Profile

His Restless Drive Has a District on the Move

by Jay P. Goldman

Richard DiPatri carries an impatience streak that he concedes drives his wife crazy, whenever they’re stuck together in traffic or forced to sit endlessly in a doctor’s waiting room.

As superintendent in the 75,000-student, 82-school Brevard County system on Florida’s East Coast, DiPatri uses the same personal characteristic to his professional advantage, considering it a virtue. “It’s how I get things accomplished,” he contends. “It’s the desire to see results right away — thinking it through and just doing it. Especially in a large organization, it’s not a bad trait.”

Over the past 4½ years, the veteran educator, who accepted his first superintendency at age 31, has been the catalyst for some marked advances in student learning, all the while showing he has little tolerance for excuse making. He removed 13 administrators in his first couple of years for failing to meet the performance metrics he’d set up, and he’s flip-flopped the elementary and secondary school starting times — something many superintendents nationwide wish they could figure out how to accomplish.

“I’ve seen years of analysis about changing start times. I just said we’re going to do it,” DiPatri says.

He’s also shown no reticence in publicly taking on state legislators for their gamesmanship over the financial backing of public schools.

And somehow he’s accomplished all of this without coming across as an obnoxious know-it-all.

Brevard parent Sue Lawrence, who has battled the superintendent over his schools-of-choice proposal, admits she finds it “amazing” at how well DiPatri pays attention to what stakeholders have to say. “He’s not confrontational, but he’s very direct,” she says. “He doesn’t beat around the bush.”

Robert Jordan, chair of the school board, marvels at the superintendent’s gutsiness, which he first witnessed up close when DiPatri, just 1½ years into his Brevard tenure, told state legislators at a budget hearing that he didn’t consider their proposed financial support adequate to support the schools’ needs.

Florida Today, the local newspaper, rallied behind DiPatri in a sharply worded defense of his legislative advocacy. More recently the paper urged the school board to extend the superintendent’s contract to 2009 (which the board did) because of his success pushing Brevard’s schools to a level where some are among the highest scoring on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Under the state’s annual letter grading of schools, 27 of the 32 Title I schools in Brevard County earned A’s and another four received B’s in the past year. Yet under federal law 12 district schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, pointing up a stark misalignment between federal and state standards that troubles the superintendent greatly. Of the federal government, DiPatri says, “They’re too much into where they don’t belong.”

A native of Camden, N.J., he didn’t intend to become a school leader. But frustrated by the lack of child-centered decisions he observed in the school where he taught science, he readily accepted the principalship just four years into his career. “I liked these people, but some just didn’t have courage to do the right thing,” DiPatri says.

He has spent much of his administrative career at the state agency level, including three years as deputy education commissioner in his home state and another 3½ as the state-appointed superintendent in Jersey City, a takeover district. Before accepting the Florida post in 2000, DiPatri had lived his entire life, other than his first two years of college, in the Garden State.

He believes his current state’s heightened sense of accountability for education neatly meshes with his own mission-driven nature. He has a strong inclination to follow up with staff who are responsible for carrying out specific goals.

“I think that’s one of the problems with educational administration over the years. … [O]ften we lose focus on what our business really is,” he says. “You ask the military what they do and they know their business is to defend the country. Their mission is very clear to them and I think ours should be as well. I would say keeping my sights on student achievement and staying true to that has been one of my biggest accomplishments.”

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


BIO STATS: RICHARD DIPATRI

Currently: superintendent, Brevard County Public Schools, Viera, Fla.

Previously: state-appointed superintendent, Jersey City, N.J.

Age: 58

Greatest influence on professional career: My wife, Paula, also an educator, has been great at providing personal advice and guidance.

Best professional day: The day in May 1978 I learned I was selected for my first superintendency, at the ripe age of 31, in a small district of 1,000 students in Rumson, N.J.

Books at bedside: 1776 by David McCullough and The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman

Biggest blooper: As a 27-year-old newly appointed principal, nervous and anxious at my first back-to-school event packed wall-to-wall with people, I inadvertently introduced myself as another principal and introduced the other principal as myself. From the gaping stares of those around me, I knew I had said something wrong, but I didn’t know what it was until I spoke later with my wife, who was in the audience.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: It is important for professional executives to have the opportunity to participate in a strong, supportive network with others in similar jobs and with similar experiences.