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Unfair Targets: Superintendents’ Offspring

School-age children cope with exaggerated expectations and hurtful criticism because of their unique status by Kate Beem

Most people think the children of American presidents live under a microscope.

But at least they have Secret Service agents and a cadre of other adults shielding them from the glare of the public eye.

Superintendents’ school-age children have no such luxuries. Just ask Sarah and Leah Boniface.

Now 20-year-old college sophomores, the twins entered high school the year their mother, Rose Marie Boniface, took over the top job in the Marlborough, Mass., school district. Although they already were students in the 5,000-student district 26 miles west of Boston, where their mother has spent her entire career, attitudes toward them changed once they were perceived as children of privilege.

Overnight, it seemed, the expectations teachers held of Boniface’s daughters escalated. People assumed they should perform better academically merely because their mother was the superintendent. “It was difficult for them,” says Boniface, 55. “Clearly that became apparent to me early on.”

The Boniface girls weren’t anticipating that change or another, more bothersome, transformation. In an instant, students and teachers alike saw them as conduits of information to their mother. If she failed to call off school when it snowed, Sarah and Leah took the brunt. If a teacher had a bone to pick with Boniface, he or she sometimes rode the twins harder than the other students, they said. The girls hardly ever received invitations to big parties either—something they chalked up to their peers worrying they’d tattle on any wrongdoing.

And always they felt they had to work a little harder than everyone else to live up to an unstated expectation of perfection, says Sarah Boniface, now a student, along with Leah, at Regis College in Weston, Mass. “I thought we had to try extra hard to prove ourselves in school.”

The low point came one snowy afternoon as the Boniface girls made their way to their car in the parking lot at Marlborough High School. Members of the school’s ice hockey team, angry with the superintendent after she punished team members for breaking a school district rule, attacked the twins with snowballs.

Angry and frightened, they retreated to the school office.

Celebrity Phenomenon

When Rose Marie Boniface talks about those times, her voice is full of remorse. It’s still painful to think those things happened to her girls in the district where she’s worked for 34 years. Yet unpleasantness aside, the girls never seriously wished another career upon their mother, they said.

“She apologized to us,” Sarah Boniface says. “I know she felt bad about it, but we were proud of her for having that position. We wouldn’t have wanted her not to do the job because of us.”

Such is the lot of many superintendents’ school-age children. They are proud of the important role their parents play in the life of their schools while yearning to be just like the other children.

To be sure, growing up the child of a school superintendent has its upsides. There are certain perks, such as never having to worry when you forget your lunch money and having your parent hand you your high school diploma. But there’s plenty of pressure, both internally and externally, to act just right so as never to draw undue attention to the family.

The children of school superintendents are not unlike those of politicians or other celebrities, psychologist Charles Figley says. If the word “celebrity” means someone well-known and powerful within a community, then superintendents certainly fit the bill.

“It’s a powerful position,” says Figley, who has studied the stress levels of celebrity families, focusing on how those families deal with the loss of privacy. “They make decisions every day that affect people’s lives.”

And like the offspring of Hollywood celebrities or Washington politicians, the children of school superintendents are, within the school community, rarely judged on their own merits, perceived instead as walking, talking visual aides representing their parents’ agenda, says Figley, founder and director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute.

Identity Search

It can be especially hard for children. What adults can endure differs from that of their children. Rose Marie Boniface, for example, loathes shopping in Marlborough. Even the simplest trip to the grocery takes two or three times as long as it should because school district patrons constantly stop Boniface and expect her to chat about school matters. As a result, she shops in nearby towns whenever she can.

But for superintendents’ children, solving the problem isn’t as simple as choosing another school. They have to live with the hand they’re dealt, bumbling along, making the same goofy choices as other children their age but often held up to ridicule when they make mistakes. And when they do err, they can wobble under the weight of their guilt, which not only makes their own lives miserable, but also their parents’ lives, Figley says.

The major job of most children is searching for their own identities. But for many children of celebrities, their identity is so closely tied to their parents’ that they can’t easily break out of the mold. “It’s growing up in a glass house,” he says. “There are many more consequences to normal behavior.”

A House Party

That was never so clear to Ted Blaesing than when his middle daughter threw an unsanctioned party in her parents’ empty house.

Blaesing, 55, superintendent of the 9,500-student White Bear Lake Area School District northwest of St. Paul, Minn., was leading the Beloit, Wis., schools at the time. He had traveled to Iowa to visit his brother. His daughter Jennifer couldn’t accompany the family to Iowa because she was in a school play so she was to spend the night at a friend’s house.

Around 3 a.m., Blaesing answered a call from a Wisconsin police officer, who handed the phone to Jennifer. She blurted out the details: She had hosted a little get-together at her parents’ house. It got out of hand as more kids showed up than she had planned.

“The party spun out of control,” Blaesing says. “There were 20-some kids at the superintendent’s house, under-age drinking, the whole deal. The officer said, ‘You’ve got places to hide in your house that you wouldn’t believe.’”

So Blaesing packed up and headed out into the wee hours for a long, stonily silent drive back to Beloit.

Then things became worse. A local newspaper reported on the police breakup of the party, and a news wire picked up the story. Pretty soon the Blaesings were fielding calls from all over the country about Jennifer’s mistake.

Every teen-ager involved was a minor, so their names weren’t released. But because the party happened at the superintendent’s house and he had only one daughter in high school, Jennifer’s name was out there. It took her a long time to live down the incident, Blaesing says.

Jennifer Blaesing Rachac, now 30 and living in the Twin Cities, is circumspect about the incident these days, though at the time it seemed the news media blitz would never cease. She remembers her mother picking her up at school and turning on the radio, which was broadcasting a story about the party. She and the others partiers ended up in court and were sentenced to rehabilitation and community service. And for months afterward, she endured pointed remarks from those around her, including many teachers, her father says.

“From a discipline perspective, it was pretty harsh,” Rachac says. “I think it was kind of more, ‘The superintendent’s daughter had a party at his house. How dumb is that?’ You’re a kid, and you screw up.”

Except that often, the mistakes superintendents’ children make are more public than the same acts committed by the children of, say, the town banker.

Under the Spotlight

But are they really? Or do superintendents’ kids just feel like they’re living in the spotlight? It’s probably a little of both, says Tim Sanford, a licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs, Colo., who works with the children of ministers and missionaries.

Becky Blaesing, 33, Rachac’s older sister, remembers feeling some of the poor choices she made as a student at Davenport North High School in Iowa were so obvious. She felt a spotlight was being shown on every blemish. The school, with 1,100 students, isn’t small and the Davenport district is good-sized with 16,500 students. But Blaesing felt her unusual last name readily identified her as the daughter of Ted Blaesing, then an associate superintendent in the district.

“There’s a feeling of you know everybody’s always watching you, even if they aren’t,” Becky Blaesing says.

Still, when Blaesing tried to veer from the path she knew she should take, there were lots of folks telling her parents. In hindsight, that was a good thing, but at the time, “I wanted that privacy,” she says.

In his counseling practice, Sanford sees many similarities between the plights of preachers’ kids and superintendents’ children. He is especially attuned to the unique status of superintendents’ offspring because his wife, Rebecca, is the daughter of a superintendent. He says the children of clergy and superintendents sometimes feel as if everyone in their particular community—whether church or school district—is trying to parent them. And many times, these children feel their parents have time for everyone but them.

In response, these children begin to feel they should be perfect in everything they do, know the answer to every question raised in class and never make a mistake, Sanford says. They feel they’re living by a set of rules not imposed on anyone else and they can’t trust anyone outside their family because they know too much. With that responsibility comes the belief that their behavior can ruin their parents’ career.

“These are common false beliefs, irrational thought patterns that will naturally develop unless the parents actively work at teaching the child what the truth is,” Sanford says. “These are the default statements.”

Occasional Benefit

They also are statements that ring familiar to many superintendents’ children. R. Tyson Trice, who works in public relations in Fort Worth, grew up surrounded by educators. His mother is a teacher. His father is a principal. His stepfather is a superintendent, and his stepmother is a teacher. His grandfather was a principal and a college dean.

“I had a T-shirt that said, `My dad’s the principal, but I’m the boss,’” Trice says. “I was always too embarrassed to wear it.”

Trice, 25, learned early on that life would be different when your parent is in charge of school. He was cautious in his classes, hesitant to be too vocal. He always felt he knew too much about what was going on in his school because of discussions he couldn’t help overhearing. But the negatives never outweighed the positives for Trice. When he needed anything, he had an adult he could go to.

There are distinct benefits to having your parent running your school district beyond the easy access to lunch money or parental signatures for permission slips.

Toni Peck, 23, Ted Blaesing’s youngest daughter, found herself able to interact with school administrators on a different level than other students. She attributes that to her father, whose social group included many building and district administrators. Peck came to see them as people, not just education wonks or authority figures, as many of her friends did. In fact, one of her high school principals in White Bear Lake became a mentor she’s kept to this day, Peck says.

“I never would have sought her out or had that kind of relationship with her if it hadn’t been for my dad,” she adds.

Her sister Becky wishes she had worked around her perceived notoriety. Now her 15-year-old daughter, Breawnna, is a student at White Bear Lake and shuns the attention she attracts by sharing a surname with her grandfather. But the unwanted attention doesn’t have to be negative, Blaesing knows now.

“I wish I would have been able to use that recognition more to my benefit instead of trying to hide from it,” Blaesing says.

These days, as the parent of three children in the White Bear Lake schools, Becky has a better appreciation for what life was like for her father. His job is exhausting and his official duties don’t end at school events where he’d like to be a doting grandfather.

Seeing his parents at work made Trice more empathetic toward them, although at times he resented the time they gave other children. “I saw my parents as givers,” Trice says. “I have a giving attitude now, and a lot of that probably stems from being the child of educators.”

Trice’s parents were always interested in talking to his teachers. That could be touchy, but Trice thinks he knows how the teachers felt dealing with the child of the principal or superintendent. “It was a lot of pressure for the teacher,” he says. “It was like getting a report card every day.”

Uncomfortable Position

That cuts both ways, though. Superintendents with children in their own districts suffer intense scrutiny, too, they say. If their children feel they’re being parented by everyone in the district, then the superintendent often feels his or her parenting skills are on display for all to critique.

It can be difficult for parents who are school system leaders to have meaningful conversations about their child’s academic progress. Rose Marie Boniface never felt she could honestly convince teachers she wasn’t speaking to them as their boss when she discussed her daughters’ schoolwork. Ted Blaesing eventually ceded his three daughters’ parent-teacher conferences to his wife, Loretta, because he worried that he intimidated teachers.

Charles Brazeale, who heads the 300-student Golden City School District in southwest Missouri, knew when he became superintendent that some teachers would worry he would micromanage his children’s education.

“One teacher felt nervous about dealing with my kids because I’m the superintendent,” says Brazeale, 36. “She was a little afraid to say it the way she meant it because of who I was.”

Of course, a superintendent’s celebrity is certain among teachers. But whether many students recognize a peer as the son or daughter of the school district’s chief executive depends on a school district’s size.

For the Blaesing daughters, it was a toss-up whether they were pegged by classmates as the superintendent’s child. But for superintendents’ children in much smaller districts, it’s a given.

Sometimes it troubles Eden Gayer. The 13-year-old is a 6 th grader in the 300-student Montmorency School District, a K-8 district in Rock Falls, Ill., where her father, Brett Gayer, 38, is the superintendent and principal.

As a student in the same building where her father works, Eden spent the first two weeks of school walking around the upper-grade building, which houses her classes and her father’s office, without a name. “I was just the principal’s kid,” she says.

Other students often complain about her father to her, she says. Eden does her best to ignore their comments, but admits “it’s kind of hard to sit there and listen to them talk about my dad.”

Brazeale’s children hear harsh comments, too. In Golden City, Mo., where he’s been superintendent for just two years, students in kindergarten through 12 th grade are housed in a single building so there’s no escaping the unkind remarks for his son, Dak Keeling, 17. But Dak has devised a way to handle it. He surrounds himself with friends who don’t care who his dad is and disregards the others.

The catty comments don’t bother Brazeale’s 16-year-old daughter Olivia Keeling as much as the size of the school itself, she says. “Everybody finds out everything so you can’t get away with anything.”

But Brazeale’s youngest child, Hunter Keeling, 13, minces no words describing his dislike of the situation. A self-described prankster, Hunter doesn’t think his clowning around would get him in as much trouble if Brazeale weren’t omnipresent at school.

Annoyed Children

That’s a common complaint among superintendents’ children. Their antics are more swiftly and severely punished because they become an example for other students. That can be especially true in smaller districts, where rumors and truth travel at lightning speed.

Yet that was something that kept Ed and Rosie Rastovski, both educators, seeking out mid-sized school districts in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa where they raised their two children. They wanted districts that offered enough opportunities but that weren’t so big their kids could be anonymous.

That approach to career advancement annoyed their daughter, Sierra Killpack, now 25 and living in Dallas. She graduated from the Tri-Center School District in Neola, Iowa, an 820-student district where her father was superintendent. Her graduating class had 60 students, which constitutes a middle-sized high school in that part of Iowa, Rastovski says.

But Killpack detested the notoriety that came with her father’s job. “Sierra didn’t like that everyone knew what she was doing,” said Rastovski, now superintendent of the 870-student Wahoo School District, east of Omaha, Neb.

“Basically, it was just like having your parents there all the time, and you could never do anything wrong,” Killpack recalls.

The Rastovskis liked it that way. They wanted to know what was going in the lives of Killpack and Aaron Rastovski, their 19-year-old son who’s now a freshman at Doane College in Crete, Neb.

Ed Rastovski says he passed up opportunities to move to larger districts because he wanted his children to experience the same small-town life he had, growing up as one of just 17 members of his graduating class in North Dakota. Besides, he says, “I enjoyed seeing my son and daughter in the hall.” And he liked knowing what was going on with his children.

Influence

When Killpack, the more rebellious of his two children, pushed the boundaries, her parents knew it immediately and stepped up to rein her in. As a result, Killpack vowed many times never to pursue a career in education. Yet she’s eating a little crow today, having finished her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in August at the University of Texas, Arlington. She now teaches pre-kindergarten in the 62,000-student Arlington School District in the Dallas suburbs.

She thought teaching wasn’t for her, having observed the long hours at school put in by her father and her mother, a middle-school language arts teacher in Elkhorn, Neb. Their family life pretty much revolved around school, Rosie Rastovski says. Killpack told herself that wasn’t the course for her.

But she thought about the benefits of a career in education, such as spending more time with one’s children. Then last year, after changing majors again and again over the course of her college career, she became a teaching assistant. Something clicked.

“I loved it,” Killpack says. “The kids were great. I think it’s just in my blood.”

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