Guest Column

Climbing Out of My Ivory Tower


The world of academia is full of ivory towers. As a superintendent, I’ve found it pays to climb out of mine on a regular basis.

When I climb down from my tower, I reap some benefits. First, I am highly accessible and visible to my faculty, students and staff. Second, through daily visits to the schools, I can observe the day-to-day operations of the district. My primary purpose for leaving the tower for awhile is simple—I get to participate in the schooling process.

To those in the schools, whether student, teacher or custodian, the value of a regular chance to see and talk with the superintendent is immeasurable. I hear firsthand their views, including their complaints. It means everyone has the opportunity to be heard.

Another benefit is getting invited into classrooms for impromptu visits. After a particularly trying time at my former school district when we had been in the news in a not-so-positive way, my neighbor said to me, “You must have had a really bad day today.” “Au contraire,” I responded. On that day, I had visited one of the district’s elementary schools and the kindergarten teacher ushered me into her classroom to read Alice Meets the Aliens. So I told my concerned neighbor, “Any day when I can begin my job by reading Alice Meets the Aliens to children has got to be a good day.”

On Read Across America Day, which last year remembered Dr. Seuss author Theodore Geisel, I was included among the celebrity guests invited to read to students at Washington Elementary School. That put me in the company of TV meteorologists, Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer players and local newspaper reporters, elevating the superintendent's status to that of president!

Sparking Change
Sometimes classroom visits can be the impetus for administrative policy changes. For years, Penn Hills School District rented space to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which, in turn, operated a class that serves 4th- and 5th-grade students with autism. During the 2001-02 school year, the district implemented and operated its own autism class for lower elementary-grade children.

In my daily travels to our schools, I often visited the district’s newly formed class. It was clearly a success for the students and the district. As the need for a second class became apparent, I wholeheartedly supported its formation, having seen firsthand the need for and value of such a class.

People who know I frequent schools will ask me, “How do you have time to visit all these schools?” The answer is simple: I make the time. It’s far more important to be in the schools than to be in the administrative office, the ivory tower of school districts. Paperwork can be done anytime—at home in the evening or by starting my workday at breakfast instead of when I arrive at the office. With voice mail and cell phones, messages can be retrieved and phone calls returned anytime, even when I’m on my way to a school visit.

Role Model
Some people say, “Yes, that’s a good practice when you’re new to the job or new to the district. But can’t you let up after a while?” If we’re preaching, “We want our students and our community members to be lifelong learners,” shouldn’t I practice what we preach? It’s not just lip service, either. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new on a school visit, and I’ve been making these rounds for 16 years as a chief school administrator.

I also include the bus garage and the maintenance building on my visitation schedule at least once a month because these employees are responsible, in large measure, for the public perception of our district. Bus drivers are the first to see the school children in the morning and the last to see them safely home in the afternoon. The maintenance staff is single-handedly responsible for the first impression that visitors get when looking at our school grounds and buildings.

Compare the benefits of spending a couple of hours in schools versus the same time doing important administrative stuff. For me, there’s no comparison. After all, I’ll have plenty of time in retirement to spend looking out of that ivory tower.

Samuel DePaul is superintendent of the Penn Hills School District, 309 Collins Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15235. E-mail: