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To Reach Summit, Start Early and Move Fast

by Jay P. Goldman

As a kindergarten pupil in Central Point, Ore., Krista Parent was the bossy kid in the neighborhood, the one most likely to round up the other youngsters after her own half-day program was over to run her own school. “It’s still my passion in life,” she says

In the years since, Parent’s always been someone to whom others have gravitated — whether as captain of her university’s softball team for two years or now as the much-revered superintendent of the fast-rising South Lane School District in rural Cottage Grove, Ore. With leadership qualities in her genes (“I was born competitive,” she says), Parent will spend the next 12 months as the reigning National Superintendent of the Year, an honor bestowed upon her by Aramark Education and AASA.

The burning drive to succeed, stemming from her days as a full-ride scholarship athlete, has subsided little in the 45-year-old’s daily regimen. It begins at 4:30 a.m. on school days with a 90-minute workout in the amply equipped weight room of South Lane’s 4-year-old high school, itself one of the prouder accomplishments on her superintendency vitae.

“I demand a lot of myself and expect everybody will work just as hard,” says Parent, who has spent the entirety of her 23-year career in the same school district. “I grew up here so people know me and what I stand for.”

Her direct reports in the 2,900-student district, 20 minutes south of Salem, confirm she’s the most demanding boss they’ve ever had. “I’ve read more (suggested books) in seven months than in my life,” says Peter Tromba, a first-year assistant superintendent.

A roll-up-the-shirt-sleeves contributor on any number of projects, Parent is mindful of the implications of her hard-charging style. “I know I can wear people out,” she says wistfully. An editorial in the Eugene Register-Guard last December worried about her burnout pace.

Her staff widely admire her ability to cut to the chase, to bend state or federal regulations that get in the way of serving children optimally. That was the case when the state handed down a prescriptive districtwide improvement plan uniform to all local systems. “It didn’t make sense for us, so I said we won’t do it that way,” Parent says. “We’ll write a plan that makes sense for us.” The result was a model other Oregon districts emulate.

Outside funders clearly see merit in her vision of schooling, having funneled nearly $7 million in grants to the small district for after-school programs, improved math instruction and handheld technology for students and staff. As the chief grant writer in a sparsely staffed central operation, Parent admits, “I have the crazy ideas and my colleagues help to tweak them.”

What she is attempting to do is nothing short of completely revamping the culture in the once-sleepy timber town, where boys at 16 used to head to the woods for a good living. With that industry in demise, Parent has brought deeply embedded consistency to the direction of a district that wore through five superintendents (including three interims) in just 20 months before her appointment.

The high school in Cottage Grove long carried a laughing-stock reputation for low performance. Today the school offers Advanced Placement in six subjects, up from none three years ago, and student scores on statewide exams rank among the best in Lane County. “What she’s brought our district in six years is amazing,” says Sherry Duerst-Higgins, a school board member for 20 years.

With her star newly ascended, Parent is sure to field entreaties from plenty of search executives in the coming months. But with her own two children in South Lane’s elementary grades and an unusually tolerant political environment in which to maneuver, Parent insists it would take something pretty spectacular to make her budge. “The size of the school district is perfect. We can be innovative and creative,” she says. “We’ve been a well-kept secret.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

 



BIO STATS: KRISTA PARENT

Currently: superintendent, South Lane School District, Cottage Grove, Ore.

Previously: assistant superintendent, assistant principal, athletic director, South Lane School District

Age: 45

Greatest influence on career: My Grandma Snook. She was widowed shortly after I was born and started her own business to make a living. She taught me about putting in a hard day’s work and showed me that women were capable of doing anything they chose. She didn’t have a college education but was the best Scrabble player I have ever seen. I often think of her strength when I am having a tough day.

Best professional day: The day we opened our new high school to 900 students. We had tried to pass a bond to build a new high school for about 10 years before we were successful.

Books at bedside:Change Leadership by Tony Wagner et al.; The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama; Teach With Your Heart by Erin Gruwell; Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher; and Because Writing Matters from the National Writing Project

Biggest blooper: One evening when my one-year-old son was in his high chair with my cell phone on his tray, he hit one of my speed dial numbers during dinner, calling an administrator in the district, unbeknownst to me. I was conversing with a colleague about a sensitive issue. The administrator could hear the conversation but not well enough to know who was talking. The next day the administrator told me about this odd phone call he had received with a bunch of pounding in the background.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA is an amazing organization with great leadership. They are out in front on the cutting edge of thinking regarding how to lead the best school districts possible. I always look forward each month to reading The School Administrator to see what Executive Director Paul Houston has to say.