School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?

The Brown Center on Education Policy published this report School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant? in September, 2014.  I read the report with great interest, largely because it’s my fervent intent to leave this world some day having made a significant difference with my life. As a school superintendent, my primary and most important responsibilities are to support and improve our educational program.

As a public school system, our central mission, or reason for being, is to educate the 953 children who reside within the Randolph Central School District. Every part of our operation from finance to cafeteria to bus drivers to support staff to teachers and administrators function because we must educate our children. That includes me.

The report looks at administrative data from the states of Florida and North Carolina for the school years 2000-01 to 2009-10. The researchers examine the following questions:

1. What are the observable characteristics
of superintendents, with a focus on their
length of service?
2. Does student achievement improve when
superintendents serve longer?
3. Do school districts improve when they hire
a new superintendent?
4. What is the contribution of superintendents
to student achievement relative to districts,
schools, and teachers?
5. Are there superintendents whose tenure
is associated with exceptional changes in
student achievement?

At Randolph, we have made tremendous gains in student achievement over the past three years. If someone asks me how we did it, I can answer that question with considerable depth. As the leader of our school district, I have a part in that growth for having worked with all constituencies to set the course, the focus, the financial priorities, and the expectations that our school community has embraced. Absolutely indisputably, I KNOW that no one within the system is more important to the growth of a child in school than the teacher who stands with him every day. I also know that a leadership team can make a considerable difference for that child through their actions and the continuous improvement that we expect of ourselves and every other member of our school community.

The authors at the Brown Center found the following:

1. School district superintendent is largely a
short-term job. The typical superintendent
has been in the job for three to four years.
2. Student achievement does not improve
with longevity of superintendent service
within their districts.
3. Hiring a new superintendent is not
associated with higher student
4. Superintendents account for a small
fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of
student differences in achievement. This
effect, while statistically significant, is orders
of magnitude smaller than that associated
with any other major component of the
education system, including: measured
and unmeasured student characteristics;
teachers; schools; and districts.
5. Individual superintendents who have an
exceptional impact on student achievement
cannot be reliably identified.

When I was first considering a superintendency, my mother said, “I don’t care where you go Kimberly, but pick someplace and stay there or you’ll never make the difference you want to make in the world.” She was right. Further, in this decade, on this day, in our school district, I know I’m making a difference in student achievement through my leadership, my relationships with building level administrators, teachers, students and parents. I’m making that difference not because I’m exceptional but because of the focus of my leadership. As superintendents, we have to include the central mission of our systems in our focus, goals and direct involvement in our instructional programs. Many of my colleagues are doing so every day, right here in Western New York.

I don’t dispute the author’s findings for the time period they studied. The traditional role of the superintendent is changing and no longer can the authors’ conclusion be considered  acceptable for our school systems:

Superintendents may well have impacts on factors
we have not addressed in our study, such as the
financial health of the district, parent and student
satisfaction, and how efficiently tax dollars are
spent. And to be certain, they occupy one of the
American school system’s most complex and
demanding positions. But our results make clear
that, in general, school district superintendents have
very little influence on student achievement in the
districts in which they serve. This is true in absolute
terms, with only a fraction of one percent of the
variance in student achievement accounted for by
differences among superintendents. It is also true in
relative terms, with teachers/classrooms, schools/
principals, and districts having an impact that is
orders of magnitude greater than that associated
with superintendents.

It remains our responsibility to fill all of the more traditional roles, like attending to the financial health and capital projects and bargaining agreements. It is also our most important responsibility to positively impact our instructional programs. Our public school systems are under attack from seemingly innumerable sources. Being a school leader means standing up and saying, “the quality of our education, our expectations for ourselves and our children, our ability to make a difference in the lives of the children we serve–this is our focus, our mission, and our duty.”

NYS Leaders Visiting Randolph Central

On Friday, May 9, 2014, we were honored to host a visit to our classrooms from NYS Chancellor Emeritus Robert M. Bennett and Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz. I first heard Regent Bennett speak many years ago and found him to be a strong advocate for the children of our state, having been instrumental in establishing family resource centers in schools including Frontier where I began my administrative career. In my opinion, there are no finer individuals working for the children of NYS than Mr. Bennett.

Ken Slentz has been a straight talking, fearless leader in our state’s journey to raise expectations for all educators and children. I have found him to be credible, direct and right on the money every time I’ve heard him speak. I am grateful for the bold moves he and Commissioner King have made, however messy they have been in implementation, to move public education forward.

Here’s what I know the work of both Chancellor Emeritus Bennett and Deputy Commissioner Slentz has resulted in at Randolph Central:

The children of Randolph Central School are receiving a more coherent and rigorous education than they ever have before in our schools. The transition and changes teachers have made with curriculum to align to the common core standards have been fast and furious and an incredible amount of work for our teachers, administrators and children. Parents have struggled at times with the new ways in which we’re teaching math. And those changes are resulting in greater understanding of mathematical concepts that will strengthen all students when learning math in high school. Why? Because students are better understanding what the numbers and equations represent, they’re not just memorizing math facts as we did when we were kids (and for students who aren’t good at memorizing? they’re getting it now). Students aren’t just randomly throwing down opinions and sentences when writing; they understand how to back up their statements. We get better at all of this with every passing day. And our student achievement on NYS assessments has risen–which means our kids are meeting greater success at each grade level and that’s just going to keep building on itself.

Any change of this magnitude is going to have some bumps and ripples. But I keep coming back to all of those conversations I’ve had over 25 years of working in public schools with our high school seniors and graduates. Ninety percent of them tell me that they really didn’t have to work all that hard in school. Too many children are failing when they get to college because they can’t handle the work–they aren’t used to it and they aren’t disciplined enough to do it. I want to be proud of the education children receive here at RCS, I want to know that we’ve pushed and challenged and supported every student.

I know parents worry about grades and that we all want our children to do well. But I don’t want a random curriculum that each teacher has to develop for herself based on ill conceived and convoluted NYS standards as we’ve had in the past. I want our brightest kids to be challenged MORE than I want them to be on honor roll.  I want to expect more of myself and of everyone in our system because frankly, I believe that’s how we improve as a community, a state, and a country.

How to Stay Gracefully

When I took the job of superintendent at Randolph Central in October of 2008, no one thought I would stay here for the rest of my career, including me. My family had bets on it and I heard far too many times in those first years “but what happens when you’re gone?” When opportunity comes knocking, it’s hard to ignore. My mother’s words to me when I first considered if I should stay at Gowanda or apply at Randolph have never left me. She said, “Kimberly, you just have to pick a place and stay there or you’re never going to make the difference that you want to make.”

I’ve since watched school districts open and fill that I would have loved to apply to: Silver Creek and Jamestown, now Frontier and Hamburg, soon my home district of Gowanda. It’s wonderful to talk with someone who’s asking if I’ll consider applying. Boosts my ego a bit and all. My reply remains, “thank you for thinking of me but I’m committed to Randolph. The Board of Education makes a commitment to me every July when they extend my contract for another year. I can’t walk away from them, from my colleagues, or from the goals and the success that we’re realizing.”

The struggle I often have now is that my fourteen years of experience as an administrator, including what I’ve learned here as the superintendent, leave me thinking, “But I know what to do there to make things better!” I stay here because I believe in what we’re doing, in the teams that we’ve worked hard to develop and in our ability to change the world–or this little piece of it called Randolph Central School District. Sounds corny? But it’s true. Most significant to me personally, is that I get to be the kind of superintendent here that I want to be, one who knows our students and teachers and community members. Where else could I have students who want to come in and have lunch with me or talk to me about their problems or visit with me at athletic events?

I read an article yesterday by a veteran superintendent, When and How to Leave Gracefully. The author Art Stellar says,

While typically lacking such public revelations, every superintendent moves on professionally at some point, whether by personal choice or someone else’s. Superintendents are, more often than not, short-term hired hands, migratory workers on a professional level.

I understand that the author’s message is largely about recognizing when it’s time to move on and how to do so well. But his article made me want to write this post, How to Stay Gracefully.  If leading for significant, long lasting school improvement results from building relationships based on trust and mutual respect–then how does that happen when administrators are moving from district to district? According to a recent article in the Buffalo News, search consultant Vincent Coppola indicates there are about ten superintendent openings in NY now and projects another ten openings in January. I suggest that there are ways to stop this trend.

We need stability and commitment in school leadership. I’m not criticizing anyone for pursuing opportunities, I’m suggesting that staying the course is good for a District and for the superintendent. Just like in a marriage worth it’s salt, there are ups and downs–good days and bad. We employ honesty and listening skills and belief in the best intentions of the other person to get through it. Those are the same things we must use as leadership teams, BOE members and School Administrators, to stay the course together for the good of our schools and communities. Because you know what? Just like in a marriage, it’s unlikely that there’s someone or someplace better out there—you just haven’t had the time to figure out the faults or weaknesses of that other superintendent or school district yet.

How do we make a long term superintendency successful? Well for one thing, let’s talk about money. I know, no one who’s making the money wants to talk about it. But honesty and transparency are part of the gig as a public school administrator. Boards have to determine what their goals are–do you want to boast that you have the lowest paid administrators in three counties? Or do you want to secure a superintendent at a competitive salary so that she doesn’t have to pay attention to every opening in every neighboring district? Our School BOE did just that, without my request, three years ago. And while my good intentions, my mother’s words, and my plan to make a difference influence my thinking to stay here–let’s be honest. I would be considering other positions if I knew I would make much more money elsewhere–that’s what most people would do given the opportunity in any field.

Remember too that a superintendent is not awarded tenure and is accountable to the School Board, the community, the faculty and staff and the students on a daily basis–Districts aren’t tied to a superintendent who isn’t doing the job by a lengthy dismissal process. BUT, communities should view it as a long term commitment and once you realize you have someone who’s communicating with you honestly and listening to your elected School BOE while making good decisions for the District, you should pay a competitive salary to keep that person. The work of a school superintendent isn’t going to change drastically from one school to another.

Please talk openly and honestly with us about our shortcomings. I watched someone lose her job in my first year as an administrator, seemingly without warning, and I thought then, “that needs to never be me!” I need to be aware, to listen, and to improve my performance continually. As a school BOE don’t leave us to wonder what you’re unhappy with or where we’re falling short. Give us the opportunity to improve. Communication, honesty, commitment and relationships? Sounds much better than a revolving door of rookie administrators.

Respectful Discourse

I’ve been writing here since 2006 with a genuine interest in better communicating with our school community and also to provide a space where people within our school community can share their thinking with me. Oftentimes, I will receive a comment that the writer asks I not share publicly or a separate email in which the writer wants to keep his or her thoughts between us. I write and read because I want to be a better superintendent. If I ever reach the point when I’m working in an echo chamber, I will need to retire. The absolute worst leader I could be is someone who believes solely in her own ideas and decisions without considering the ideas of others within our organization and community.

I also learn from asking questions and believe wholeheartedly that we’re better together than we are alone. Collectively, our teams learn from one another, offer different points of view and make better decisions–if we listen to one another first.

This weekend, I received four comments from people beyond our school community that I haven’t yet posted to the blog. Over the past seven years of writing, I can count one or two times that I haven’t posted a comment and that was only because the comment was in some way laced with profanity or unjustly injurious to someone within the organization.

Why am I hesitating to post these comments? Well, read these excerpts of the comments to get a better idea of what exactly the comments are about, all left in response to this post.

Reader #1 writes:

I am thankfully not in your district, but I am appalled at your response. To consider a child who is abiding by parent’s wishes as insubordinate in regards to testing where there IS a refusal option, (Source: New York State Student Information Repository System (SIRS) Manual, pg 64). There is no given grade, no consequences for the child, or harm against the school, seems to really be pushing the extreme of the definition of insubordination. (Source: New York State Student Information Repository System (SIRS) Manual, page 64 and 8.) Don’t blame NYSED for this. This is strictly under your district. NYSED leaves it to districts to determine what, if any action should be taken in the event students are not tested.

I suppose that is what I find most troubling about your post, you are offering regulations provided by NSED, but not disclosing them fully or presenting the whole picture to the parents. I’m not sure what you expect parents to do regarding testing they deem harmful to their children? Sit back and just take it?

How is it you claim to want to work with parents, yet your post clearly states what it is believed parents cannot do, rather than what they can do?

Reader #2 writes:

Sometimes, standing up for what you believe in puts you in a difficult position. This is quite true. Some would say a student who refuses the test is “insubordinate”. I would say s/he is practicing civil disobedience to make a point that continues to fall on deaf ears!

Your post sounds like a warning to parents not to challenge YOUR authority. Many districts have been able to work WITH parents in a reasonable way. Apparently, under your guidance, your schools won’t.

Be a leader! Do you really believe the common core and the Pearson assessments represent quality education?

Shame on you!

Reader #3 writes:

Parents may not have a legal right to dictate what schools teach, but we sure as heck have the right to voice our displeasure when we see all of the crap that CC is forcing on our kids. We’re the ones who see first hand the negative effects on our kids. We’re the ones watching our child’s future getting bleaker and bleaker because we have politicians and special interest groups falling all over themselves to experiment and profit off of the games they’re playing with education in this country! When we see English class being turns into a political science experiment meant to brainwash our kids into the current political regime way of thinking, when we see the blatant disregard for the US Constitution and the laws of our country perpetrated by our politicians and educational leaders – we sure as hell have the right to fight back! YOU as educators and administrators do not have the right to bully kids and parents who disagree with you, to outright lie to them about what they can and can’t do. Giving a child multiple detentions when they’re exercising their right to refuse a test is just plain wrong! And they CAN refuse those state tests, kids all over the country are doing it. Why else would the codes and instructions for how to handle refusals be built into the testing instructions? And leaving a special needs child unattended in a hallway because they won’t participate in a benchmark test? Unconscionable!! And the teacher making disparaging remarks to that same child? Inexcusable!! YOU are the ones who should be vastly ashamed of your actions!

What bothers me about the comments left by Readers #1-3 is that it seems that they didn’t even read my original post closely. That’s why I commented on my own post to clarify—this is about a child being instructed to “opt out” on an almost daily basis during the regular school day. Refusing academic intervention services when we know the child needs help or in the case of a special needs child who is refusing to take the regular progress monitoring testing the teacher needs to make good instructional decision making. This wasn’t about the NYS K-8 assessments—I know the points being made about refusal of the NYS tests—but do the writers know that my response to opting out of regular instruction and testing comes straight from education law? I’m not writing this to use my authority or to intimidate. I’m writing to help explain why we have to respond to what becomes a daily distraction–a child refusing to do what the teacher asks.  And what teacher is making disparaging remarks to a child as Reader #3 writes? I’m lost by how much is inferred from one post.  

Did they even read my post? Or are they using this blog to further their own agenda? I’m glad people are fighting for what they believe in—I believe the discourse on common core AND APPR AND SLOs (because much of what’s being named common core, isn’t) is  good—but it is also laden with much bad information, emotion, talk of political agendas and attitudes that remind me of those espoused by religious zealots.

There’s room in the conversation for more than one point of view but the only way we will learn from each other is through a respectful analysis of the ideas.

What bothers me next is the apparent need for writers to attack me without even knowing me, our District, our practices, my character or what we stand for—who are basing their ideas on about 1000 words printed to add another voice to the discussions our community members may be reading in the popular press or frankly, on Facebook.  This is most apparent in the last comment that follows here.

Reader #4 writes:

Kim, Kim, Kim, … Parents Do have a right to refuse this corporate schlock you feel obliged to defend. We didn’t ask for it and neither did the teachers. Neither did you if you can be honest about it. But some very wealthy people tucked a few key politicians into their pockets and set about declaring an emergency in American education that they just happened to have the cure for, at a price. Well the price is steep, it’s costing us billions but the real price is it’s robbing our kids of a chance to love learning. It’s causing our kids to hate school and hate themselves. How many more Administrators are going to stand up to this and call it out for the child abuse it is. How many more blog posts do you have in your file before you realize you are on the wrong side of education, the wrong side of kids, the wrong side of history and ultimately, the wrong side of right and wrong. Trying to keep a job that asks you to defend child abuse must be a lonely futile endeavor. Any time you’re ready to stand up for kids and education we will welcome you into the light. Until then you deserve no support and even less respect. P.s. i know you won’t allow this through so I posted it on FB. Cheers!

What purpose is served by patronizing me from the very beginning and using my first name as if this man even knows me at all? And then calling me out about posting his comment? An argument is so much more powerful if made intellectually rather than emotionally. And why is it necessary to call my character into question to make the point? Is the only way that side of the argument holds true is by calling me personally into question?

I won’t use this blog post to defend my own character. That will only incite further comments placing me forever on the defensive. And frankly this reminds me of that person we all know who isn’t really listening to us in the first place but is instead just waiting for us to shut up so that he can voice his own opinion louder or more vehemently or by attacking us for disagreeing. I realize that in responding to the comments I may elicit more comments from them–some would advise me not to acknowledge the comments at all–but I have read about and thought about the ideas presented by these readers and considered our own practices more than the four readers can know from a blog. I cannot solve the national or state debate nor do I honestly have the time and mental energy to engage in an endless back and forth about this—with those outside of our school community. I trust that our own school community knows this about me and feels welcome to come in and meet with me or ask me to a meeting or to attend one of our community forums which include “Clarifying the Common Core”. Or talk to our teachers and principals, don’t just take it from me. As always, we want to be the very best we can be for our 1000 students and that includes teaching to the common core standards, which can be found here.

There are many sides to the changes in education today. Some needed and some not, and I’m guessing what’s which varies depending on who’s talking. What I can speak to is our district, our experiences, and our future. Much good is coming of all of us working together toward common standards and goals—in particular a clearer path for all children through our school that will lead to greater success as we make good instructional decisions for all.

What Are The Most Important “First Steps” A New Superintendent Should Take?

Here’s another question from the NYS Superintendent Development Program. Anyone else out there want to add a few bits of advice for our new colleagues?

What are the most important “first-steps” a superintendent should take in a new district? First position?

Is it enough for me to just say “shut up and listen”? That’s largely what I would recommend. Okay, don’t shut up but instead use the time in the conversation when you’re talking to ask good questions. This is a time to learn as much about the organization as possible. Try hard to check your assumptions at the door, to listen to EVERYONE not just those who clamor to put their words in your ear first. Keep your door open and take time for anyone willing to walk through it.

Everyone will tell you that the first steps you take should be to build relationships with people. Getting to know everyone in the organization is important, most especially your BOE members, Admin Team and union leadership. Again, listen and learn. Every organization is unique and if you’re going to lead effectively, you’ve got to give and earn respect. That comes only one way that I know and that’s by telling the truth and following through on your word. Do both consistently. 

Work hard to shut up about two things. 1. Your previous school. Saying “at ___________ District” may be your point of reference but it doesn’t get you far with those in your new district. 2. Your judgment of the previous superintendent. It’s not helpful to pass judgment on the decisions made before you were there. You’re just like everyone else who’s Monday morning quarterbacking her decisions–you weren’t there, you don’t have all of the information she did and you aren’t qualified to second guess her.

Learn the detail of the job by asking questions. Take care of yourself along the way. Don’t neglect your health, your fitness or your family.

How Do You Enjoy A Private Life While Working As A School Administrator?

Today I continue the series of blog posts started last week in response to questions posed by students in the Superintendent Development Program.

How do you still enjoy your personal life outside of school, given that you are living in such a “fishbowl” environment? 

I’ve definitely had times in my 13 year administrative career when I didn’t do a very good job of balancing private and professional life. The first year in a new position, for example, can be disastrous personally. In my first year as superintendent, I was grinding my teeth so badly that the dentist ordered a nighttime mouth guard. Then I realized I was actually grinding them during the day, as I worked hard NOT to say or show what I was thinking all of the time. Let’s just say I’ll never be a good poker player so this is something I continue to work on every day. However now I manage it minus the teeth grinding. And my weight’s been up and down so many times that my brother’s called me Oprah.

Enjoying a personal life means working hard every day and then shutting it off when you get home. When we conducted the interview that led to these blog posts, we did so via Skype. Why? I declined the request to meet with the participants at their location. It isn’t that I didn’t want to talk with them but more that I didn’t want to give up another entire evening. By doing the interview via Skype, I was able to go home from school and get in an hour of yoga before the interview. I put taking care of myself first and saved myself another evening of arriving home at 9:00 and eating an unhealthy meal. I’m better the next day at work when I’ve taken the time to exercise, eat well and decompress the night before.

I attend games and concerts but seldom will you see me staying until the very end. It’s not that I don’t care how the game turns out, of course I do. It’s that I know tomorrow will bring it’s own set of challenges and that I need a good night’s sleep to be my best. I’m seldom up after 9:00 on a school night–I make getting a good night’s rest a priority. If someone at the game or concert is bothered by the fact that I left before it ended, I can’t control how they feel. I’m the only one who knows the demands of my job and being my best during the day serves the District better than sitting on my butt on the bleachers until the very end of every athletic contest.

Regarding the fishbowl environment, that’s particularly a problem when the administrator lives in the district. I’ve done it both ways. We live in Gowanda and when I was the Gowanda HS Principal it was much harder to go home and relax. I was ALWAYS the principal. At family gatherings, if everyone was complaining about something with school, it bothered me. I felt it was my responsibility to fix everything and so there I was, at a family birthday party, thinking about school. If I saw students hanging out on the corner late on a Friday night, I worried about them. I couldn’t jump in the car in my sweats and run down for an ice cream with my husband at 7:30 because the community saw me as the principal, at all times. Now when we want to run to Red’s for a cone, I’m just Kim–I can go without my makeup in my pajama pants if I want to. I like that much better. I still spend a lot of time here in Randolph, at work and buying my groceries and gas, our daughter lives in the District and we’ve just gotten a place at the Marina in Onoville. But when I go home, I’m just Kim. My advice to new administrators is to figure out what you most need to be mentally and physically healthy and prioritize so that those things become non-negotiable for you.

How Do You Change BOE Operations?

Another Superintendent Development Program Question #4:

How do you focus a board of education on instruction rather than managerial tasks? How do you change board operations?

I can only really speak to this in one school district, Randolph, but I realize that Boards of Education may vary greatly from one community to the next. In my experience over the past five years, I’ve found that getting to know and understand our BOE members are important. In my experience, BOE members are well meaning, caring community members who want to make a difference. Each member brings a unique background and often each is keenly focused on a different aspect of school operations.

I think about our meetings and plan for them in much the same way a teacher plans for a class. Because I’m anticipating their questions based on their interests, I come prepared. For example, I have a few BOE members who want to see the data, the comparison, and the deep analysis. I’d be foolish to present an idea without that, wouldn’t I? Likewise I have a BOE member who will always ask the cost and want to know that I’ve researched all other options first. We have BOE members who are deeply interested when we do a presentation on the details of our curriculum, others who love to hear about our student successes in and out of the classroom, and those who analyze the budget detail each month. They all play an important role in governing our school district with me. I learn from them, I’m a better superintendent because of them, and I work hard at my relationship with each of them. Much as I do with the other members of our school community.

Having said all of this about BOE relationships, I also acknowledge the important role I have in focusing the BOE members on the big ideas in education. In setting the agenda with the BOE President, we work hard to make sure BOE members are well informed on the hot issues in education and we include background information on important decisions IN ADVANCE, giving them time to think and to discuss before placing a motion on the agenda. I suppose if we didn’t bring important topics to them, they may be left to focus on the latest complaint heard at the grocery store. Their expectations for me and for the entire school district are much higher than that and we seem to have no difficulty focusing on what’s important in education (realizing that they do tell me about the complaints in the grocery store and then they trust us to do our jobs and take care of it).

As far as how we change BOE operations, the BOE largely “polices” itself.  If we’re discussing an issue that’s a building level management problem, someone is sure to speak up and remind the others of their main responsibilities: fiscal, curricular and policy. When I arrived here the BOE was very involved in the entire hiring process to a level I wasn’t accustomed to. I asked Lynda Quick, our BOCES Assistant DS, to come in and facilitate a conversation during a BOE Retreat on goal setting and how they wanted to function as a Board. At one point Lynda asked, “Who hires teachers?” One BOE member replied, “We do.” Lynda helped clarify for the BOE that the superintendent is their primary employee and it’s my responsibility to hire everyone else. We streamlined the process and now one or two BOE members serve on the final hiring committee with me. They trust me to do my job and take me to task if I don’t.

That thinking about hiring was something that evolved over time. They were well intended but misinformed. As I’ve written in other posts in this series, nothing beats an honest, straightforward, respectful conversation. They can expect that from me and I get the same from them. Similar to my relationships with other constituencies within our school community, BOE members want to know where they stand, they want to be a part of the conversation and decision making, and they don’t like to be surprised. That’s reasonable!

How Do You Uncover Organizational Dysfunction?

Question #3 from the Superintendent Development Program

What strategies have you used to uncover dysfunctions in an organization? What actions have you taken to address the issue and move the district forward, gaining the critical mass needed to make a change happen?

Dysfunction isn’t hard to spot. One word of caution is to enter an organization carefully and with great patience. Those who seek you out immediately may not be the key players within the organization. Previously I was in a position in which two teachers in particular stopped to see me OFTEN in my first weeks. They had a close relationship with my predecessor. Those two teachers both ended up leaving the organization while I was a leader there. One embezzled money from the extracurricular accounts and the other had multiple issues for which we had several serious conversations. The point is not that you need to be suspicious of those who reach out to you upon arrival but that you should be somewhat guarded until you have the time to get to know all of your employees. Had I allowed myself to appear aligned with those two teachers, I would have lost the respect of the many good employees I later got to know well.

I always think of what Janeil Rey said in my admin program at SUNY Fredonia. You’ve got to decide who you want to be angry with you, the good teachers or the bad teachers. If you’re not doing anything about the bad teachers, the good teachers are angry. I guarantee those who are in the organization know what the dysfunctions are and they are waiting and watching to see if you’re finally the leader who will recognize the truth and do something about it.

As far as gaining the critical mass needed to make change happen, my experience has proven that there are far more dedicated, well meaning, quiet and excellent employees in any school than there are bad. It’s just that the difficult employees are usually the loudest, most confrontational OR charismatic as in the case of the teacher who was skilled at gaining trust that led to embezzlement. Good employees often just want to keep their heads down, do their work and stay away from those they know are doing wrong. It’s our job as the leaders to do the right thing, the often difficult and courageous thing, and speak up to make a difference. 

“Not on MY watch” is a good motto to live by as a leader working to make a significant difference.


What’s been your greatest challenge since becoming a superintendent?

Last evening I had the great pleasure of participating in an interview with the 2013 Cohort of the NYS Superintendent Development Program, conducted through SUNY Oswego.  This was the Cattaraugus-Allegany-Erie Cohort and included administrators in districts around here. The team asked some great questions and I ended the interview wondering if my answers were at all similar to those of my colleagues who may have been interviewed previously.

I’m thinking it could be interesting and useful to new administrators (and to me) if I do a series of blog posts based on the  Cohort questions. I’ll post each question and give my answer,  and then I  invite conversation about my answer or tell us how YOU would answer the question. I would love to read how my fellow administrators from across the country think  and also how our school community feels about the questions and the superintendency. In other words, how would you like your superintendent to think about each question? Hopefully I’ll be on the mark but if not I can learn from your thinking—I can improve and do a better job for the RCS community.

So here’s the first one.

What has been your greatest challenge since becoming a Superintendent? Have you found the position to be what you expected?

My greatest challenge has been to always make the best decisions for our school, our students and families, and our taxpayers. As hard as I may try it’s always a challenge to get it all right. I really want our District to be the best that it can be for the future success of our students, for our employees and for our community as a whole. Wanting it doesn’t make it happen. The challenge is sometimes knowing which course is best in any decision and often knowing that someone will be upset with the outcome. It’s knowing that I’ve considered all of the information at hand–often times information others don’t have–and made the best decision for the District. That’s my responsibility and really no one else’s but the business official and the Board of Education.

What do I mean? Well, everyone has his or her own point of view, perspective, opinion. It’s based on the role that the person has within the organization–teacher or parent or student  or support staff employee–and the personal experiences of that person. I often can’t share all of the information that leads to a decision and can be the only one with all of the pieces of the puzzle. So my challenge is in building trust and making the best decisions possible so that members of our school community can have faith in me even when they only see the edges of the puzzle or problem I’m trying to solve. The only way I know how to build that trust is by always telling the truth, sharing what I can, and having the  best interest of the District in mind— which can sometimes be in conflict with the interest of an individual. The only way I know how to make the best decisions is by considering every angle, soliciting input from others, analyzing and then having the courage to make the decision, no matter how hard.

And the second part of that question: asking if I’ve found the position to be what I expected? I say 95% of it, yes. Having worked in other districts for some incredible leaders, I learned from some of the very best–mentors like Cindy Miner, Deb Ormsby, Kerry Courtney, Elizabeth Bradley, Janeil Rey. My time learning from Charles Rinaldi, Supt. at Gowanda Central, especially about school finance, was invaluable. The 5% I didn’t expect? All of the time I spend listening to the school attorneys!

I hope to hear from you–Question #2 tomorrow.

Working Together as a Community Has as Much Impact as Opting Out

I love a good conversation about education! Last evening I had the wonderful opportunity to have such a conversation with the parents of two of our elementary students. They met with me to talk about their concerns about education and the direction the New York State Education Department is headed. I hope they enjoyed the conversation half as much as I did–even though it lasted for two solid hours and I’m sure they had the bedtimes of their children to worry about when they left here at 9:00!

What did we talk about? If I had to summarize that conversation, in which this mom and dad offered countless astute observations about the education of their girls, I’d say it was about the impact of state testing and the common core curriculum on their children. They talked about the anxiety, the frustration, and the tears associated with school this year.

This young couple spoke of the loss of family time as their daughter spends three hours per night on homework, often on our new Math curriculum and the difficulty in solving problems as it’s done with the common core. Three hours of homework for 8-12 year old children? That’s ridiculous. No elementary child should have more than 20-30 minutes of homework total. You tell me as an adult if you want to come home from work and then work for another couple of hours?

These caring, dedicated parents wondered why their children are in front of a computer so much, why they don’t know things that we learned in school like state and local history and geography. Why are so few papers their children bring home  focused on social studies or science? When do they get to do projects in school like the one created for the academic fair that their daughter was so excited about? And why is their child so worried about her performance on a state test, to the point that she’s afraid it’s going to affect the rest of her life because she was told it will be on her permanent record?

What’s my answer? Public education has changed dramatically in the past two years. I’ve said many times that this has been the most stressful, rapidly changing time in my career. The impact has seemingly hit us in waves. The first wave was my own, as I studied the changes and began to plan implementation three years ago. Next were the administrative team and the teachers who were involved in studying the APPR regulations with me and making decisions about our plan. Also affected last year were those incredible teachers of Math and ELA in grades 3-8. And last summer and this school year it affected the rest of our teachers as they came to better understand the portfolio reviews and the pre and post assessments in every subject and the changes to the curriculum.

But now the wave of anxiety is affecting our children. That’s our fault. It’s not okay for us to increase the level of anxiety in the children we are charged with educating and caring for to the point where they no longer want to come to school. ADULT employees must seamlessly handle the stress of a changing work environment without impacting children. The students take their cues from us. Our message must be, “We have worked hard all year and prepared for these tests. We’ve got this. I’m confident you will do your best!” That’s it. No threats, no coercion, no panic mode teachers. We are adults, we’re paid to handle the stress of change; the students are our responsibility not our partners in panic.

Think about the ugliest of divorced couples with kids. They use coercion and bribes, over-share information, malign the other parent and HURT their own children in the process. We cannot be like those parents as educators. We must be like those parents who do their best to protect their children from their own pain and anxiety.

And about those other questions? When is the time for social studies and science and creativity and joy in learning? I honestly don’t know. The best I can do is promise our entire school community that we will continue to work hard, to support our teachers and to figure it all out together. I don’t have all of the answers. I’m frustrated too. I know there are some good things to come from all of the State Ed changes. We did need to improve our instruction in Math as a school district so that our students really know their math facts and how to solve problems. Our students will be better at reading, writing, and discussing–they’ll be better at citing their sources and have more extensive vocabularies.

What I don’t know is how we’re going to meet the new challenges while maintaining all of the rich, wonderful things we’ve always done with our students. I can’t figure that out alone–I need our teachers doing that with us. As we master this new curriculum we will get better at bringing in all of those good things we’ve always done. These are tough transitional years, let’s do everything we can so that it’s not tough on the children we’re charged with teaching. And no, I still don’t think the answer is for our parents to opt their children out of state testing. But I will respect and support parents who decide that’s the answer for their families.

Just think of the impact those two young parents have already had on our educational community by meeting with me and asking questions and thinking deeply about the education of their children. Our faculty and our admin team are talking about these issues and will continue to focus on a balanced approach to our education for Randolph children. We have incredible educators, parents and children—if anyone can do all of this it’s Randolph Central. I’m in it for the long haul, I’ll stand with you, I’ll listen and I’ll work with you to make it better.