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Larry D. Hill: A Cape for Staying Connected

Some think a good superintendent these days shares a lot in common with Superman. Larry Hill is one superintendent who really does don a cape. It’s a flowing black one, complemented by a sparkly white bow tie and red top hat. And better yet he wears it on his job as the top administrator of the North Iowa Community Schools in Buffalo Center, Iowa.

Hill is a genuine superhero when he assumes the periodic role of “Zero the Hero” among the bug-eyed kindergarten charges whose classroom is 30 feet from his office. He leads them in rap and song while teaching counting on the 10th, 20th and 30th days (and so on) of the school year.

Hill’s a heroic figure of sorts, too, to the grownups who have any connection to his small school district in the north-central region of Iowa. He’s been the superintendent since 1997, shortly after three small towns with their own schools merged into what now comprises the 640-student North Iowa system.

He doubles as principal of the elementary school — a dual assignment he asked the board to give him when he was appointed to the top post after three years as the district’s middle school principal. “I’ve seen others (moving into the superintendency) lose touch with kids, and I didn’t want that happening to me,” says Hill, who grew up just 15 miles away and has spent the entirety of his 29-year career in the state.

Whereever he’s lived, he’s become as fully embedded in the life of his community as one can be. He spent 10 years on the volunteer rescue squad and 10 years on the city council in Thompson (though he admits it was a write-in campaign staged by friends who first got him elected). He’s been president of the Bethany Lutheran Church, spent a decade teaching Sunday school and delivers guest sermons at church pulpits throughout the area. These days he and his wife Becky, college professor, pull an overnight shift staffing the local crisis hotline two nights a week.

“I want to be seen as an equal rather than a mysterious guy from the schools,” says Hill.

His ongoing efforts, as he puts it, “to put the word ‘community’ back into our school name” have contributed to an enormous sense of ownership by the citizens in his 441-square mile school district, 10 th largest geographically in Iowa. That ownership was certainly apparent in January 2001 when voters offered 80 percent approval for a $3.4 million bond to rebuild portions of the high school and add handicap accessibility to the district.

Hill was particularly sensitive to the latter need following a near-tragic vehicle accident involving his youngest daughter a few years earlier. North Iowa’s programs for students with disabilities now draw youngsters from other communities through the state’s open-enrollment law. This has contributed to the district gaining enrollment in six of the past eight years.

The superintendent carries enormous credibility, says Irven Olsen, in his ninth year on the school board. He points to the night Hill asked the board in front of 300 citizens to close an aging elementary school and to move the children into a newer facility much further from home. “It could have been a fiery thing, but through his handling it went very smoothly,” Olsen says. “Nobody went out throwing stones.”

The recipient of the Iowa Superintendent of the Year Award for 2005, Hill is about to start his doctoral dissertation at Drake University though he’s hinted that school administration may not remain his long-term plan. “There’s probably another calling for me out there,” he admits.

Adds friend Troyce Fisher, who directs the School Administrators of Iowa: “His career goal is to return to the classroom.” No word if Zero the Hero will be joining him there.


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

Bio Stats:

Larry Hill

Currently:

Superintendent, North Iowa Community Schools, Buffalo Center, Iowa

Earlier:

Middle school principal, Lakota, Iowa

Age:

51

Greatest Influence on Career:

Becky, my wife for more than three decades, has always been critical in helping me stay on a level plain. My children also have had a huge impact. After our youngest daughter was involved in a life-threatening auto accident at age 16, her two sisters and brother never treated her as being disabled, but rather treated her as they always had. Their encouragement inspired me to create a similar atmosphere for all children in our district regardless of ability or disability.

Best Professional Day:

Two stand out. One is Kindergarten Round-up Day. The second is graduation day. One is a beginning and another is a ritual ending of the K-12 experience. To have been around long enough to have known those graduates when they attended Kindergarten Round-up and see them as successful young people entering a new phase is inspiring.

Books at Bedside:

The Excellent 11 by Ron Clark; Educating Esme by Esme Raji Cadell; Triumph Over the Odds by Louis Baldwin; The Basic School: A Community of Learning by Ernest L. Boyer; and Winning With One-Liners by Pat Williams

Biggest Blooper:

One day, as I completed my routine in costume as “Zero the Hero” in front of kindergarten students, I noticed two distinguished observers in the doorway with my secretary. They were high-ranking officials from the state Department of Education ready to hold a meeting that I thought was scheduled for the next day. I am sure their 145-mile trip back to Des Moines contained a few references to that superintendent dressed in the velvet top hat, sunglasses, huge sparkling bow tie and cape.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:

There are only a few professional organizations that give you the information and research you really need to know to be effective in your role as a superintendent. AASA not only provides you with necessary information but also challenges you to stay the course and maintain an ethical focus and vision.