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AASA Conferences & Networking:

From a Mass Convention to Targeted Training

Providing members with high-quality professional development and training always has been a focus of AASA, whether it was a national convention that drew up to 25,000 attendees to Atlantic City, N.J., in the dead of winter; “circuit riders” who traveled from one rural district to another; seminars on best practices for a specific niche of administrators; or the long-standing, sophisticated National Academy for School Executives.
Train travel was the routine form of transportation for AASA members and their spouses traveling to the annual convention, such as this one in 1938 in Atlantic City, N.J.

The types of professional development have shifted markedly as AASA has morphed over the past 150 years from an organization that served all types of administrators to its current focus on superintendents. Today, administrators receive a great deal of their professional development at the state level. The association, as it reduced its profile in professional education, saw increased focus in that area by other organizations serving building-level and central-office administrators.

Today, AASA’s annual conference is a place where superintendents and others go to hear top-level speakers, network with colleagues, renew professional and personal friendships and learn about the ongoing evolution of their role.

“People are not joiners like they used to be,” says Paul Houston, AASA’s executive director from 1994 to 2008. “When I was getting my administrator training in the 1970s, I was told I had to join and that I had to participate. It was automatic. Now, with the Internet and technology and the push to move training to the local level, it’s very different. And it is not automatic anymore.”

Open 1967
Education exhibits sponsored by 650 companies and nonprofit groups occupied two floors of the convention hall in Atlantic City, N.J., during AASA's 1967 annual convention. 


Services Expand

From 1921, the first year AASA had annual membership fees ($5), until the late 1940s, AASA was known for its conventions and its annual yearbook, which focused on curriculum development and the state of the superintendency. The organization, then a department of the National Education Association, struggled financially throughout the Great Depression, and staff took pay cuts and senior staff took personal loans to help AASA make ends meet.

During World War II, the federal government asked AASA and other organizations drawing participants from across the country to cancel events to free up transportation systems and hotels for war personnel. AASA again suffered severe financial hardship, but responded by establishing five regional conferences to serve its members.

In 1949, under the direction of Executive Secretary Worth McClure, the organization greatly expanded its services, starting with a series of regional drive-in conferences that focused on the job of education leadership, developing new administrators, community relationships and dealing with school boards. Called the Cooperative Program in Educational Administration, the conferences’ focus on professional development was a huge hit, especially in rural areas.

As AASA’s services grew, so did its membership. The annual conference, held for more than two decades in Atlantic City, saw its numbers jump as it became the go-to place for AASA members, administrators and school boards. The numbers were so large that live and pre-recorded conference broadcasts were piped into hotels on cable TV, beginning at sunrise, from the early 1960s to the mid-’70s.

“It was February in Atlantic City. You were in run-down hotels. It was colder than hell, and the town was shut down, but you would draw 20,000 to 25,000 people all connected with education,” says Ozzie Rose, who worked for AASA’s National Academy for School Executives and subsequently started the Oregon state administrators association in 1974. “If you had anything to do with education administration, you had to be there.”





Fenwick English, a superintendent in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, says AASA’s national conference was “a huge thing” during his administrative years. School board members would interview candidates for vacancies on site. “It was the great trading area,” English says.

The conference exhibit hall bustled with everything that a school district could need, from curriculum materials to school buses and bleachers. It was a one-stop-shopping center, where the decision makers could explore new ideas and technology and even do some comparison shopping.

“For any business manager in the country, it was the one place where you could go and see virtually everything you could possibly buy, from buses to air conditioning,” says English, a professor of educational administration for the past three decades. “Business managers used to go to the conferences and just stay on the exhibit floor, making out their lists. It was the only game in town.”

Pre-eminent Programs

The National Academy for School Executives, which started in 1969 and ran until the late 1990s, was a major factor in the size of the conferences and the association’s overall growth. With sessions ranging from an overnight to a week, NASE provided ongoing training across the country for the working administrator. Its faculty, who often were honored with the title of “diplomate,” were among the best in the business.

“I think NASE had a huge impact. It’s been copied by so many others out there because it really was the forerunner of really intensive staff development,” English says.

In 1975, NASE served more than 3,500 administrators who participated in 2½-day programs. Twelve years later, the number had risen to 1,175 programs over the year for almost 47,000 administrators.

“Up to that point, superintendents concentrated on budgets and collective bargaining,” says English, who was recruited by then-Executive Director Paul Salmon to run the National Center for the Improvement of Learning, an AASA department, in 1977.

NCIL drew 5,000 attendees to its first conference in 1977, which focused on leadership for learning, with a particular emphasis on curriculum and instruction. It was here that AASA’s Leadership for Learning Award originated. It also launched an annual AASA summer convention and a suburban superintendents conference in the late ’70s and the first Women District Superintendents Conference in 1980.

In 1988, as NASE celebrated its 20th anniversary, AASA established the National Executive Development Center to provide additional professional development for administrators, the National Strategic Planning Center for Education and a curriculum audit service purchased by school districts for educational improvement. The audits, led by English and a team of others, continued until the mid-1990s.

By the late 1990s, however, AASA’s near monopoly on staff development for school leaders had ended. Other organizations, such as the National Staff Development Council and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, developed targeted programs for non-superintendents. That, combined with the growth of the state affiliates AASA has nurtured over the years, led to NASE’s decline.

“The states used AASA as a reference to get good training, and then we could set it up and do it at less cost to members than they could do regional and national workshops,” says Rose, the retired director of the Oregon state affiliate. “In 1969, I told (then AASA Senior Associate Executive Director) Jim Kirkpatrick that it was a good idea and we should be doing it, but as state associations become more and more independent it will be difficult to sustain.”

Houston, who was executive director when NASE ended, agreed with Rose’s assessment. “With NASE, the states said, ‘We can do that and we can make money doing it ourselves’,” Houston notes. “The irony was, the more successful we were in helping our states, we were weakening ourselves as a national organization.”

Programs That Engage

Atlantic City remained the home of the AASA convention for more than two decades, but since the mid-1970s, the conference has moved to various sites across the United States. Attendance has declined slowly over the years, but the meeting remains a primary destination for the nation’s top superintendents and education thought leaders.

Today, having rebranded itself as the organization that exclusively serves superintendents, AASA has focused much of its professional development on training current and future school leaders. Daniel A. Domenech, AASA’s executive director since 2008, notes that the organization has placed a special emphasis on member engagement through a variety of programs offered online and in person.

One such effort is the National Superintendent Certification Program, now entering its third year with more than 80 emerging school leaders on board. Participants in the program, designed for sitting superintendents with one to five years’ experience, meet in person for 14 days over an 18-month period. Mentors who are seasoned, active superintendents also work with the participants.

“What our members really want are opportunities to meet, and programs that give them opportunities to meet together to solve common issues in education,” says Denny Dearden, associate executive director for leadership, meetings and partnerships. “This program is designed to fill in some of the gaps that traditionally the superintendents don’t learn in their doctorate or licensure programs, such as the superintendent-board relationship.”

MaryAnn Jobe, director of leadership development, says AASA also is working with state associations and other national groups, including the Gates and Wallace foundations, to provide professional development opportunities for superintendents. Workshops range from conserving energy resources, to improving communications, to technology issues around student and learning management systems. Also, webinars and Twitter chats serve as practical resources for superintendents.

Dearden says AASA has developed collaborative programs for superintendents in small and medium-sized school districts as well as a large county suburban consortium. Another AASA group, which includes 22 superintendents who have successfully led their districts through the transition to digital education, recently met with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the White House.

“At this point I’m seeing the most membership engagement we’ve had in years,” Domenech says. “Our members want to be engaged. They want to come together, not just once a year or by learning online. They enjoy the collegiality of this organization.”

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


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