As school districts have made improvements to teaching and learning, and raised student achievement in the process, reform-minded superintendents have usually led the way. When they move on, they leave a legacy of programs and policies that have worked. That’s just where finding the next superintendent can get tricky.
Should the job description for a successor insist on keeping the methods that led to the district’s gains? Are there particular programs and approaches that simply have to continue? What kind of school improvement agenda can the next superintendent bring apart from what’s been done so far, and what kind of room is there for new ideas?
Those are just some of the questions that the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools and Hartford (Conn.) Public Schools wrestled with leading up to the respective departures last July of superintendents Jerry Weast and Steven Adamowski. Weast retired after becoming known nationally for bold reforms—and impressive results—over a dozen years at the helm in Montgomery County. Adamowski was credited during his six-year tenure with raising achievement in a troubled Hartford school system.
The high-powered Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, meanwhile, is facing the same conundrum as it prepares to search for a successor to long-serving superintendent and innovator Jack Dale, who will retire at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. Likewise, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools is in the middle of searching for its next superintendent. Peter Gorman left that post last August after five years—during which he created a national model of data-driven reform—to join the education division of Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation.
Most of the districts are already finding answers, starting with emphasizing the retention and extension of successful reforms. “If a program is working, don’t be afraid to say it’s working,” according to Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
Domenech speaks from experience, having become superintendent of the Fairfax County schools in the late 1990s after the celebrated Robert “Bud” Spillane retired. Domenech says that he made sure to keep in place the language immersion programs and high school academies created by Spillane. Both initiatives, he adds, are still going strong today.
At the same time, the message has gone out to the successors of successful superintendents that the status quo won’t do and that the changing educational landscape and the difficult economic positions of many school districts call for plenty of additional innovation.
“When you have a healthy system that’s growing and successful, you are in the position to hire a superintendent who can take you to the next level,” says Shirley Brandman, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. “Jerry Weast did an amazing job. But we weren’t looking for someone to be the next Jerry Weast. We wanted the best person for this moment.”
The Jerry Weast Years
The iconic Weast’s 12-year run in Montgomery County ranks as a veritable eternity for superintendents of large districts in the United States. According to the AASA, the average tenure for a district superintendent is three and a half years.
By all accounts, those 12 years were well spent. Weast focused on the critical ingredients and turning points in the careers of successful students, and then implemented changes to reach the district’s 147,000 students, more than half of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs. Weast also developed his nationally known “Seven Keys to College Readiness,” which include reading at advanced levels in K2, completing algebra 1 with a C or better by the end of grade 8, and passing at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam.
What followed was an expansion of the district’s AP program to reach more students and a complete overhaul of the math program to make it more rigorous. Among the positive outcomes of these changes was an increase in the number of ninth-graders who went on to graduate, from 60 percent in 2003 to 86 percent in 2011, the highest rate of any large district in the country, according to published reports. College scholarships for Montgomery County graduates rose from $150 million to $264 million between 2007 and 2011.
If it Ain’t Broke …
Enter Joshua Starr in July 2011. Starr admits that for much of his successful six-year stint as superintendent of Stamford (Conn.) Public Schools, he was following in Weast’s footsteps. “We were inspired by the work done here under Jerry’s leadership,” Starr says, singling out Weast’s emphasis on combining excellence and equity. “Jerry certainly proved that you can serve kids at a high level if you use your resources.”
“The work that Jerry did on the ‘Seven Keys’ was fantastic,” Starr continues. “I remember looking at it and walking into my accountability office and saying, ‘They got there before we did. Let’s copy them.’”
As he pursued the Montgomery County superintendency, Starr found that the district placed a premium on one item in particular, which coincided with his own priorities. “The equity agenda was the most important, and the board of education would not give up on it,” he explains. “But that’s why I wanted to come here.”
As part of that equity agenda, Weast had required all students to take courses that would prepare them for college and had increased the numbers of African-American students taking A.P. courses and passing the exams.
That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty of work left to do and new directions to take when he arrived in Montgomery County. Starr says that while he has picked up where the previous administration left off, he has his own ideas of what’s next. “I’m not a passive steward of the status quo. That wouldn’t get me up in the morning.”
Beyond the Moon to Mars
Starr came into his post telling students, teachers and parents alike, “You’re already great. You’ve been to the moon. Now how do we get to Mars?”
During his first year, he has stressed the importance of meeting Common Core State Standards in addition to satisfying the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. “Focusing on the outcomes of state tests only gets you so far,” he explains. He is steering the district beyond “test-based” to “practice-based” teaching and learning that focuses on “the practices that teachers engage in every day.” In doing so, he doesn’t expect to be alone. “That’s part of a shift that I think most districts will be engaged in,” he says.
Starr places a premium on teachers working together. He acknowledges that some schools in the district already have teachers meet in professional learning communities, but he’s aiming for full participation. “Every one of the 22,000 teachers has to belong to some kind of adult learning community by next year, with time carved out for teachers to work with each other,” he says.
While Starr applauds the district’s emphasis on student data over the past decade, he wants to go beyond the “Seven Keys” that brought national attention to Weast. For starters, Starr plans to pay closer attention to the academic preparation of ninth-graders and to their performance data during freshman year.
“If you’re not successful in ninth grade, there’s a much greater danger of dropping out,” he cautions. “We need to pull out (the data) to see if there are other stories to tell.”
Starr also wants to zero in on the academic, social and emotional readiness of all fifth-graders as they prepare to enter middle school. He aims to gather new kinds of data in answer to such questions as, “Is there one adult in the school who knows you well?” and “Are you bored?”
“We don’t know how to measure it yet, but next year we will focus on the social-emotional competencies of our kids,” he explains. “We know that social-emotional intelligence is critical to success.”
Hartford’s Succession Plan
Hartford Public Schools took a different route—and no chances—in seeking a successor to Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who left in mid-2011 after fulfilling the five-year commitment he had made to the district.
During Adamowski’s tenure, the school board adopted a succession policy requiring that the next superintendent come from within the Hartford district. Christina Kishimoto, who had served as assistant superintendent of secondary schools and school design, became superintendent last July.
“Steven was our first so-called ‘reform’ superintendent. We felt we were on the right track,” explains Ada Miranda, the former president of Hartford’s board of education who left the board in February. “We had accomplished so much under Steven that we didn’t want to risk undoing what was in place.”
Within two years of Adamowski’s arrival in 2006, the beleaguered 27,000-student district registered its first overall increase on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) in seven years. The high school graduation rate, meanwhile, rose from 37 to 42 percent.
Adamowski took particular aim at the district’s high schools and oversaw a $100 million renovation and transformation of Hartford High School. The building was divided into four academies, each with its own principal, in the areas of nursing, engineering and green technology, and law and government, as well as an academy containing the entire ninth-grade class designed to foster their transition to high school. The district created additional academies at other locations around the city that focused on culinary arts, media and journalism, and insurance and finance. Adamowski championed school choice among the district’s academies, neighborhood schools and magnet schools.
As a leader hired to turn around a failing district, Adamowski introduced dress codes and won fights with legislators over state funding for Hartford’s schools. In one famous confrontation in 2009, he threatened to end the transportation of suburban students attending the city’s schools unless the state delivered the additional $3 million in funds he had been seeking.
By the time Adamowski reached the end of his five-year commitment, the number of low-performing schools in the district had declined from 28 to five. The self-imposed limits to Adamowski’s tenure may have prevented him from rising to the iconic status of a Jerry Weast. Even so, just months before his departure, researchers from the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education—which had studied 21 large urban districts—lauded Hartford’s achievement gains.
Although former board president Miranda admits that Hartford’s superintendent search was controversial because it did not cast a national net for candidates, she insists that Kishimoto is the right person for the job. “She’s intimately aware of the needs of the district, but we also said that she needed to put her mark on the district and not just maintain and repeat,” Miranda says.
Along those lines, Kishimoto has elevated the importance of reading at grade level in the third grade and has turned that measure of achievement into the “Third Grade Promise,” which aims to bring all students up to grade level. At the other end of the K12 spectrum, Kishimoto has placed a premium on college readiness, including having all high school students take the PSAT. “Making the PSAT mandatory wasn’t even talked about before,” says Miranda. “But this way, kids can get exposure and teachers can align their standards and curriculum [to the test].”
The 2011 CAPT results suggest that Hartford and Kishimoto still have a long way to go. Even though Hartford’s sophomores made incremental increases in writing and science and held steady in math, for instance, the number of students meeting state standards in these subjects hovered at 31, 13 and 17 percent, respectively.
The Future in Fairfax County
The question of “What’s next?” is just taking shape in Fairfax County. Superintendent Jack Dale will retire in July 2013 after almost a decade on the job and 42 years in public education. He sees similarities with his impending departure and Weast’s. “I think both Jerry and I have created a culture in our respective systems that can persevere,” Dale observes.
“I certainly would expect it to continue,” agrees Janie Strauss, Fairfax County’s school board president. In March, Strauss arranged a visit between the board members and their counterparts in Montgomery County, noting that the districts are similar in size, achievement levels and graduation rates. (Fairfax County has the nation’s second-highest graduation rate, just behind Montgomery County.)
As Weast did, Dale has put faith in teacher-focused initiatives, including professional learning communities. “Teachers are wrestling with the best way to teach kids,” Dale says. “When a fourth-grade team in an elementary school finds that a child has not been progressing, the teachers put their heads together and ask, ‘How can we intervene?’” Dale also has focused on student achievement. “We’ve increased student performance across the subgroups,” Dale says, adding that an almost 20 percent achievement gap for African-American students has been halved during his time in office.
Dale points to the directions his successor might take. “There are a lot of places you can go,” he says. “We have yet to really systematically get the kids to use mobile devices,” he says, referring to the district’s bring-your-own-device program, whose success will require more participation by students and classroom teachers alike.
Dale sees that mobile devices and data-driven teaching approaches can lead to a change in the way education is eventually delivered. “One of the things I see happening is that the district will have to do more of what I call ‘mass customization,’ or tailoring programs for individual students, which is hard to do in a large bureaucracy,” he says. “But it’s coming rapidly here, and parents expect it.”
“Fairfax is obviously a very successful system, so you need to stay ahead of the curve to maintain excellence,” he adds. “Parents have very high expectations for their kids and know how to lobby.”
Taking the next steps will pose some formidable challenges to Dale’s successor, warns Strauss. “One of the biggest challenges has been getting through the recession,” she says, noting that the district cut 1,450 positions in the past few years, froze salaries and eliminated summer school.
Half of the 12-member school board took office this past January, which might also affect the choice of a successor. Whoever Dale’s successor is, Domenech says that it will be tricky for that person to leave his or her own mark. “The biggest risk, as anybody who’s been in this business can tell you, is that it will take five years to implement and nurture change.”
That may be too long a time to wait for constituencies used to the approaches, and successes, of the last superintendent.
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.