Executive Perspective                                     Page 41


Four Reasons To Be Proud   



 Daniel Domenech

On May 22, 2011, a massive tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., destroying everything in its path, killing 160 people and destroying six schools, including the district’s only high school. Within 87 days, Superintendent C.J. Huff had the kids back in school.

A year after the incident, President Obama spoke to the graduating class that had completed its studies in temporary classrooms set up in the local mall. “As I look out at this class … what’s clear is that you’re the source of inspiration today.”

Among his many awards, Huff was named one of People magazine’s 2011 Heroes of the Year. When he arrived in Joplin in 2008, his biggest challenge had been a lackluster graduation rate and the system’s inability to meet the needs of at-risk children. Since then, the district’s dropout rate has been cut in half and through the founding of Bright Futures, a Magna Award-winning initiative; the district is now meeting the needs of all its children. Huff was Missouri Superintendent of the Year and a 2013 finalist for National Superintendent of the Year.

Wanda Cook-Robinson, Michigan Superintendent of the Year, was also a finalist for the 2013 national honor. She has been superintendent of Southfield Public Schools since 2006. A proponent of forging partnerships that benefit her community, she developed with the University of Michigan-Dearborn academy programs in two schools and collaborates with the university to attract the best and brightest teachers to the profession. Cook-Robinson is an advocate for preparing teachers-to-be with more practicums addressing the rigors of the classroom.

Michigan recently lifted its cap on the number of charters allowed by the state. Cook-Robinson already has nine charter schools in her district. She is not afraid of the competition but believes the playing field should be level for charter and district schools. Over the past five years, the reading proficiency scores for her district show a closing of the achievement gap for her economically disadvantaged students, and overall achievement has improved.

Maryalice Russell, superintendent in McMinnville, Ore., and the Oregon Superintendent of the Year, also was a finalist for NSOY. Her district is in the 71st percentile of high-poverty districts in Oregon with a high enrollment of students with limited English proficiency. She believes education is the great equalizer and a quality education will break the cycle of generational poverty. She has implemented an intensive professional development process that has catapulted McMinnville from average to exemplary, being the only district in Oregon to have three schools identified as model schools by the Oregon Department of Education.

During the January press conference for the four finalists in Washington, D.C., Russell responded thoughtfully to a question on school safety. This was a few weeks after the Newtown tragedy. McMinnville, she said, would be considering the integration of life survival skills and critical situation behavior into the school curriculum. Students and staff need to learn how to react to situations posed by active shooters to maximize their chances for survival.

Mark Edwards, superintendent in Mooresville, N.C., is our 2013 National Superintendent of the Year. He has been Superintendent of the Year in two states, Virginia and North Carolina. He has been a national leader in changing the culture of instruction toward digital conversion, and Mooresville is seen by many as the model. Edwards has been invited to speak at the White House and the U.S. Department of Education. Requests by districts to visit Mooresville are so popular the district arranges for groups of 60 for monthly tours.

I recall the work he did in Henrico County, Va., during my time as superintendent in Fairfax County, Va. His laptop-for-every-child initiative gained considerable attention, but implementation of that vision in Mooresville has resulted in significant achievement gains. In a New York Times article about the district, Karen Cator, then-director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, said, “Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership.”

We can all be proud of these four system leaders. Their districts are the success stories that we seldom hear about in the news media. The communities they lead are living proof that public education is alive and well in America and that children, regardless of their background or economic position, are achieving at high levels.

Daniel Domenech is AASA’s executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org


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