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AASA’s Origins:

‘This organization will be here for a long, long time’

Four months after President Lincoln was assassinated, a small group of superintendents started a national organization to call attention to the plight of undereducated youth. Today, as AASA celebrates its sesquicentennial, it can look back with pride at what it has accomplished and focus on a future as “the voice” for superintendents nationwide.

 Birdsey Northup
Birdsey G. Northrop served as the first president of the organization in 1865-66 when it was known as the National Association of School Superintendents.


“We are advocates and thought leaders on behalf of the children we serve,” Executive Director Daniel A. Domenech says of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, as it’s now known officially. “Superintendents are the voice of the children in the community who have no voice, and the one thing we can do that no one else can is be the voice for the superintendent at the national level.”

AASA has taken on many roles and several names since the group of administrators met on Aug. 17, 1865, in Harrisburg, Pa., and formed the National Association of School Superintendents. At the time, superintendents were concerned about rebuilding a neglected education system in the wake of the Civil War, as well as how to educate a vast population of African-American children freed from slavery.

“The National Association of School Superintendents was by no means the first national or semi-national organization in which superintendents (from city, county, state and college posts) were members and officers,” wrote Arthur H. Rice in “AASA: A Centennial Story,” published in 1965. “However, it was the first nationwide group that limited its membership to the school administrator.”

Powerful Connections

Over the past 150 years, AASA has made its mark as a national organization. Its officers and staff have met with the top members of Congress and U.S. presidents dating back to Ulysses S. Grant. At its national and regional conferences, the association has hosted renowned speakers such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Walter Cronkite, Jonathan Kozol, Maya Angelou, Richard Riley, Malcolm Gladwell, Colin Powell, Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg, among others. Entertainers and artists such as Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Helen Hayes, Walt Disney and Leonard Bernstein were honored on AASA’s main stage as winners of the American Education Award.

And all the while, it has maintained a focus on its members, the top-level school administrators in their communities.

“The connections you make at an AASA meeting are very powerful, in part because the people we represent are lonely. They are the only one in the community who does that job, and they have an entirely different perspective,” says Paul Houston, AASA’s executive director from 1994 to 2008. “AASA says you don’t have to be alone. There are a lot of people out there just like you, and by connecting to people at meetings and through committees, you have an opportunity to share and get comfort from each other.”

Burke Royster, a second-generation superintendent whose father, Bill, was a former AASA president, says the association “is intertwined in every part of my personal and professional life.”

“AASA does a great job of representing and bringing together superintendents and district leaders,” says Royster, now superintendent in Greenville, S.C. “It sets the mark for being a professional organization.”

1927 EC
Executive committee members of the Department of School Superintendence in 1927 when membership dues were $5 a year.
Ramping Up Operations


Five years after that 1865 meeting, the superintendents joined with other groups to form the National Education Association, known as the National Educational Association until 1906, starting a partnership that lasted for more than 100 years. In 1907, it became the NEA Department of School Superintendence, but had no paid staff, headquarters or membership dues.

That changed in 1921, when Sherwood Dodge Shankland was named as the organization’s first paid executive secretary, a post he would hold for 25 years. Membership fees, then $5, were charged for the first time. During the Great Depression, the association’s staff made financial sacrifices to help the organization remain solvent. Dues would not be increased again until 1949.

In 1937, the department changed its name to the American Association of School Administrators, though it remained part of the NEA. World War II brought more hard times, with annual conferences cancelled due to travel and housing directives from the federal government, but the organization responded with popular regional and drive-in meetings to serve its growing membership.

Worth McClure, who followed Shankland as executive secretary, oversaw a 10-year era of tremendous growth as the nation emerged from another war and started focusing more attention on K-12 education. AASA ramped up its publishing efforts to, in McClure’s words, “pinpoint practical problems of the superintendents,” held regional drive-in conferences and started its focus on developing state associations.

In 1955, membership topped 10,000 for the first time as AASA continued its growth. Holding its primary annual conferences regularly in Atlantic City, attendance surged to 26,000 in 1964. The following year, 1,200 came to the major event as speakers, program chairs, panelists or topical experts.

“You could find anything and everything at an AASA conference,” says Peter Corona, who has attended the previous 58 in a row and will be there again in San Diego this year. “From the speakers to the exhibit floor to the informal meetings, you could get everything you needed to be a better superintendent. It has made the biggest difference in my life.”

A Necessary Split

The 1960s and ’70s were contentious times. Relations between NEA and the administrator associations became increasingly strained. In 1969, AASA started to separate from the NEA, owing to the latter’s increasing unionization and collective bargaining interests, first becoming an associated organization before cutting ties and becoming autonomous four years later. The association moved from the NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Virginia suburbs, locating on North Moore Street in Arlington with several other education associations.





It was during this period that AASA, then under the direction of Paul Salmon, developed the popular National Academy for School Executives and ramped up its advocacy efforts in Congress. A variety of initiatives, including the American Association of Educational Service Agencies, the AASA National Center for the Improvement of Learning, the I Care Conference and the Partners’ Program, were launched. Programs were set up to bring more women and minorities into the superintendency, supported in part by grants from the Ford Foundation.

In Las Vegas in the late 1970s, 30,000 attended the annual conference, an all-time high.

“In the mid-to-late ’70s, AASA was doing well,” says Norman Hall, who was the organization’s president in 1978-79. “Membership was growing. At that time, the federal government was getting involved in education. There was federal money being passed along to schools that allowed people to travel to conferences.”

Advocacy Intensifies

Education took a place in the national spotlight following the publication of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” in 1983 and really hasn’t left since. As Richard Miller, Salmon’s successor as executive director, said in 1989: “In a fast-changing world, education is racing to stay ahead of societal changes and our nation’s unquenchable desire for excellence.”

What that meant for AASA was increased competition as other principal and administrator organizations grew and started siphoning its membership. AASA responded by intensifying its focus on federal advocacy — especially in its opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act — and taking on a thought leadership role under Houston, who replaced Miller in 1994.

“There was a real ongoing effort, from working on a code of ethics in the 1970s to developing standards for the superintendency in the 1980s and early ’90s, to define the profession and raise the recognition that these are critical positions,” Houston says. “The next step, as far as I was concerned, was to look for new ways and ideas to stimulate the superintendents, to have them see their jobs and their work in a more positive and different way.”

Financial issues, exacerbated by the post 9/11 downturn and the 2008 economic crisis, have forced AASA to streamline and restructure its operations. Houston retired in 2008 and was succeeded by Domenech, who, in 2011, moved the AASA offices from Arlington to Alexandria, where the organization shares space with the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Rebranded and Recommitted

Today, AASA has returned to its roots, having rebranded itself as the national organization that serves superintendents. Over the past few years, it has worked to re-engage members, forming consortiums that serve groups of urban, suburban and rural superintendents, and has expanded its electronic offerings. The association’s advocacy and reach in Washington remain powerful. A consortium consisting of 22 superintendents who led their school districts through a transition to digital teaching despite huge financial obstacles recently met with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the White House.

A new national superintendent certification program, in which district leaders with one to five years experience embark on 18 months of intensive training, has three cohorts with more on the way. More than 80 participants will meet at the AASA conference in San Diego.

“We’ve been here 150 years, and it hasn’t been easy,” Domenech says. “In the past year, I’ve seen the most membership engagement that we’ve had in years, and we’re only building on that. We’ve had our bumps and challenges along the way, but we’re not going anywhere. This organization will be here for a long, long time.” n

Glenn Cook is an education freelance writer in Lorton, Va. E-mail: glenncook117@gmail.com. Twitter: @ourrealityshow


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