Grounded in Social Work


Just a few days into his new job in July 2008 as superintendent in Madison, Wis., Dan Nerad found himself staring straightaway at his first public challenge. It came in the form of a headline in the city’s alternative weekly newspaper: “Daniel Nerad, Stop Shutting Out Student Input.”

The author of the pointed op-ed column, Natalia Thompson, was a senior at Madison West High School, and her reasoned commentary called on Nerad to empower students by including them in important school district decisions — something she felt his venerable predecessor had largely ignored.

Daniel NeradDan Nerad

“Wouldn’t holding a series of listening sessions at several of the district’s middle and high schools be a great way for Nerad to show students that he values their opinions too?” Thompson asked.

The student’s call for creative outreach played smack-dab into Nerad’s strength. As the superintendent for seven years previously in Green Bay, Wis., where he’d spent the first 33 years of his professional life, he crafted a sterling reputation for his open ears and eyes, a public official known for taking bold stances only after ensuring he had the pulse of the public will.

“It’s critically important to remember, these are the public schools, not the superintendent’s schools,” says Nerad, who was honored as state superintendent of the year in 2006.

Thompson, for one, was pleasantly stunned to field a phone call from the superintendent the day her column appeared in print, asking to meet with her to hear her ideas on student engagement. “It soon became clear my planned attempt to convince the superintendent of the merits of fostering student voices wouldn’t be necessary,” she says of the face-to-face session.

In Green Bay, Nerad regularly invited a group of high school students to join him over lunch to hear what was on their minds. In Madison, he’s spent time in every school, attended student theater productions and shown up at farmers markets, ethnic festivals and the minor league baseball stadium to put a face on the superintendency. Thompson reports that a Facebook group involving two dozen Madison students this summer carried favorable impressions of Nerad.

The Kenosha, Wis., native worked as a school social worker for 13 years after finishing undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nerad’s grounding in that field shines through. “His problem-solving and listening skills, the way he interacts, seem based on a social work background,” says Arlene Silveira, Madison’s school board president.

Applying that skill set and understanding how effective systems operate came in handy when the Madison district pushed for a three-year tax referendum on last November’s ballot, only a few months after Nerad moved into the top job. Intended to fill in the gap in state aid for existing operating costs, the meas-ure attracted 70 percent support. Earlier in Green Bay, Nerad courageously crafted a boundary change proposal (ultimately turned down) to remedy lopsided demographics in the system.

“He’s willing to say, ‘This is where I stand and this is where I intend to lead,’ and then take the hits when a portion of the community says we’re not ready for that kind of change,” Paul Jadin, president of the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, told a Madison newspaper.

Nerad, an AASA Governing Board member since 2005, recalls an important learning moment when, as Green Bay’s assistant superintendent, he addressed a service club that wanted to adopt a school. “At the end, club members asked, ‘Can we just come in first and spend some time in a school.’ They were experiencing anxiety about them just entering into the school.”

Thompson, now a Madison graduate who attends Yale, was quick to acknowledge the superintendent’s authentic interest in engagement. In her follow-up column after meeting the district chief, she titled her piece this way: “Dan Nerad Gets It!”

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


Currently: superintendent, Madison, Wis.

Previously: superintendent, Green Bay, Wis.

Age: 57

Greatest influence on career: My parents, who did not attend college, created the expectation and opportunity that my siblings and I would attend and graduate from college and that anything is possible in life.

Best professional day: I love the first day of school. I have made it a practice every year to observe parents of kindergarten children as their young children enter school on the first day. This experience helps me understand the incredible responsibility we have as educators.

Books at bedside:Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; The Necessary Revolution by Peter Senge; and The School Leaders Our Children Deserve by George Theoharis

Biggest blooper: While visiting a middle school with a million things on my mind, I drove through a chain gate designed to stop traffic when students were arriving. Not only was I driving in an area I shouldn’t have been in, but my new car didn’t fare well either.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: It is not sufficient to ask our staff alone to develop their craftwork. As superintendents, we must model this behavior. AASA provides me with great opportunities to improve the work I do.