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Faces of Leadership:

Diversity Reaches the AASA Presidency


June Gabler and Gene Carter know what it’s like to be firsts in AASA’s long and distinguished history. And their “firsts” came in the same year — 1988.
 June Gabler
June Gabler, who served in 1987-88 as the first woman elected to the presidency of AASA. 

Gabler, the first woman to be elected president of AASA in 1987-88, spearheaded the launch of the National Superintendent of the Year program at AASA. Carter, then the first African-American superintendent in Norfolk, Va., received the inaugural honor.

“It was such a thrill,” Gabler says of presenting the award to Carter. “I thought Gene was the most qualified, and I was so happy to see him get it. It was a big, big deal for us.”

For a profession long dominated by white males, Gabler and Carter standing on the same stage represented a significant cultural shift for AASA and the superintendency. But while the number of women leading the nation’s school districts has grown steadily since then, now amounting to about one in four district superintendents, the same cannot be said for non-whites, who make up only 4 percent of the total population of superintendents nationwide.

“We can be proud of what’s happened with women superintendents,” says Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director. “I wish we could say the same about Latinos and African Americans. We are now a minority-majority school system in America, and the fact that only 4 percent of our superintendents are Latino or African-American means we are woefully underrepresenting children in our schools.”

Making a Stand

Women have been working as superintendents since the 1920s, according to AASA records, but their numbers remained disproportionate to those working at all other levels in K-12 education until the last two decades of the 20th century.

The first big push within AASA coincided with the women’s liberation movement. Gabler and another superintendent, Joan Abrams, started the National Women’s Caucus in the mid-’70s.

“It was a fascinating time, and women were ready to move ahead. We started out very, very small because there weren’t that many women who belonged to AASA at the time,” Gabler says. “It was not because we wanted to do anything except to get all of the women together so we could talk to each other. And by all, I mean six or seven.”

In 1977, the Ford Foundation awarded AASA a three-year grant to identify 75 female administrators and provide them with training to advance their careers as education leaders. The series of training workshops is credited with preparing and bringing more women into the superintendency.

The following year, the Women’s Caucus criticized AASA for not having a woman on the Executive Committee and mounted a campaign to get Gabler, who had never been an officer at the state level, elected to a three-year term.

“That was never my goal,” Gabler says. “My goal was just to be part of my profession and to give something back to it. It just sort of happened. It happened because of the women and men I met along the way who helped me to understand that I had some skills that could be helpful to others by moving into this type of leadership role.”

Effie Jones, the African-American head of AASA’s Office of Minority Affairs, organized the first Women Superintendents Conference prior to the 1980 national convention. Six years later, AASA sponsored the National Conference of Women School Executives for the first time in Chicago. A new Women Administrators Advisory Committee took responsibility for the meeting the following year.

In 1993, Lillian Barna, a retired superintend-ent from Tacoma, Wash., and chair of the Women Administrators Advisory Committee, summed up the group’s work in two sentences: “It’s not only important for women to get there, but it’s also important that we help them to stay there. Our committee geared itself toward helping women be successful.”

Early Groundbreakers

 Gene White
Eugene White was the second African-American to be elected president of AASA. 

During this time, non-whites also were starting to break into positions of school leadership. Domenech, who was born in Cuba, became a superintendent at age 32 in Long Island, N.Y., in 1977. Carter was a finalist for the Baltimore City Schools position before being named to the top post in Norfolk, Va., in 1983. In the late 1980s, Benjamin Canada started the first of three superintendencies, first in Jackson, Miss., followed by Atlanta and Portland, Ore.

Carter became superintendent as Norfolk started moving aggressively away from the segregation era amid heightened community and court expectations for improved student achievement among minorities. The programs he helped implement, including a closing-the-gap initiative that curtailed a large dropout rate and the development of a foundation that guaranteed every graduate would have a chance to go to college, contributed to his selection as the National Superintendent of the Year.

“When I became superintendent in Norfolk, nationally there were very few African-American superintendents in either medium-sized or large urban districts,” says Carter, who started as a teacher in Norfolk. “The challenge that I faced was to right the ship, so to speak, and to do it sooner rather than later. I wasn’t the exception. Most of the other minority superintendents at that time, minority or female, were faced with similar circumstances.”

Though limited in number, these groundbreaking superintendents took on leadership roles with AASA. Domenech was the first Latino to lead the Executive Committee in 1998-99; he was followed two years later by Canada, the first African-American president.

“I was actively involved in AASA when Ben Canada was elected president, and I was so proud of him,” says Eugene White, former superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools and the association’s second African-American president in 2006-07. “I did not think about running on the national level until I got to the Executive Committee, and I don’t think it would have happened if Ben Canada had not been a great president.”

Role Models

 Four Women
The four women to serve as elected presidents of AASA are, from left, Sarah Jerome, Patricia Neudecker, Amy Sichel and June Gabler. 

Sarah Jerome followed White as president by a year, becoming only the second woman elected by the membership to lead the association. Jerome has witnessed a major shift in the organization since becoming an AASA member in 1991, when she says she was “struck by all the white males I saw on the stage.”

Jerome spent 15 years as a superintendent in Wisconsin and was superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., when she joined the AASA board. She says she “made it my business to get involved to ensure that women are better represented in the organization.”

She adds: “We have to be role models for the children we represent, and we have to show them that both women and men can be great leaders. I’ve seen progress in the organization. There’s been a much more concerted effort to make sure minorities and women are represented, that they are encouraged to be part of committee work, on the Governing Board and Executive Committee.”

Two women, Patricia Neudecker and Amy Sichel, have served as AASA president since Jerome’s term and while Domenech has been executive director. He is proud of that fact, but knows the organization still has a ways to go to get more women and minority superintendents in the pipeline.

“The change in the makeup of the superintendency has been incremental, and the way to make changes is through recruiting and preparation,” Domenech says. “We’re not getting the number of minorities into the teaching profession that we need to have, and that means we have a smaller group of minorities who are principals and an even smaller group that are superintendents. That has to change, and helping that rise remains one of my lasting targets.”

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

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