Following in a Mentor’s Footsteps


I didn’t aspire to become a superintendent. When I look back over my career in education, every move I’ve made has seemed a natural progression from the one that preceded it and not part of some grand plan.

I also know that I’m fortunate: For much of my career, I have had the support, the confidence and the guidance of a wonderful mentor whom I’ve succeeded in this position.

Now my challenge is twofold. First, I have a legacy to live up to and a promise to keep. I feel a commitment to my mentor, a loyalty to his vision and to this district that has been home for so much of my personal and professional life. Second, like any first-year superintendent, I have to make this job my own.

A Homegrown Superintendent
July 2001: A large rural district in California’s fertile Central Valley, Riverdale is a farming community with hard-working parents who trust us to make the right decisions for their children. Nearly 75 percent of our children qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Almost three-quarters of our enrollment is Hispanic, and among them, 35 percent are just learning English.

The district is also the largest employer in town and the hub of the community. Without movie theaters or a McDonald’s, people look to us for a sense of belonging. On Friday night, the high school football game is the place to be.

I know Riverdale well. Not only did I grow up and go to school here, but I’ve spent most of my professional life in its schools. Still I find there’s a transition that needs to be made as I move into the superintendency. And I’m not the only one who’s feeling awkward making that transition.

That’s clear in early July. Things seem to be going smoothly, but I can sense a tentativeness among staff members, some of whom worked with the former superintendent for more than 20 years. When I ask one employee about the precedent for an issue that’s arisen, she wants to know if I’d like to call the former superintendent and ask his opinion.

At the same time, I also sense patience and a willingness to work things the way I choose. I must admit, though, in these early days on the job, I often wonder what my mentor would do in certain situations, even the simple ones.

Establishing a relationship with the school board is also new to me. Even though I’ve worked in the district for most of my professional life, I have had very little interaction with board members and have really only known them as parents. I recognize, too, that I need to be less guarded in my new relationship with the board and that I have to begin to think from the board’s perspective much more than I did when I was a principal.

Another interesting observation I have made this month comes from the daily check of all invoices and purchase orders that come into the district. I’m overwhelmed by how much money we spend daily. I had no idea.

A District of Choice
August 2001: I’m feeling organized, but already I can sense that my time is being spent in areas that have little to do with student learning. While I want to focus my time on student achievement, I find myself working instead on building projects, budget issues, legislation and personnel. The principal and assistant superintendent in me say these are not what make a difference, but I recognize the need to manage resources efficiently so that staff members can get to the work that must be done. As a superintendent, I tell myself, I am solving different problems now.

On the first day of school for teachers and certificated staff, I continue the tradition of a luncheon for all and a presentation of the “State of the District.” Cognizant of the past, I also work hard to make the presentation purely “me.” Standing in front of a sea of former peers, I emphasize how humbling it is to be leading the district. I also note how much we have accomplished. Two of our three schools have received the highest statewide rankings possible for schools with similar demographics.

At the same time, though, I tell those who’ve assembled that all our schools need to be the best in the state, period, and not just the best when adjusted for income, race or ethnicity. After all, employers who will someday hire our students won’t really care that they came from a low socioeconomic community with a large number of students with limited English proficiency. They’ll just care whether the students can do the job. Unless we give our children an education that’s comparable to the best in the state, we have failed. Though we’ve done so much already, I tell them that we must look at every child who isn’t achieving and find strategies to bring that child to state standards.

I also present my personal goals for the year:

* Achieving the district mission of having 80 percent of students at grade level;

* Remaining fiscally solid and beginning the 2002-2003 year with an equal or improved financial profile; and

* Establishing Riverdale as a district of high quality and high standards--a district of choice rather than necessity.

I’m pleased that the luncheon is upbeat. The staff is warm, and many board members attend. During the luncheon, a teacher who has been in the district more than 30 years (and with whom I taught in the elementary school), tells me she thought I was really honest and hit the mark. Of all the positive remarks I receive that day, I value hers the most.

September 11
September 2001: Looking back at the month, we go directly to Sept. 11. Even in rural California, such an event has a dramatic impact. I arrive at work at 7 a.m. Pacific Time after a long three-day weekend for my daughter’s wedding. Driving to work, I decide to stretch the time to be a mom just a little longer by listening to a CD instead of the news, which is my usual routine. As I prepare for the meeting, our assistant superintendent comes in and asks soberly, “How will this affect us?”

“This what?” I reply.

I am stunned by her response: “The World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been attacked.” Unable to focus on the planned agenda, we wrap up our meeting quickly. Parents and staff members are calling already to ask if we are canceling school, but I explain that buses are already on the road with students. (Because of the size of our district, we begin picking up students at 6:30 a.m.). I promise to review what’s happening and get back to them.

When I return to the office, we turn on the TV in time to see the second tower being struck. Our district includes the Lemoore Naval Air Station, a base that trains fighter pilots, and at this point we have to assume that anything can happen at a military site. I check with base officials and find they are on high alert.

I review all the information I have and conclude that we should focus first on taking care of students. Principals give hourly updates to staff, going from room to room to offer assurance, while teachers share information with students, depending on their ages and grade levels.

Finally, we decide that our only substantial change will be to cancel afterschool activities so that students can get home at normal hours and not be on buses late into the evening. At this point, we have no way of knowing if terrorist attacks will continue throughout the day, and I do not want buses near the naval air station unnecessarily. I phone each board member and explain what’s happening. We end up canceling our extracurricular activities on Friday as well when President Bush declares it a national day of mourning and prayer. One of the events is our homecoming football game. Again, I let the board know of our decision.

In the days that follow, I see our students mature and in the wake of these attacks I also see more obvious and open demonstrations of appreciation throughout the community. There is a sense of cooperation and need for others that I haven’t noticed before.

Finding a Balance
October 2001: The early fall is a rush to learn new things. It is almost a honeymoon time as almost everyone is patient when I say, “Let me research that some, and I will get back to you.” I did not know how much the former superintendent had to deal with.

At the same time, I admit: I’m a little envious of the assistant superintendent. While my daily contact with principals is mostly about problems they cannot solve, the assistant superintendent is working with them on setting up curriculum, assessment and professional development. She is doing what needs to be done, and her experience and knowledge is helping us move to the next level in terms of student achievement.

At the same time, though, I long to focus more of my attention on what is going on in the classrooms as that has always been my favorite stuff.

November 2001: As a principal, I became used to watching my teachers closely for signs of fatigue or burnout. Now I recognize some of the same signs in the eyes of the site administrators. We have been working hard on instructional leadership, on getting into classrooms, on working with teachers. On top of that, fall is one of the busiest times for afterschool activities. The pace has been relentless, and I am glad to see Thanksgiving break arrive. I encourage all my administrators to spend a good amount of time with their families.

My stress level has moved up a notch as well, but what else could I expect? Over the past few years, I have placed my personal health and well-being on the back burner. Being a high school principal, a mother and a wife took precedence over all else. But stress and poor physical conditioning are taking their toll.

By November, I’m struggling to be at my best. By chance or perhaps serendipity, I find the name of a personal trainer who can counsel me about nutrition. For years, I’ve told myself I know everything there is to know about diet and health, but I find that I haven’t really been paying attention and am in need of help. The trainer speaks to me so honestly that I immediately trust her and know she’s onto something. Her plan requires me to commit time every day to exercise or weight training. I comply, and I am beginning to feel the difference now. How did I ignore this before?

Technology Woes
December 2001: Technology becomes my major frustration. Over the past five years, the district has acquired more than 400 computers, all of them networked and all with Internet access. But we have only one full-time technician and a half-time technology director, and I’m convinced we need a different perspective.

I ask myself the critical question: Given all the money we are pouring into computers, servers, RAM, automated library systems and the like, what difference does that investment make in student learning? Our office uses computers intensively, of course, but teachers seem to limit their use to e-mail and the Internet. I wonder: Other than the computers students use in the library media center or in our business department labs, is all this technology really making any difference?

Last week when our network was down for the umpteenth time, it struck me: There is no going back. Even if we still have a long way to go in terms of using technology to improve student learning, all of us are dependent on the technology that we have. Kick it into gear, Elaine, and do it right, I tell myself.

I meet with a part-time network administrator, and I begin mapping out a vision for our use of technology. My plans call for a full-time technology director and a comprehensive technology plan that focuses on using technology to improve instruction. We’re moving ahead.

A Living Legacy
March 2001: Our building projects also are taking off in earnest, and I’m glad to have the former superintendent on board as project manager. He is experienced, and it’s fun to watch him work again.

We have been able to start two projects almost simultaneously. One is a $250,000 upgrade of the Riverdale Elementary School playfield. The other is a $2.1 million project to modernize Riverdale High School. Working with the architects and contractors and dealing with the bidding process are new experiences for me. Interestingly enough, I get 10 times more questions from the community about these projects than I do about student test scores or curriculum development. The projects are visible, and everyone has an opinion.

June 2001: As for opinions, I have my own as well. Overall this has been a wonderful first year. I’ll admit: A number of times I felt I was just keeping my nose above water rather than swimming out fearlessly into the deep. But in retrospect this period of transition has been in the district’s best interest and in my own. I’m a steward, not an outside change agent, and the district and its children have been given to me in trust. That’s a legacy I’ll be proud to pass along just as my mentor has passed it along to me.

Elaine Cash is superintendent of the Riverdale Joint Unified Schools, P.O. Box 1058, Riverdale, CA 93656. E-mail: ecash@riverdale.k12.ca.us