Executive Perspective

Four Champions of Children in Our Profession


Executive Perspective

“The superintendent is the voice for all the children in the community, including the many children who would have no voice if not for the superintendent. Today, more than ever, America’s superintendents have the awesome responsibility to protect public education from the private and political interests that regard our schools as investment opportunities for corporate gains rather than fostering the American tradition of an educated community that is the core of our democratic process.”

The above quote is the opening line in my Champions for Children and Public Education presentation. The superintendent’s job has become increasingly challenging since the economic recession hit in 2008 and hard decisions have had to be made to cut staff, programs and services. Social media allows anyone in the community with a bone to pick to publicly criticize the superintendent. Critics of public education throw out misleading statistics and label schools as failing even though benchmarks show America’s public schools today to be the best they have ever been. Fiscal conservatives and political extremists get elected to school boards and move to fire the sitting superintendent to be replaced with someone more in tune with their philosophies.

The New Honoree

In this environment, it is important for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, to recognize and honor superintendents who are indeed champions for children and public education. Every year, each of our state affiliates selects a superintendent to be their Superintendent of the Year. The exception is Hawaii, a one-district state with just a single superintendent. The state affiliates forward the winners’ names with a package of supporting material to be used in vetting the individuals for National Superintendent of the Year.

A Blue Ribbon Selection Committee, independent of AASA, reviews the information on each applicant and selects four finalists. Those finalists for the 2015 honor assembled in Washington, D.C., in January for individual interviews by the selection committee and to participate in a public panel open to the press. The committee’s decision was announced on stage in late February at AASA’s National Conference on Education in San Diego. Philip Lanoue, superintendent in the Clarke County School District in Athens, Ga., was named as the National Superintendent of the Year.

He is completing his sixth year in Clarke County, which he took over just as the economic recession was kicking into high gear. He was forced to make staff reductions and program cuts to balance the school district’s budget. In a community where four of five children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, budget cuts added insult to injury. Nevertheless, as a true champion for children, Lanoue worked with parents and community members to rally their support behind use of existing and newly found resources to operate programs that would best serve students’ needs. Under his leadership, Clarke County was honored as a Title I Distinguished District for closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students.

Exemplary Finalists

Another finalist, MaryEllen Elia, served for 10 years as superintendent in Hillsborough County, Fla. (In another vivid example of the job’s challenges, the Hillsborough school board terminated Elia’s contract without cause a month after she was named an award finalist.) Elia earned a national reputation as an innovator in the way teachers and principals are recruited, hired, evaluated and compensated. The district went from a teacher retention rate of 74 percent to 92 percent, and greater teacher stability resulted in student achievement increases.

Another finalist was Pat Murphy, superintendent in Arlington, Va. I am personally very proud of him. I hired Murphy to be a middle school principal when I was the superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., and I was delighted to see his rapid rise up the administrative ladder leading to his appointment as Arlington superintendent in 2009. He has been responsible for dramatic increases in graduation rates for Hispanic and black students in Arlington and a 67 percent decline in the dropout rate.

Patrice Pujol from Ascension Parish, La., was the fourth finalist. The district has been featured in several national publications for its work in improving outcomes for impoverished students. Since becoming superintendent in 2010, Pujol’s priority has been to close the achievement gap between schools of poverty and her highest-performing schools. Ascension is now considered an A school district in Louisiana and is ranked 4th highest in student achievement.

You can appreciate the difficulty the Blue Ribbon Committee experiences in selecting one out of four outstanding leaders. Each is a champion for children with the courage to go out on a limb to ensure the children they represent receive the quality of education to which they are entitled.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan