Superintendent Mentoring the State Way

State associations fill a vital niche, matching newcomers to the top job with experienced hands by Kate Beem

Rick Rege arrived at his job as superintendent of his western Massachusetts school district the way most folks do — advancing from classroom teacher to mid-level administrator to the district's top position.

In Rege's case, he spent the nine years before becoming superintendent of the Chicopee Public Schools as a middle school vice principal and principal. He knew how to manage people and oversee a budget. He didn't figure leading the district would be much of a change. Yet quickly after his appointment in summer 2005 to the superintendency in the district just north of Springfield, Mass., the blush wore off as Rege realized the enormity of the task facing him.

"All of a sudden you're going from being directly in charge of 110 staff members and 700 students to being in charge of 800 people and 7,700 students," says Rege, 53. "I woke up the day after I got the job and thought, 'Oh my God, what have I done?'"

Lucky for Rege he lives in Massachusetts. His state superintendents' association has a tried-and-true mentoring program for new superintendents, and it's been a lifesaver, Rege says. From periodic meetings with other new superintendents to one-on-one sessions with his mentor, a former longtime superintendent in the state, Rege has felt supported and confident in his new role, and that sink-or-swim feeling is a thing of the past.

Easing Transitions
He's not alone in singing the praises of such support programs. Over the last several years, an increasing number of state-level professional associations have begun offering novice superintendents the chance to learn from those who've gone before. While some leaders over the years informally sought out experienced colleagues willing to offer advice, the current programs formalize the tradition, give it a name and acknowledge the practice's value.

"It's one thing to go to classes and prepare and know what the best approach looks like," says Mike Bossi, director of leadership coaching for the Association of California School Administrators. "It's a whole other thing to go to the job and put that into practice."

Leading a school district certainly isn't getting any easier. Always political, now it's a job also fraught with the perils of school finance hardships, accountability and school safety.

And it's lonely at the top. Where school districts with multiple buildings have a ready-made community of principals, there's only one superintendent. You can't very well share your misgivings and questions about certain situations with your board members, either. Factor in a shortage of educators who aspire to the job, and it's apparent why so many state superintendent associations are brainstorming ways to ease the transition into the job and amplify the level of support once there.

The superintendency may be the final frontier for formal mentoring programs. In the 1990s, teacher mentoring programs proved that supporting first-year teachers yielded better instructors who stayed longer. That success led to programs for building principals. Now mentoring programs are trickling up to superintendents, who by definition are the instructional leaders of their school districts.

The particulars of the executive coaching and mentoring arrangements — many of them developed by AASA's state affiliates — vary from place to place. Some states require new superintendents to participate, others don't. In some states, school boards must pay for their superintendent to take part, while in other places grants pay the tuition. To date, approximately 18 state affiliates of AASA run some sort of mentoring or coaching program for beginning superintendents. In addition to state associations, mentoring programs are run by universities, state departments of education and school boards associations.

Here's a look at three longstanding programs (Massachusetts, Texas, New Jersey) and at three programs just getting off the ground (California, Iowa, Alaska).

The Massachusetts program saved Mary Czajkowski, 49, during her first year leading the Agawam Public Schools, a 4,400-student district about 15 minutes from Springfield, Mass. Now in her fifth year as superintendent, Czajkowski was part of the first class of newcomers who worked with mentors.

"When I first took on the superintendent job, if I hadn't had the program I think I would have certainly fallen through the cracks," she says. "It really provided a forum for us to exchange ideas, talk about our experiences and learn from our mistakes."

Czajkowski liked the chance to meet other new superintendents at statewide meetings held three times a year. But she and others also tout the virtues of the program's second component: one-on-one meetings with her professional mentor — one of two retired superintendents who split the state and each year average about 12 to 16 new superintendents apiece. Since the program's inception, more than 100 new superintendents have participated.

The Massachusetts program sprang up about six years ago as the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents developed a long-range strategic plan. The association's members were anxious about their field's future, says Joe Buckley, a leadership consultant to the association and one of the two professional mentors. The other mentor, Jim Walsh, 66, retired from the Brookline, Mass., Public Schools.

"We were concerned that we were facing the front end of a bubble of the beginning of significant turnover at the superintendent level," says Buckley, who retired as superintendent in Bedford, Mass.

Accidental Discovery
Anticipating great change in the ranks, MASS embarked on its planning. Members soon realized the influx of new school system leaders needed a support system to avoid widescale upheaval in the state's 388 public school districts, Buckley says. The association already had sponsored county superintendent roundtables for many years, but the mentoring program added a more personal component. Now, brand-new superintendents and those new to Massachusetts are invited to a summer institute, where they are introduced to the mentoring program. The program includes three large-group meetings throughout the year, where participants discuss issues and network with other superintendents as well as staff members from the state education agency.

Rege happened onto the mentor program by accident. His hiring process in Chicopee was drawn-out, and he wasn't hired officially until the beginning of July 2005. His official start date was a few weeks away, in mid-July, and he was facing the district budget process and last-minute retirements. He felt overwhelmed. Then he found out about the MASS summer institute, which occurred during Rege's first official week as superintendent. Worried that heÕd look weak to his school board if he asked to go, Rege asked anyway, and he's never regretted it, he says.

From meeting other superintendents to being introduced to Buckley, who became his mentor, Rege felt the induction eased his anxiety. "They made me feel so welcome to the fraternity of superintendents," Rege says. "Probably the single best decision I made in the first year was to get involved."

Buckley and Walsh say they strive to serve as sounding boards for their mentees, posing questions often but only offering advice when asked. Sometimes, just sharing their own experiences in similar situations is helpful, Walsh says.

"It's mostly being a really good listener and a guide on the side," Walsh says. "They have a confidential voice that they raise issues or concerns with."

That aspect of the mentor relationship helped Rege more than once, he says. One of the most valuable lessons he learned from Buckley was that everything the superintendent does is political, even if it isn't. Perception is everything. When Rege was gung-ho over a proposal from an energy-conservation company that would the cost the district some money but would save a bundle in the long run, Buckley slowed him down. He told him to be smart in the way he presented the idea to the school committee and the public.

The advice paid off, and Rege recalls it frequently. "That's something that's colored every decision that I've made," he says.

All new superintendents in the Lone Star State, including experienced leaders new to the state, are required by law to take part in a formal mentoring program. The Texas Association of School Administrators began offering a program in summer 2000. That year, almost 100 mentor superintendents were trained and later were matched with newcomers.

Larry Taylor, 61, was a superintendent for 21 years in three different Texas school districts. Now he works in field service at the regional education service center headquartered in San Angelo, Texas.

Through the TASA program, Taylor mentors six first-year superintendents, talking to them monthly and helping them through their first 12 to 18 months on the job. It's a program Taylor wishes had been around when he was a first-time superintendent, although times were different then. The job has become much more complex. When he assumed his first superintendency in 1981, he says, "you could count the number of law firms specializing in education on one hand." Not so these days.

The TASA program developed under the assumption that offering new superintendents or those new to Texas someone to talk to confidentially could help them avoid pitfalls, says Paul Whitton, TASA's associate executive director. Seldom do issues arise that no one has dealt with before.

"Most of the time, somebody somewhere has had the same experience," Whitton says.

Close Counsel
New superintendents are assigned mentors, and every effort is made to take into consideration geographic area, Whitton says. The sheer size and diversity of Texas sometimes makes it difficult. The state is home to some of the country's largest school districts and some of the wealthiest, as well as some of the smallest and poorest. Many mentors come out of one of the state's 20 regional education service centers. The mentors maintain contact with their new superintendents through e-mail and telephone calls as well as face-to-face meetings.

Taylor's years of service and knowledge of the field have come in handy for Orlie K. Wolfenbarger III. The superintendent-designee for the Comstock Independent School District, Wolfenbarger has been working with Taylor since late summer. The 200-student district is three hours west of San Antonio and 30 minutes northwest of Del Rio, Texas. Wolfenbarger can walk out the school's back door and see Mexico.

Right now, the former science teacher and track coach wears lots of hats as the small district's assistant administrator. After current superintendent Kenn Norris retires at the end of the school year, Wolfenbarger will assume his job, the school board has decided.

Since Norris is still working, he's mentoring Wolfenbarger, too, including him in almost every decision, which has been invaluable for Wolfenbarger. But his connection with Taylor has helped, too. Wolfenbarger knew Taylor would have the answers when questions arose in his district over an election law.

"His expertise in administration is great," Wolfenbarger says. "And I think [mentoring] is very necessary and very good. I just wish that every new superintendent had that type of relationship."

New Jersey
New district-level administrators in New Jersey have been working with mentors since the early 1990s. That's when the state changed its requirements for administrator certification, says Charlie Kuzminski, a retired superintendent and consultant to the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. The association worked closely with the state's department of education to develop regulations for mentors.

In 1991, the ability to gain tenure was taken away from New Jersey superintendents, who now are protected by their contract only. That change accelerated the movement of superintendents between districts as politics began to play more of a role, Kuzminski says.

"It makes the job just a little bit more challenging," he says. "It's a free-agent market now."

Aspiring administrators who've finished their graduate school coursework or those coming to work as superintendents in New Jersey from other states receive certificates of eligibility, enabling them to accept administrator positions. With a job offer in hand, they receive a provisional certificate, and their one-year residency begins. That's when they receive a mentor.

Most New Jersey mentors are still practicing school administrators, Kuzminski says. Mentors are required to recommend two other experienced administrators, and the three form a team to aid the novice. That helps provide perspective and expertise, he says.

"If a new superintendent needs help on construction and the mentor doesn't have that experience, he or she can get advice from the two others," Kuzminski says. During the residency year, mentors meet at least monthly with their neophytes but also speak by telephone and e-mail. The state averages about 60 new superintendents a year.

Cohort Support
Another mentoring option also exists in the state through the Institute for Educational Leadership, Research and Renewal at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. The less formal Practicum for New Superintendents pairs one mentor with five to eight new superintendents. They form a sort of support group for each other, says Carolyn Hartley, who has been leading these cohorts for six years.

"When you're first starting, you don't know what to ask," says Hartley, 64, a retired superintendent and independent consultant. "You don't know what you don't know."

She begins each year by visiting the new superintendent's school district for the chance to talk privately with him or her. Then the group meets monthly for a year, following priorities for discussion they've set as a group.

That first year as superintendent is an eye-opener for many, who often come to the job expecting more power than they actually have. Hartley tries to help her new superintendents see they're not bosses but leaders.

That lesson hasn't been lost on Mike Rossi, 42, superintendent of the Lopatcong Township School District, a 915-student pre-kindergarten through 8th-grade district near the New Jersey border with Pennsylvania.

He's in his second year as superintendent. A former teacher and coach, Rossi sought a job in administration because he thought he could do the most good there. He had lots of ideas to make schools better. He just needed to be in charge to get things accomplished, he figured.

"In some respects, I kind of don't want to be deterred," Rossi says. "I felt very passionate about my ability to lead a district."

Yet during his first year, he found his educational ideas fell to the back burner as he dealt with problems that had nothing to do with student learning. He had to wrestle with a tenure case, for example, and the school district went into litigation over its middle school roof. Hartley and Rich Marasco, Rossi's formal mentor through the state program, helped him weather those difficulties and adjust his expectations.

"What I discovered is you really need a strong academic structure in place because those ancillary issues pull you away from the role of educational leader and suck you into the role of manager," Rossi says. "It's frustrating to be taken away from educational things."

The state's relatively new superintendent coaching initiative is a trickle-up from similar programs for teachers and principals, both of which have had positive outcomes.

The current pilot program is a joint project of the Association of California School Administrators and the New Teacher Center at the University of California-Santa Cruz, long known for its teacher-induction programs. A few years back, the New Teacher Center began focusing on principals, too.

The administrators' association liked what they saw, says Mike Bossi, ACSA's director of leadership coaching. "Not only was leadership coaching important for principals, but all those who support them — superintendents, curriculum and instruction administrators, business managers — would all benefit from leadership coaching."

The coaching program is voluntary, but ACSA and the New Teacher Center are looking to strike up partnerships with the California School Boards Association and executive search firms, Bossi says. The hope is that it becomes a common and accepted practice for new superintendents to negotiate into their contracts the money to pay for executive leadership coaching for a year or two as part of their benefits package, he says.

Weathering Turnover
Executive leadership coaches in the ACSA program take part in training at the New Teacher Center and return throughout the year for additional training, Bossi says. Because the program is a pilot, it involves only 10 superintendents and coaches.

One is Paul Perotti, 58, a retired superintendent who spent 10 1/2 years as superintendent of the Santa Clara Unified School District in the Silicon Valley. Perotti, who also teaches educational leadership at San Jose State University, has spent the last 18 months mentoring Maria Meza De La Vega, new superintendent of the Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto, Calif.

He follows the model established by the New Teacher Center. He meets face-to-face with De La Vega, starting most meetings with questions about what's working well in the district. He attends board of education meetings so he can give her feedback about her performance. And he tries to refrain from spending too much time sitting in her office. He encourages her to get out and about in the district to be visible. He often rides with her from building to building, and they talk about issues between appointments.

De La Vega appreciates the chance to question a seasoned veteran. She found the relationship particularly helpful recently when her district weathered a school board election, resulting in the turnover of several seats.

The coach's job is to help the new superintendent focus, says Peggy Green, an executive coach for Springboard Schools, a nonprofit company that provides coaches for ACSA. "It's not mentoring and it's not therapy," says Green, 55, former superintendent of the Mark West Union School District in Sonoma County. "It's really about how can we be the best at what weÕre doing."

The isolation of her new job left Sue Goodall needing someone to talk to. The first-year superintendent of the Delwood Community Schools, a 265-student elementary district 35 miles north of the Quad Cities, says she's forever putting out fires, and the administrative work often leaves her ill-equipped to look at the big picture.

Enter her mentor, Superintendent Kim Huckstadt of the Maquoketa Community School District. The two drive together monthly to an area superintendents meeting, which gives them about 45 minutes each way to talk.

"I can say, 'This is what I'm doing. Is that right?'" says Goodall, 49.

Goodall and Huckstadt are participants in a new mentoring program developed by the School Administrators of Iowa. In 2006, new legislation took effect in the state requiring every school district to provide a mentoring and induction program for all new administrators. To answer the need for a readily available program, SAI developed a mentoring program that districts could opt into.

The formal program follows a two-year voluntary pilot that SAI launched before the legislation passed. About 40 percent of the state's 365 districts have a new administrator participating in the program, according to figures from SAI. To date, 115 new administrators are taking part, including 17 superintendents.

The law's impetus came from the Iowa Teaching Standards, which spell out what the state's teaching cadre should know and be able to do. The next logical step was to codify leadership standards for administrators, says Bonnie Boothroy, SAI's associate executive director.

Participation Stipends
The law provides mentoring for new administrators at all levels, not just superintendents, Boothroy says. It's aimed at helping administrators with no previous administrative experience. "The impact of that definition is that most of our beginning superintendents don't qualify to receive the state funding that goes along with that mentoring program."

Superintendents generally have administrative experience, but SAI believes they can benefit, too, from the program. The association successfully sought a grant that pays for new superintendents to participate. The Iowa Department of Education awards $1,500 per administrator completing the mentoring program. The funds also cover training expenses.

SAI has based its program on work done by the New Teacher Center at UC-Santa Cruz, Boothroy says.

"Their coaching training is very robust," she adds. "Data show that when coaching is done with fidelity, the mentee is pro-active in working on instruction."

Boothroy is hopeful that the Iowa program will amp up its mentor training as it evolves.

Currently mentors undergo a day of training before they take on newcomers. SAI holds two statewide meetings to provide networking opportunities for mentors and their advisees. Once they begin working together, mentors must make face-to-face visits with their newcomers once a month and phone or e-mail contact once a week. They're also required to attend two meetings with their new superintendents.

A beneficial spin-off of the mentoring program is the chance to realize the collegiality of fellow superintendents, says rookie superintendent Dick Grimoskas, 53. The new superintendent of the 900-student Tipton Community Schools, a half-hour from Iowa City, feels more accepted as the newbie than he did when he was a new principal. Paula Vincent, his mentor and a longtime acquaintance, has helped him wade through budget documents and contracts and board relationships. Vincent is superintendent of the Clear Creek Amana Community School District in eastern Iowa.

"It's in Iowa's best interest that their superintendents be successful," Grimoskas says.

With huge distances between points and many districts inaccessible by road, one-on-one mentoring in Alaska can be prohibitive.

And the state's other challenges can be great as well. Its large native population lives mostly in remote rural areas. The school districts are small in enrollment but expansive geographically. Cultural differences abound. Add to that the fact that the state's school finance law doesn't allow for local taxes. Districts must work closely with the state legislature to secure funding.

On top of that, Alaska is in another interesting position as it deals with new superintendents. Many come from well outside the state's boundaries, says Mary Francis, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. They're often people who've had full careers elsewhere and relocate to Alaska for a little adventure before retirement.

The birth of Alaska's new mentoring program for incoming superintendents arose out of concerns about retention. A few years ago, almost a third of the state's 53 school districts began the school year with new superintendents.

"It was quite dramatic," Francis says.

In recent years the state began a mentoring program for new teachers, followed by one for new principals. Last year, the program trickled up to superintendents.

Like Iowa and California, the Alaska association has modeled its program after the New Teacher Center. New superintendents are assigned a mentor, who's usually a retired superintendent. They also receive a "buddy" superintendent — someone who's a practicing superintendent. The two offer a newcomer different perspectives, Francis says.

The program's funding only allows coaches to make one face-to-face visit to the new superintendent's district, but maintaining contact isn't hard, says Nancy Billingsley, 59, who retired nine years ago as a superintendent in Alaska.

Now living in suburban Phoenix, she maintains contact with her advisees by telephone and e-mail. She sees her conversations with her three first-year superintendents as a way for them to bounce ideas off her and to reflect upon what they're doing. She often researches current education topics and sends her novices information to give them food for thought.

"I'm hoping I'm saving them some time in terms of some of the tasks they have to do," she says.

Smoother Transition
Anything Billingsley can do to ease Charlie Jones' transition from high school principal to principal/superintendent of the Haines Borough School District is keenly appreciated by the newcomer. The 292-student district is located 65 miles north of Juneau but is only accessible to the capital by a 41/2-hour ferry ride or a 30-minute flight.

When Jones, a transplant from Nevada, took the superintendent's job, he approached his school board and asked to participate in the mentoring program. He was a little worried in doing so. "You're not sure if someone will take that as an admission of weakness," he says.

But it's been a swell arrangement. Billingsley is a former superintendent of the Haines district so she knows his community. The two speak by phone once a month, and Billingsley always talks with Jones about what's coming up in his district. She keeps him on task. And she's helping him grapple with how he can manage two jobs over the long term. He's thinking of reassigning some of his lesser duties so he can focus on the district's priorities, he says.

Francis, the state association executive, wants AlaskaÕs mentors to take on more of a coaching role. They're trained in question strategies; they're not there to solve new superintendents' problems. "Because," she says, "that doesn't help anybody."

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@earthlink.net