A Flight Path Like No Other

by John Barry

After 30 years of serving in the Air Force, I retired in 2003 as a two-star major general. Even before I left the military, I knew I wanted to work in education to make a positive difference for children. I had helped defend this nation for three decades and wanted to spend the rest of my adult life on what I saw as integral to keep our country strong — defending the right of every child to learn.

The question was how someone with my professional experience could make the transition into the field of K-12 education. In 2004, I discovered the opportunity provided by the Broad Superintendents Academy.

This became the path that would take me from military leadership to educational leadership. As a Broad fellow, I spent 10 months visiting nine major urban centers and studying the state of urban school districts. I received extensive CEO-level training in education, finance, management, operations and organizational systems. The academy built strong connections between fellows and experienced mentors who provide ongoing support.

Because of great mentors throughout my military career, I learned what it meant to be a leader. In the Air Force, I led the largest fighter aircraft-training base in the world. I directed strategic planning for the entire Air Force, leading multicultural and multilingual groups throughout the United States, Asia and Europe. I was the executive director of the 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Team responsible for the independent inquiry of the space shuttle tragedy. I also led more than 25,000 individuals in military service.

New Environment
The Broad Academy helped me bring together my previous leadership skills and apply them in an entirely different environment. As I visited urban schools, it became increasingly clear my nontraditional leadership experience creating successful coalitions and maximizing the potential of those who worked with and for me would be of great help in leading a school district.

Whether leading the military, a business or a school system, you lead by inspiring and not commanding. To successfully transform a school district, I knew I would need to build an environment of collaboration, coalition and cooperation. The academy enabled me to study in depth the successes and the mistakes of urban school district superintendents, past and present. I saw the challenges they were facing — high mobility, low socio-economics and the growing lack of English proficiency among students. I also observed leaders making significant improvements in student achievement.

In July 2006, I was hired as superintendent of Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, the state’s sixth largest school district with 33,000 students, of which 72 percent were minority, 39 percent used English as a second language, 69 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 40 percent were mobile between schools. Aurora’s diversity was one of the biggest draws for me.

Even before I worked all over the world, I grew up in the Bronx so I experienced what it is like to grow up in a diverse, urban environment, living on the same block as African-American, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Puerto Rican families. Working throughout my adult life with individuals from so many backgrounds has fundamentally influenced who I am today. I know the strength brought by diversity.

Giant Assistance
At Broad, while studying successful urban districts, I saw no “magic bullet” would bring about significant change. To make real, lasting and meaningful change, strategies and plans had to be integrated and transformational. A hodge-podge of small adjustments and incremental changes would not be enough. I knew our district would have to transform operations and create a vigorous, motivating organizational structure.

Upon assuming the superintendency, I was ready to bring together my experiences of a lifetime with my Broad training to maximize student potential so our students would graduate with the knowledge, skills and values to become self-sufficient, socially responsible citizens. To raise student achievement and close the achievement gap among ethnic groups and economically diverse students, our district needed a coherent vision, revitalized mission and clearly focused strategic plan with a laser focus on student achievement. We had to find solutions to overcome poverty, transiency, language barriers and disinterest. We needed higher expectations and higher accountability for all.

To see significant change, we had to accelerate learning and increase student achievement. With the input and collaboration of our board of education, staff, parents and community members, we developed a strategic plan to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of every part of the organization. Our “no-excuses, no-blame” vision is to graduate every student with the choice to attend college without remediation. We begin and end every conversation with the question, “What are we doing to increase student achievement?”

I am fortunate to have a reform-oriented school board, as well as staff, parents and community members who know our district can be better. We believe it is not enough to be good, if you can be great. Our shared vision provides a common direction and a mission that supports a common purpose.

Thanks to continued support from the Broad Center, I receive ongoing mentoring from educational giants such as Carl Cohn, superintendent of the San Diego Unified Schools, and Tom Payzant, former superintendent in Boston, at no cost to me or my district. Tom continues to work with me and my leadership team to advise and ensure our effectiveness. It is valuable to have an outside expert to take an objective look at our progress.

I continue to get up every morning more excited than the previous day, appreciating the talent and commitment we have within our school district and throughout our community. Our strategic plan’s key goals are interconnected and organized so as to break down the bureaucratic silos that typically exist in large school districts. And we have coherent milestones that demand accountability.

Visions of Fire
Good leaders inspire people. Leadership is fundamentally about providing vision and support and building relationships one person at a time. Everyone counts and no one is invisible. Students, parents, employees, the teachers association, business, political leaders and members of our community together have become our coalition for success. These partnerships allow the district to leverage resources and build synergy.

I remain passionate about helping children through improving public education. Our district’s success depends upon our willingness to be decisive, courageous and have “visions of fire.” I encourage everyone to steadfastly believe that excellence is attainable by all. We are building momentum and celebrate each victory no matter how small. Success begets success. We will succeed because we believe we can.

I am grateful to the Broad Superintendents Academy for helping me realize my dream. I would like to know I helped make Aurora Public Schools better than when I found it. I hope years from now everyone connected with the district can look back on our combined efforts and realize we made a difference in the lives of the children we serve. In doing so, we will have fulfilled the mission of the district and of the Broad Academy.

John Barry, a retired major general in the Air Force, is superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, 15701 E. First Ave, Suite 206, Aurora, CO 80011. E-mail: