Superintendent Rookies

First-year trials and triumphs of six newcomers to the profession by DONNA HARRINGTON-LUEKER

Ask former school superintendent Rudy Crew why a superintendent’s first year on the job is so important, and the response comes quickly and definitively. How you start is how you finish, says Crew, who has held the top spot in the public school systems of New York City, Tacoma, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif.

Crew’s observation underscores the importance of starting off well in a profession that is at once rewarding and relentless. And while Crew says he’s glad his first year as a superintendent is far behind him, he also admits that he’d still relish the opportunity to be a superintendent today. His advice for newcomers: Be trustworthy but not trusting, have an agenda to advance and learn to expect the unexpected. Extra reserves of stamina and energy are important, too.

“In that first year, you have to have a way of framing your work without taking any great pauses,” says Crew, who is currently director of district reform initiatives for the California-based Stutski Family Foundation. “It’s important to create energy that first year.”

Nowhere is such energy more important than it is for the nearly 2,900 educators who, according to Quality Education Data of Denver, Colo., entered the superintendent profession last year. “There is no more honeymoon period,” notes Linda Wing, co-director of the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program, of the challenge facing rookie superintendents, who accounted for nearly a fifth of the nation’s superintendents in 2001-2002. “In this age of high stakes and high standards, people are impatient for results.”

Given the high stakes, how are today’s first-year superintendents faring? What challenges do they face during their first year on the job, and where do they look for advice, support and counsel? How do they manage when smooth sailing turns to crisis or controversy? Where do they find the energy to do their jobs well?

Six Stories
To provide some first-hand answers to those questions, The School Administrator contacted six school leaders who were beginning their first superintendencies in the summer of 2001 and asked each to keep a journal of his or her experiences during that important first year. The six leaders, who represent a variety of districts and career paths, include:

* Marshall Marshall, who became superintendent of the Pulaski Central Schools in upstate New York after 13 years as an elementary school principal in the district;

* Elaine C. Cash, a former principal and central-office administrator who grew up in the sprawling Riverdale, Calif., Unified School District, worked there for most of her career, and then, when her mentor retired, succeeded him as Riverdale’s superintendent;

* Michael H. Jones, a nontraditional superintendent who retired from a career in a Fortune 500 company, returned to the world of education and became the leader of the East Valley School District in Washington state;

* Susan C. Garton, an experienced principal and central-office administrator who spent five years as a university professor before becoming superintendent of the small, rural Southeast Warren, Iowa, Community School District;

* Elizabeth “Betty” Molina Morgan, former chief education officer for the Baltimore City Schools, who was hired as interim superintendent of the Washington County, Md., Public Schools and then offered a four-year contract to continue in the post; and

* John F. Kinley, who became superintendent of the South Hamilton School District, about 45 miles from Des Moines, Iowa, after a successful career as a high school principal in another district.


Stewards and Change Agents
Their stories, which appear on the pages that follow, offer a candid look at the challenges first-year superintendents face, the landmines they have to sidestep and the leadership strategies that served them well.

A number of common experiences emerge from their stories. Each of the six, for example, credits his or her success to building a good relationship with the school board and getting to know the community and the school system well. At the same time, nearly all admitted some measure of surprise at the job’s never-ending duties.

Faced with shortfalls in state revenues, at least three had to learn about school budgets in the face of unprecedented cuts, and at least one dealt with the fractious issue of staff layoffs in the wake of sharp reductions in state funding. Half defined themselves as stewards of their school district, and at least one chose the label of change agent.

Whatever the term, each spoke repeatedly about accountability--the issue that appears to be defining this generation of school leaders. As one of the six put it: The buck really stops with them. As superintendents, they are responsible for making certain that all children achieve at high levels--something communities are only now asking of their schools.

The rookies shared other experiences as well. A number were surprised at the crush of administrative details that superintendents have to deal with--a black hole of bus routes, contract negotiations and meetings that can pull them away from teaching and learning. A few found that personnel issues could do more to threaten progress than instructional change or budget shortfalls, and at least three credited some of their first-year success to the kindness and ongoing counsel of their predecessor.

A further measure of success: Each has had his or her contract extended beyond this first year. Here are their stories.

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a free-lance education writer based in Bristol, R.I. E-mail: dhlueker@ids.net . She assisted the six superintendents in writing their first-year portrayals.