President's Corner

The Challenge of Urban Leadership

by Eugene G. White

Many papers, reports and studies have examined the challenges, pressures, politics and dynamics of urban school leadership. Although you can review the research and literature on the subject, until you walk in the shoes and sit in the chair of an urban school superintendent or chief executive officer, you can’t truly understand the challenges of the position.

In observing talented leaders taking on the challenges of large or larger urban school districts, I am struck by their degree of self-confidence and courage. Most of the positions are in failing school districts with low student performance, questionable faculty and staff performance, labor concerns, financial shortfalls, budgetary deficits, general apathy in the community, political minefields, changing demographics, high poverty, high minority student populations and hundreds of people who think they know how to solve the schools’ problems.

Many superintendents enter the job fully aware of the problems and failures of their predecessors; others come armed only with their vision, plan and determination to do the job. Regardless of the circumstances, these intelligent leaders enter the job positive that they can make the difference.

The greatest challenge to urban school leadership is the inability to focus everything and everyone on the primary purpose of the organization — to educate the children. From the school board through the superintendent, through administrators, teachers and every employee in supporting roles, the job is to educate the children.

To instill this focus, the leader has to get followers to see, understand and work to put the children first. Forces of governance, politics, unions, historical practices and change all vie to shift the focus of the organization. No one means to relegate children to second, third, or lower on the priority chart, but it happens too frequently in school districts and especially in urban districts.

Urban school district leaders who are able to get everyone in the district to accept the importance of putting the education of children first see positive results. Performance and achievement improve and school districts start to receive positive recognition. However, academic improvement isn’t enough to save an urban school leader from the mounting negatives built up over several years in the job.

It is said that one’s friends come and go, but enemies multiply. We see this validated in too many urban districts. People with influence, support and voting power can change the dynamics and operations of a board of education and a school district regardless of the district’s success or positive leadership.

No easy paths exist to being a successful urban superintendent. However, the district leaders with the best track records often demonstrate the following practices:

• They employ a lawyer to negotiate their contract. In the process of negotiating the first contract, they protect themselves with sound exit language and compensation.
• They insist on being evaluated annually and being held accountable.
• They are able to get the school board and a critical mass of followers to buy into their vision and create effective plans for student success.
• They are successful at building relationships and partnerships with community leaders and business executives.
• They create some understandings and agreements with employee unions and associations.
• They seek out and nurture talent in the district and make the necessary personnel changes to move the organization in a positive direction.
• They believe in professional development and setting high expectations with support for students, employees and the community.

There are no guarantees. Promises change with school board elections and still school leaders come to urban districts to lead — putting the children first.