Unflappable Presence With a Steady Hand

Type: Article
Topics: Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

April 01, 2022


Curtis CainAs superintendent of the Wentzville School District in suburban St. Louis, Mo., Curtis Cain covers a lot of ground. Not just the physical territory — the district’s 18 buildings over 90 square miles — but also the ideological terrain that puts so many superintendents to a stress test lately.

Cain has managed to keep the focus on students and learning when he paid a visit to the 1st-grade classroom of teacher Katherine Zak, something he’s done more than once. “He goes on the floor or pulls up a chair to listen to a child read an essay,” Zak says. “He’s very student-centered.”

Cain, with a nine-year tenure atop the 17,350-student district, maneuvers just as comfortably when the governing board in his largely conservative community does not buy into his professional recommendations. The board refrained from considering the superintendent’s request in January for a temporary mask mandate during a resurgence of the coronavirus by not even voting on the measure.

Ever discreet and politic, Cain says, “There’s an old saying that schools reflect society. The challenges that districts are experiencing are not isolated to schools, they are everywhere. The key is to lean into the disagreements, but not become disagreeable. We may be done with the pandemic; that does not mean it’s done with us. Keeping calm, actively listening and keeping students at the center of our decisions will be critical for all of us as we continue to move forward.”

That unwavering focus on students probably explains why Cain was named the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year at AASA’s national conference in February. He’s also about to seek a new adventure this summer, having been named the next superintendent of the Rockwood School District, also a St. Louis suburb.

Cain has deftly led the fastest-growing district in Missouri since 2013 — it enrolled just 6,000 students in 2000 — by overseeing the passage of three of four ballot initiatives, totaling $280 million.

“Two years ago, we opened an elementary school, this year a high school and next year a middle school,” says Cain. “We keep projects on time and under budget.”

Cain brought in a demographer to study the district’s growth and needs to explain to the community why expansion was needed. “He has navigated [that] with such humility and grace,” says Wentzville’s school board president, Betsy Bates.

Those qualities have been called upon regularly throughout the pandemic.

“We are a very conservative community,” says Edgar Nelson, principal of Liberty High School. “Right on the heels of COVID, we’ve been dealing with [critical race theory]. Dr. Cain is really so unflappable even when people are screaming and yelling.”

In late January, on a 4-3 vote, the Wentzville board officially removed The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning author, from its high school libraries. Outrage from librarians followed.

Cain soldiers on. “We’re role models for our kids,” he says. “There needs to be context and situational awareness. Keep a steady hand when things are heated and model professionalism and dignity. … Find a way to cool the waters.”

The product of public schools in Milwaukee, Wis., Cain counts plenty of family influence for entering the education field. His mother was a consumer sciences teacher and several aunts and uncles were educators. “It was ever-present,” he says. “It’s a calling.”


CURRENTLY: superintendent, Wentzville School District, Wentzville, Mo.

PREVIOUSLY: associate superintendent for educational services, Shawnee Mission School District, Overland Park, Kan.

AGE: 48

GREATEST INFLUENCE ON CAREER: Mentorship. From being a student to my teaching to engaging in my graduate work to my efforts as an administrator, I have been exceedingly fortunate to encounter people willing to “pay it forward” and invest in me.

BEST PROFESSIONAL DAY: June 2, 2020. We had an April election moved to June due to the pandemic. Our community passed two ballot initiatives — one was a tax levy increase, the first levy approval in 16 years in our district.

BOOKS AT BEDSIDE: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell; and Pearls of Wisdom by Barbara Bush

BIGGEST BLOOPER: A snow day call. We should have released students and staff earlier than we did. The forecast wasn’t accurate, and staff struggled to make it home.

WHY I’M AN AASA MEMBER: Superintendents are as strong as the network they are able to develop. AASA has been critical to my development and maturation. The training, publications, programs and advocacy that AASA provides have simply been invaluable.

Superintendents are as strong as the network they are able to develop. AASA has been critical to my development and maturation. The training, publications, programs and advocacy that AASA provides have simply been invaluable.
Curtis Cain

Superintendent, Wentzville (Mo.) School District

Curtis Cain testimonial