations. She leads one of her state’s highest-profile districts and, as such, may face more scrutiny than most. She governs schools that enroll the children of a Republican member of the U.S. Senate (whose son started a Young Republicans Club at the high school), the former state commissioner of education and the director of the state’s most aggressive tax-limitation lobby.

Dietrich, superintendent in the Topeka suburb since 2001, says she feels no additional pressure from the high-class makeup of her parent body. “All they really want is assurances you’ll take good care of their children,” she says. “Certainly it raises your level of consciousness. You’re aware they’re there.”

In fact, her open and engaging manner has charmed those who might be the most likely to gum up the works. In meetings with the Kansas chair of Americans for Prosperity, who has three school-age children in the district, Dietrich says she has won assurances that the tax-reduction group won’t actively campaign against local taxing initiatives, including a $60 million bond on this November’s ballot that will fund new construction, building renovations and improved safety features to the Auburn-Washburn schools.

For community leaders, there’s transparency in the superintendent’s resolve to serve the educational needs of all children, particularly the 24 percent whose socioeconomic circumstances might easily get swallowed up by the upper-middle-class living standard that prevails through much of her district.

Nancy Perry, chief executive of the Topeka-area United Way, gushes at the mention of Dietrich’s name. “She’s a breath of fresh air, just perfect for this community,” she says.
The United Way leader praises Dietrich for taking the lead on an early childhood initiative known as “Born Learning” that had been languishing for several years by cajoling her four fellow superintendents in Shawnee County to sign on and adopt a common instrument for determining school readiness. The program hopes to ensure reading fluency in all students by 3rd grade.

A native of Colby, Kan., Dietrich has spent much of her career in the Sunflower State, except for a brief teaching stint in Australia and a five-year hitch as superintendent of the Hampden-Wilbraham School District in Massachusetts. She relishes every opportunity to be an instructional leader.

Though she has a fully capable administrative staff in the 5,400-student district, Dietrich volunteered to assume the organizing role for an end-of-school year activity for all students who would be rising to middle school this fall because of its critical nature. “I noticed how anxious 6th-grade parents are about that transition,” she says.

Joyce Martin, school board president in Auburn-Washburn, believes Dietrich’s dexterity at managing change with “a style that brings people together by consensus” has contributed to a high level of public trust in the schools.

Others marvel at Dietrich’s personal side, pointing to her “well-managed life,” as one friend put it, that includes caring for her husband, a former corporate credit manager whose stair-falling accident in 2001 resulted in a developmental disability. She detailed this relationship in her application for 2007 National Superintendent of the Year, for which she was named one of four finalists.

“It was important for me (to include),” she says. “Even though we are superintendents and leaders, we also have families and other issues we deal with. I think it shows our commitment to even our family’s dynamics.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:


Currently: superintendent, Auburn-Washburn Unified School District 437, Topeka, Kan.

Previously: superintendent, Hampden-Wilbraham School District, Wilbraham, Mass.

Age: 54

Greatest influence on career: The two years I spent teaching 3rd grade in Sydney, Australia, after graduating from college. I learned the value of being adaptable, independent, resourceful and self-reliant. I also quickly realized the tremendous opportunity I was given to assimilate into a new culture with a diverse population.

Best professional day: The first day of school when the 60-plus yellow school buses leave the bus barn in a convoy to fan out across the district and bring our students to school. It is an exhilarating moment.

Books at bedside:The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell; Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement by Linda Lambert; and Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey

Biggest blooper: During my first year in Auburn-Washburn, I attended the Kansas Honor’s Scholars Banquet with more than 300 parents and students. Wanting to be helpful, I reached across my dinner table to pass out nametags. I scraped my sleeve in the chocolate mousse without anyone knowing it, including me. I sat with my arms at my side and my hands in my lap while each superintendent in the room was introduced and asked to rise. Much to my embarrassment, when I stood to wave to the group, I had chocolate on my sleeve, jacket and skirt of my light beige suit. Not the best first impression!

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I appreciate the timely information we receive about key issues and current trends in education. The organization’s advocacy for public education is certainly an integral component for being an active member.