Superintendents on a Courageous Journey

Via three-year cohorts, Michigan’s novel mid-career training builds shared practice and personal growth by Patricia L. Reeves


he sun is setting low over Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, where more than 500 superintendents and first-line assistants are dispersing for relaxed dinners at area restaurants hosted by conference sponsors. For many, it represents the first weeknight in months when they will not be on the job. Just freeing up time to attend their annual state conference took Herculean effort. Now they can relax with peers, talk a little shop and maybe converse lightly about conference sessions they attended that day or about other interests.

CJfacultyteam.jpgThe Courageous Journey faculty team gathered at a recent conference of the Michigan Association of School Administrators

At the same time, another hundred of their colleagues are missing. They will not be joining their friends this evening. Their day at the conference continues with professional learning that includes dialogue over dinner with that day’s keynote speaker and other seminar presenters. These superintendents won’t be putting aside the work tonight. Rather, they will delve deeper to examine a topic begun with that day’s principal address. They will be linking what they are learning with the work they are doing in their respective communities. Together, they are honing their shared practice.

These superintendents are part of the Courageous Journey, a unique mid-career professional development program run by the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

Raising Stakes
Chat with any superintendent for even five minutes, and you realize there are not enough hours to address everything the job puts on the plate. The 24/7 reality competes with attempts to maintain a healthy personal life. An evening of respite during the annual state conference can be a gift — so why would these superintendents relinquish that time to participate in a program that asks them to both do the job and document their work in the job? Who would bet that superintendents would sign up for another layer of accountability — creating portfolios of their best work, tracking their personal growth as superintendents, documenting systemic change initiatives and compiling evidence of impact?

The Michigan Association of School Administrators made that bet, and in 2006 the state association launched a professional credentialing program for superintendents based on a vision created by a task force of education, legislative and business leaders convened to rethink credentialing for superintendents. What emerged was a concept called the Courageous Journey™. MASA worked with other professional associations serving school leaders, higher education and the state education agency to rethink and reinstate administrator certification in Michigan.

The new Michigan certification statute allows school leaders to earn basic, specialty and enhanced credentials through state-approved higher education and professional association programs. With three levels of credentialing options, the new credentialing system provides leaders with a career-long continuum of growth.

PatReeves.jpgPatricia Reeves, associate executive of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, oversees the Courageous Journey program.

These new provisions authorized Courageous Journey as a first-of-its-kind, professional credentialing program and a new home for creating shared practice in school district leadership.

Courageous Journey began with 18 pioneering superintendents. Each January a new cohort of practicing superintendents has followed their lead. At present, 80 superintendents have embarked on their own journey, while 30 aspiring superintendents are following in their footsteps.

Choosing the Journey
Bill Skilling attends state conferences and regional meetings, he says, to “learn as much as I can and find good ideas for my district.” Now in his second superintendency, Skilling is a focused leader who pushes the envelope of change and growth for himself and his school district, the Oxford Community Schools. He looks for value, coherence and alignment when he invests his time or district resources, and he does not let himself get distracted by trendy initiatives.

Closer to Detroit, Sue Zurvalec took the helm of a large and diverse district four years ago after serving as deputy. She knows the Farmington Public School District well and is absolutely committed to erasing achievement gaps in a community where students represent a full range of racial, ethnic and linguistic minorities.

My Personal Journey by STORM LAIRSON

The Courageous Journey was, for me, more than an official state endorsement for the professional position I hold as a district superintendent. It was a personal journey that gave me far more than I can illustrate in my final exhibition to earn my performance-based specialty superintendent endorsement.

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Zurvalec believes her strength as a leader is tied to her ability to engage, motivate and mobilize. To that end, she is ever on the lookout for ways to grow the people in her district while she continues to grow herself.

Several of Skilling’s and Zurvalec’s peers in the Courageous Journey have decades of experience in the superintend-ency. Others have much shorter tenures. Some came from nontraditional backgrounds. Some are looking for a capstone experience, and others just want to grow fully into the job. A few have experienced a crash and burn, while others have enjoyed a more even-keeled situation. What they all have in common is a deep appreciation of what it means to serve as leaders of organizations with a core mission of educating children.

Like Pete Everson, five Courageous Journey participants serve as superintendents of intermediate districts or education service agencies.

Permeating the Culture of a State Association by Pat Reeves

In the four years since Courageous Journey was launched, the impact has permeated the Michigan Association of School Administrators. Already, 16 of 47 council and executive board members have joined a cohort.

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The local districts they serve represent Michigan’s wide diversity, and these superintendents believe their role is to help member districts create schools that work for all students.

Three years ago, Everson enlisted local superintendents and boards in a vision. Together they could achieve better results for students by sharing the work and creating shared systems to support the work. “Now the vision is the usual,” says the superintendent of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District in Sault Ste. Marie. “Our work together is all about empowering teachers and fostering leadership.”

Courageous Journey superintendents are busy leaders immersed in the demands of their jobs. Like most public school leaders, not one has the luxury of being casual about how he or she invests time. All share a sincere interest in getting better at what they do, and because they share this goal, they join other superintendents across Michigan to do just that.

Growing Jointly
The Courageous Journey brings together superintendents from districts of varying size, resources, geography and demographics. The intensive credentialing experience lasts three years and leads to a voluntary specialty (performance based) or enhanced (impact based) endorsement in the superintendency.

These administrator endorsements are part of Michigan’s three-tiered credentialing system, which recognizes both higher education basic credentialing programs and professional association specialty/enhanced credentialing programs. Each of these programs must be approved by the Michigan Department of Education in line with state standards.

Now in its fourth year, with four cohort groups of superintendents and two groups of aspiring superintendents, Courageous Journey is home base for building shared practice in the superintendency through the endorsement programs. The Michigan principals associations and the Michigan Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development offer complementary specialty and enhanced endorsement programs for principals and directors of curriculum and instruction. There is even a specialty endorsement for school leaders to become adept at using the Michigan School Improvement Framework to guide local improvement work.

Shared Practice
At first glance, Courageous Journey superintendents may appear to have little in common. In many cases, these people would naturally connect in only the most casual ways due to geographical distance and differences that preclude deeper associations. Through their shared experience in the program, however, these district leaders often become highly connected to one another while they challenge themselves as school system leaders, grow their capacity and improve outcomes in their districts.

Diversity among members of each Courageous Journey cohort has been part of the secret of its success. Inside the safety of their sessions or conversations on a protected blog, superintendents such as Geoff Balkham and Stephanie Burrage, who serve small rural districts, can discuss common problems. Balkham’s district, in Climax-Scotts, Mich., is predominantly white, and Burrage’s, in Covert, Mich., is predominantly African American. Both recognize the importance of broadening their students’ horizons, and both believe small districts can and must prepare students to thrive in a global context.

Marsha Wells serves a large suburban district in Portage with a long tradition of academic excellence, and Carole Schmidt recently transitioned to an urban district in Benton Harbor struggling to improve student achievement and graduation rates. These two superintendents are connected by their passion for what happens in the classroom. Each is committed to the principles of Courageous Journey — transformational leadership, personal growth, systemic change, broad-based engagement and data-informed decisions — but each must apply those principles in disparate ways.

Several Courageous Journey members, including Norm Taylor of Northview and Ben Laser of Pennfield, have transitioned to new school districts during their three-year participation. They used the Courageous Journey process to reflect on what they learned about the work in one district to apply the best of that work in new locales. Regardless of career transitions, the majority will complete their endorsements. The few who stepped out for awhile (or stopped entirely) did so with high praise for the Courageous Journey experience even though it was not the right time for them to complete the process.

Participants stretch each other through reflective practice, systems thinking, transformational processes and evidence-based decision making. “That becomes ingrained in you, like a voice inside your head,” says William DeFrance, who is in his fourth year as superintendent in Eaton Rapids. “It is now part of who I am as a leader.”

Storm Lairson offers another perspective. “Whether I do the journey perfectly does not matter. The fact that I did it makes all the difference,” says the fourth-year superintendent in Reese. “CJ (Courageous Journey) makes you reflect on who you are, where you come from and what you believe. It makes you confront the things you are afraid of. When you open up this way, you really tap those places in yourself that define you as a leader. I learned how to step outside myself, learn from others, lead with empathy, reveal my own weaknesses and appreciate the chance to struggle together around common challenges.”

Skilling, superintendent in Oxford, Mich., says Courageous Journey forced him to reflect on the reasons for his decisions as a district leader. Learning how to shape systemic change “allowed [me] to connect new knowledge and information to important district issues.” As a result, he adds, “I learned how to observe change in the environment and know what to do about it in leading the district.”

Skilling honed his leadership skills through “reflection, intentional planning, informed decisions and careful documentation. … The documentation is not just about being accountable to the endorsement requirements; it is about being more intentional and focused in the work.”

Zurvalec, who will complete her three-year involvement in January 2010, sees demonstrable value in her investment. “If I had not had the CJ experience when I did, our district would not be this far along closing achievement gaps,” she says.

Fresh from a series of dialogues with teachers in her district, Zurvalec was energized. “Because I now have a deeper understanding of how to move change through the system … I can host this kind of conversation in my district and know that good things will come of it for students.”

Shared leadership and systems thinking were essential building blocks that, she adds, “helped me grow capacity to change outcomes for students [and] move the district in the direction we need to go.”

A Cultural Shift
While the examples and the words may differ, each of the Courageous Journey superintendents talks consistently about three things: becoming more intentional in their work, discovering new capacity in themselves and others, and tracking the impact of their decisions.

Dave Peden, a superintendent for eight years in Southgate, has especially appreciated the straight talk. “I thought I had learned all there is to know about this job,” he says. “Being part of CJ made me rethink that. I found plenty of ways I and the district could be better.” As former MASA presidents, Len Rezmierski of Northville and Rod Green of East China found Courageous Journey a natural extension of their collaboration with peers through their state association. Rezmierski calls it “another way to give back while learning from peers.”

Three years after the program’s launch, results are showing up in school districts. High school students in Don Myer’s district of Vestaburg, Mich., are taking on globally competitive coursework not previously available in their small rural school. Ninth-grade failures are down sharply in the districts led by Bill DeFrance and Dave Peden. Math performance is on the rise in Marsha Wells’ former district of Grand Ledge, while special education referrals are on a steep decline in Northville and Rochester where Len Rezmierski and Dave Pruneau serve, respectively.

In Newago County, Mich., where more than 50 percent of students qualify for free/reduced lunch, Lori Clark, superintendent of the intermediate service agency, used data and evidence-based ideas to enlist local districts to reject student failure as an option. This has led to new grading practices, new investments from the community and new ideas about alternative education.

“This is where we go to get serious about doing the right work,” says Jerry Jennings, assistant director of Courageous Journey, “so that all students will thrive as learners in our schools.”

Patricia Reeves, a former superintendent, is associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators in Lansing, Mich., and assistant professor of educational leadership, research and technology at Western Michigan University. E-mail: preeves@gomasa.org