Guiding education’s air traffic controllers

Former Superintendent Ann Clark stresses the importance of purpose and collaboration for CAOs
By: | June 18, 2019
Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent and chief academic officer Ann Clark will talk about the importance of finding purpose and inspiring collaboration at District Administration Leadership Institute’s CAO Summit in Atlanta, July 15-17.Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent and chief academic officer Ann Clark will talk about the importance of finding purpose and inspiring collaboration at District Administration Leadership Institute’s CAO Summit in Atlanta, July 15-17.

Ann Clark, featured speaker at the District Administration Leadership Institute’s CAO Summit, learned plenty of lessons in leadership during her 35-year education career as a superintendent and chief academic officer. She will share her wide-ranging ideas with attendees at the next summit in Atlanta, July 15-17.

Clark served as CAO on her way to becoming superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, and considers the position the linchpin of any district.

“I refer to the chief academic officer as the air traffic controller for school districts,” says Clark, who is now an executive leadership coach for The Broad Center and superintendent-in-residence at the New York City Leadership Academy. “They have to help people from all the departments see the need for alignment of initiatives in order for the student experience to be what is envisioned.”

How does a CAO achieve that alignment?

The chief academic officer leads the core business for a K-12 public school system, and that carries a huge responsibility. One of the keys to the role is the ability to work collaboratively with other members of the leadership team.

There needs to be an aligned, cohesive message from the district about what the instructional priorities are. If the CAO is not working collaboratively, the messages that arrive at the schoolhouse for building-level leaders and classroom teachers are confusing.

What are the biggest challenges that today’s CAOs face?

So many districts are focused on early literacy skills and reading on grade level by third grade. Many districts are also focused on narrowing the achievement gap between different subgroups of students. And there’s a huge focus on effective strategies for working with English language learners and students with special needs.


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So how does a chief academic officer shape a vision that supports our gifted students, our special needs students and our English language learners? How do you deliver instruction in a very personalized way, and how do you support classroom teachers with the professional development they’ll need to meet the needs of the students who are in front of them every day?

Can you share some of the highlights of your CAO summit session?

I always talk about how important it is for a CAO, or any senior leader, to have clarity about why they do what they do, so the work is purpose-driven. It’s important that a person is clear about why it is they get up every morning to do this work, and that they share the reason with the team they lead.

I also talk about the notion of being incredibly intentional about the work, and the importance of staying focused and not getting caught up in what I call “the swirl.” It’s difficult to chase lots of rabbits, so when you create lots of areas of focus, that can leave people confused as to what they should prioritize.

You also run leadership workshops for principals. What are their biggest concerns?

A huge focus has been on meeting the social-emotional needs of students, and making sure that doesn’t become one more initiative on the pile, but is integrated into teaching students every day. I’m also involved in equipping principals to support teachers in integrating the social-emotional needs of students into the daily fabric, in and out of the classroom.


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Certainly, there’s also a huge national focus on creating a safe, secure learning environment. Lots of principals are interested in knowing best practices for focusing on school climate, and how to recruit, retain and coach highly effective teachers.

You’re also focused on teacher shortages. How are you helping school leaders tackle this problem?

Across the country, we’re faced with fewer and fewer high school students going into college thinking they might pick a career in teaching. I’m working with school districts and superintendents to think about how they can build a talent pipeline, so as they’re recruiting, they can show teachers all the possible pathways they can have over a 30-year career.


Read more: Turning the tide on teacher shortages


Teachers should think about taking on mentoring roles, becoming a coach or facilitator, and becoming a principal and moving into the central office.

I also think it’s on the school districts to find ways to put the career of teaching in front of their middle and high school students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, has started an early college high school for teaching. This is something that could be done in any state in the U.S.


Interested in curriculum and instruction leadership? Keep up with District Administration Leadership Institute’s CAO summits.