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From Modest Start, AASA’s Magazine Evolves Into a Required Read

 1943 1978 1981 1997 March Cover

 1943

 1978

 1981

 1997

 2014

When The School Administrator made its debut in October 1943, AASA members learned upon skimming the typeset communique that the association’s president was in the middle of an education mission to Great Britain, the organization’s next yearbook would carry the theme “Morale for a Free World” and the Executive Committee asked staff to create a new product to be titled “Lessons from the War.”

The two-sided, all-text newsletter represented AASA’s first periodical beyond an annual yearbook and its most efficient means of communication, whose timeliness depended wholly on the speed of the U.S. Postal Service. The quick-read format delivered AASA news and information on a wide range of relevant subjects to busy readers. It launched a periodical that continues to this day, albeit in several, new nonprint formats that far exceed yesterday’s imagination.

Throughout its 72-year existence, The School Administrator has served as one of the principal benefits of AASA membership. That status has become even more pronounced over the past 20 years as other tangible products, such as AASA-produced reports and newsletters, all have gone to a digital composition.

Meeting Rapid Growth

While not quite a monthly in its earliest years (seven issues were published in 1944), The School Administrator served as the main communication link between the professional association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and its members across the country.

The newsletter assumed a mostly bulletin board format, sharing information about upcoming AASA meetings and the work of governing committees, news about congressional actions and a healthy dose of members’ comings and goings. It also functioned as the main conveyor of details about the AASA national convention and the annual election of officers.

The rapid growth of the association in the aftermath of World War II was apparent on the printed page. A September 1955 issue touted paid membership breaking the 10,000 mark, with New York and Pennsylvania best represented with more than 800 members each. Newsletters in the ’50s and ’60s reported on the fight against polio, the National Defense Education Act, poverty among schoolchildren and racial segregation.

The coverage of issues of interest to AASA members touched on themes familiar to public school leaders a half-century later. A report in 1962 titled “Testing, Testing, Testing” stressed the danger that “the tests may become ends in themselves.” An editorial on statesmanship by AASA’s Executive Secretary Finis Engleman warned that “the voice of the school administrator is lost amidst the shouting of special interests, partisan politicians, extremists and mercenaries who sell their writings and their lectures to an insecure people.”

AASA was quick to air its grievances over shoddy treatment of superintendents by their school boards, often in front-page accounts in The School Administrator. The nonrenewal of the contract of the Topeka, Kan., superintendent was deemed “demoralizing,” and AASA appointed a five-member committee to look into the dismissal.

An Expanded Identity

With the membership ranks clearing 18,000 at the end of the 1970s, The School Administrator moved from an eight-page newsprint-quality product to a 20-page monthly newsletter on higher-grade paper stock. Executive Director Paul Salmon used the publication to share his open letters, including one to President Nixon about the White House’s seeming disinterest in school funding.

While largely centered on AASA membership news, the newsletter expanded its attention to federal legislative and funding matters, actions by the U.S. Office of Education and analysis of significant court cases by Thomas Shannon, AASA’s legal adviser (who subsequently became executive director of the National School Boards Association).

The publication assumed a major new identity under Gary Marx, who began a 20-year stint as AASA’s communications director in 1979. Marx recognized the need for a more sophisticated monthly periodical and saw the possibilities of raising revenue through display advertising. A glossy 40-page magazine, with limited color, debuted in January 1981, and the paid advertisements featured book publishers, Hi-C fruit drinks, security latches for school doors, superintendent vacancies, pest control and a Glendale, Calif., company selling mini-computers for student record-keeping.

In its more appealing magazine format, The School Administrator took on subjects for AASA’s 17,200 members that continue to resonate for superintendents. One issue’s front-cover headline asked “What Role Will the U.S. Department of Education Play?” The magazine carried an interview with Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, about “schools and the Third Wave.” A letter to The School Administrator from President Ronald Reagan took up the full cover in September ’81.

More Sophisticated Offerings

The magazine added four-color advertising and undertook the first in a series of redesigns in the late 1980s. More significantly, the magazine refashioned itself as a thought-leader periodical, attuned to practical leadership needs and giving a voice to members. Several editorial departments that were introduced (President’s Corner, Resource Bank, People Watch, member profile) continue monthly to this day.

Association news moved into other vehicles mailed on a more regular basis to members, notably the tabloid newspaper Leadership News, which launched in 1987 and contained extensive listings of superintendent vacancies in its Job Bulletin. At one point, the newspaper circulated every two weeks.

During the past two decades, the magazine has tackled more challenging fare, such as the emergence of the religious right in school district governance, the job’s personal tolls on superintendents and family members, and coping with dismissal, while adding new monthly sections focusing on school board-superintendent relations, school law, personal technology use and the best blogs maintained by superintendents. Leadership Lite, a back-page series of humorous anecdotes introduced in 1997, remains one of the most widely followed sections.

When AASA moved out of the book publishing and report printing business as the new century unfolded and transferred most of its written products to the association’s website, The School Administrator assumed greater importance as a member benefit. The most recent redesign, in January 2012, led to the addition of a monthly ethical dilemma with panelist solutions and the elimination of “The” in the magazine’s formal title.

Notably, School Administrator today plays to all reading preferences by offering three electronic versions each month, including an accessible archive of full text dating back to 1997 and a recently added mobile edition that’s accessible via the AASA app.

A comprehensive study of the magazine’s readers, undertaken 18 months ago by an outside firm, documented School Administrator’s popularity and value, showing 63 percent had read four of the last four issues and 69 percent said they had read a half or more of the latest issue. The readership study also found a small but enthusiastic following for electronic access each month, even though four in five readers “predicted they’d be likely to read it in print” in the foreseeable future.

One has to wonder, though, when the bicentennial history of AASA is compiled in 2065 whether the notion of reading this publication on paper will seem completely distant and foreign to the school system leaders of that day.

Jay Goldman, an AASA staff member for 26 years, has served since 1992 as editor of School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org. Twitter: @jpgoldman

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