Early Hours and Contagious Optimism

by Paul Riede

When Nancy Golden took over as superintendent in Springfield, Ore., in July 2003, she announced she would give a half-hour of her time to anyone who had ideas about the district. About 100 people took her up on the offer — and all of them got their time.

At the same time, Golden was laying the groundwork for an intensive community engagement process. By mid-autumn, the Springfield Quality Education Model had gathered input from 1,000 people and created a wide-ranging vision that now serves as the district’s master plan.

That was just the beginning. By all accounts, Golden has revolutionized the culture of the 11,000-student district over the past three years through a combination of boundless energy, relentless preparation and a contagious optimism. The school board said as much in a unanimous “A-plus” evaluation last June.

Golden, who started her career in Springfield as a special education teacher before moving on to other posts in the state, has kept up the torrid pace she set that first summer. She gets up at 3 a.m. every day and takes care of her paperwork and e-mails before she goes to work so she’ll be available to people during the school day.

That means that by the time she reaches the office she’s got a substantial jump on everyone else. Ask Garry E. Weber, the school board chair who meets with Golden at 8 a.m. every Monday.

“She’s ramped up,” he says. “I just make sure I get a lot of sleep Sunday night.”

But Weber says Golden’s style is collaborative, not top-down. Her signature approach, he says, is “servant leadership” — providing the support for good people to do their jobs well. She has expanded and revamped the district’s curriculum development department, hiring a student achievement leader to help teachers and administrators increase student learning through the use of data and research-proven programs.

She has established 17 staff development days during which classes are delayed for an hour to give teachers time to collaborate or learn about effective instructional practices. She has embraced new approaches such as Apple Computer’s 1-to-1 Learning program, in which each student at Springfield Middle School has use of an iBook and the school’s new wireless network 24 hours a day during the school year.

This year, with help from $312,000 from the Gates Foundation and other sources, the district opened a new Academy of Arts and Academics for struggling high school students.

The results are apparent in the latest edition of “How Are the Children?” the annual 20-page report to the community pioneered by Golden. The charts show significant academic gains at almost every level.

Weber credits Golden with bringing to the district a “culture of trust.” One way she has done that is to occasionally take on the jobs of her employees for a day — working as a bookkeeper, a bus aide and a groundskeeper, among other jobs, to see how school district operations look from their points of view.

When she addressed one of the few areas where scores actually declined last year, in 10th grade math, she did so in typical, servant-leader style, according to Rob Hess, the district’s student achievement leader. She gathered the teachers together and apologized to them for not giving them what they needed to succeed. Then she asked them what she could do to help.

Says Hess: “She really thinks empowering people is the best way to get improvement.”

Paul Riede is an editor with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail:



Currently: superintendent, Springfield, Ore.

Previously: director of administrator licensure, University of Oregon

Age: 55

Greatest influence on career: The University of Oregon’s yearly institute, titled ContinUO, challenges educational leaders to tackle their toughest issues — and get results. I found this institute to be a transformational experience. It taught me to approach everything from a place of possibility and reinforced important skills such as compassionate straight talk, profound listening, understanding multiple perspectives and changing breakdowns into breakthroughs.

Best professional day: I attended a retreat in August with the staff, parents and students of Springfield’s new school, the Academy of Arts and Academics. The staff spent three days with more than 90 9th and 10th graders about to begin attending the new school. The students’ excitement was contagious. “For once I have found a place that acknowledges my talents and creates the environment where I can soar” was just one of the comments I heard from a beaming student.

Books at bedside:Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin; and Left to Tell by Immaculeé Ilibagiza

Biggest blooper: In 2004 the district launched a committee to craft a diversity plan. The committee developed a proposal, which included guiding principles around understanding gender identity/sexual orientation and white privilege, and presented it to the Springfield school board. The plan was met with dissenting viewpoints. We convened a new committee composed of a wider cross-section of community members, including representatives from a ministerial group, leading to a new proposal adopted by the board. The experience provided me with a valuable reminder of just how important it is to adopt a process that will secure the buy-in of participants as well as gather multiple perspectives from all stakeholders.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I am a lifelong learner and have found AASA is an organization that provides up-to-date information on best practices around the country. The national conference offers an absolute wealth of information.