Being a K12 leader is only getting harder. With every decision feeling more divisive, technology evolving at hyperspeed, and the needs of school communities getting greater, leaders today have to adapt, innovate, and communicate in fundamentally different ways.
On the heels of the 2022-2023 school year, I sought insights from some of the most influential K-12 leaders in the nation. These 15 superintendents shared their perspectives on the trials, triumphs, and visions shaping school systems across the country. After capturing their wisdom, I have distilled 7 key insights to guide the path forward for fellow leaders in 21st-century education.
1. “Why am I learning this?” addressed through real-world relevance
Anthony Rossetti of Webb City R7 School District in Missouri, stresses the shift from content-based to application-based education, preparing students for real-world challenges. In the era of ChatGPT and AI advancements, where information is readily available at our fingertips, teachers are no longer mere vessels of knowledge—they play a vital role in facilitating the effective use of information in diverse contexts.
“What we have found is that our students learn best when it’s hands-on experiences and there are real-world connections,” says Monica Goldson, recently retired superintendent of Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools. By providing high school students with challenges from Fortune 500 companies, they can harness both soft skills and content knowledge to solve practical problems.
Students today enjoy a plethora of options, necessitating that schools provide direction and support across various postsecondary pathways. Christopher Bernier, superintendent of Schools for Lee County in Florida, highlights that more than 50% of students opt for technical or vocational paths, while others enter the workforce or military service.
“My goal for our kids graduating is that every single kid has a really hard decision to make post-graduation,” said Superintendent Melvin J. Brown at Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama. “I think our job is to create opportunities so students can know the things they like, and perhaps more importantly, things they don’t like, to make choices about what they want to do in the future.”
These choices can evolve over time, and students may exercise various options at different stages of their lives. Whether they immediately step into the workforce or enroll in a college program, Bernier wants them to possess the flexibility to further their careers whenever they choose. “It’s not just having the options at graduation time, but it’s also the options later on in the career that allow for students to go back to school—because they have all the prerequisites and information they need,” he explains.
2. Adapting education to match job market demands
It’s important to expand access to career and technical education that leads to industry certifications and aligning curriculum with the demands of the job market. John M. Craft, former superintendent of Killeen Independent School District in Texas, explains that partnerships with tech giants like Microsoft and Google have helped him strengthen educational offerings and prepare students for success beyond graduation.
“In education, we do a great job at taking care of the core curriculum,” says Trent North, superintendent of Douglas County School District in Georgia. “Sometimes we are not masterful at connecting that with what’s required to be successful after graduation. And so partnerships with Microsoft and Google are huge because it allows us to strengthen our curriculum. So when we’re teaching algebra, what better way to teach it than through STEM?”
3. Nurture a self-sustaining pipeline of educators and leaders
Marvin Connelly, superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, North Carolina, prioritizes nurturing local talent within the district. By offering teaching contracts to graduating students and partnering with NC State University, the district paves the way for educators to evolve into administrative roles, fostering growth from within.
In Mansfield Independent School District in Texas, a similar approach is taken. “We have ‘grow your own’ programs for teachers who want to become administrators and principals who want to be central office administrators,” says Superintendent Kimberley Cantu. She also runs a program for aspiring superintendents in the district.
Brown, at Montgomery Public Schools, stresses the importance of representation, particularly for students from underprivileged backgrounds. Brown’s journey from challenging circumstances to educational leadership exemplifies the empowerment that comes from positive role models.
“I want to be able to navigate certain spaces where historically, traditionally, someone who looks like me may not have been welcome and show to kids that they can do it too,” says Brown. “I’m not special, and I want kids to understand that they can do anything and more than I’ve done.”
4. Working in isolation isn’t an option
Andi Fourlis, Superintendent of Mesa Public Schools in Arizona, underscores the importance of diverse perspectives. “To solve the complex problems, we cannot just listen to one voice and one perspective,” she says. The sentiment is echoed by Addison Davis, retired superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, who advocates for a “comprehensive 360-degree accountability approach.”
“It takes a village. Maybe two or three,” says Calvin Watts, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.
5. To be an effective leader, really get to know your community
Being the superintendent of the 11th school district in the US certainly comes with its challenges when it comes to community engagement. Watts says, “I accept every challenge in public education as an opportunity. I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the term calling ‘in’ as opposed to calling people ‘out.’”
“We want families and caregivers to come in and help us better understand what we need to know about the context of Gwinnett County,” he explains. “We brought students in to tell us what it’s like to be a student in Gwinnett County in 2022.”
Leaders need to be known as a person, not just as an educator. Davis’s experience as an external hire underscored the importance of building strong relationships and trust among team members for successful leadership.
“Coming into Hillsborough, I was ready to be this greatest transformational leader,” says Davis. “I had a 100-day plan ready to go. But while I was running for superintendent, I noticed that no one knew who Addison Davis was. They didn’t know me as a person. They knew me as an educator, but not as a person. I was the first hire from outside of the district in 50 years.”
6. Mental well-being is pivotal for driving academic achievement
The role of schools has expanded to become centers for holistic well-being, especially after the challenges posed by COVID-19. “As far as social services in New Mexico, public schools have become the main space for young people to receive help,” says Superintendent Scott Elder of Albuquerque Public Schools.
Schools have expanded to become centers for holistic well-being, ensuring students receive help with social services, nutrition, health, and mental well-being. Stephanie Elizalde of Dallas ISD highlights the pivotal role of prioritizing mental well-being in achieving academic excellence. “A few years back, we channeled district resources and secured grants to initiate a comprehensive social-emotional learning curriculum,” she explains. The move has yielded substantial returns, far beyond what the district initially anticipated — with students now possessing the ability to better articulate their thoughts and emotions.
Angélica M. Ramsey, superintendent of Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas, sheds light on a particularly significant lesson: the pressing need to address early childhood mental health. Identifying the reasons behind emotional outbursts is pivotal. “I have never seen in my career in over two decades, very small children having very large emotional outbursts,” she says. “We need to get to the root cause of where that mental health support needs to come in.”
7. Embrace changes in funding to match changing priorities
Monifa B. McKnight, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, is focused on ways to personalize learning experiences, introduce innovative approaches, and let go of practices that no longer serve the best interests of students. “I would describe it as educational reconstruction,” she says.
It’s not enough to conceive new strategies; Dr. McKnight contends that superintendents must also ensure they are adequately funded and be proactive in advocating for increased budget allocations to support the implementation of progressive programs. This includes incentivizing teachers, offering dual enrollment opportunities, and establishing early college readiness assessments.