Superintendent spotlight: Learning from CEOs and defending public education

"We visit the businesses, we go through the plants, and we walk out of there with a deeper understanding of what they need out of our students," Superintendent Michael Daria says.

“We have not yet arrived but we are certainly on our way,” is how Superintendent Michael Daria describes, enthusiastically and honestly, the progress students are making at Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama. His excitement covers his educators’ efforts in workforce development, dual enrollment and wraparound services, among a host of other initiatives that are designed to uplift all students, says Daria, Alabama’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year.

“The overall part that’s exciting is we’re elevating expectations,” he adds. “It’s been a lot of fun seeing those things begin to happen.”

Tuscaloosa City Schools will now pay for high school students to earn up to 12 credits at a four-year university or 24 at a community college. The district has also opened a community resource center at its alternative school. There, community organizations offer wraparound services—such as clothing and food assistance, mental health care, family therapy and drug and alcohol counseling—that the district can’t afford to provide on its own, Daria points out.

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A unique professional development program Tuscaloosa’s administrators and teachers participate in is a regional educator workforce academy. Over the years, Daria and his team have cemented a strong partnership with West Alabama business and industry with the help of the local chamber of commerce. The academy—a year-long immersive experience that Daria calls “eye-opening”—helps ensure principals, school board members and other educators fully understand the expectations of employers.

“We go into business and industry here in our town and we listen and learn from our CEOs,” he explains. “We visit the businesses, we go through the plants, and we walk out of there with a deeper understanding of what they need out of our students when they graduate, so our students thrive and excel, and go into career paths that allow for additional education post-high school.”

About 20-30 educators from Tuscaloosa City Schools participate in the academy each year—including elementary school principals who, at first, weren’t sure why they had to attend. “The takeaway for them is they came back saying ‘We’ve got a role in workforce development, even with pre-K and kindergarten,'” he says. “You see our schools being more responsive to that.”

Another offshoot of the focus on post-K12 pathways is that a diploma is no longer the only measure of success. The district now aspires to create a graduation action plan for every student. Last year, nearly 90% of Tuscaloosa’s seniors had mapped out whether they were enrolling in college, joining the workforce full-time or enlisting in the military.

That initiative came in part from Daria’s conversations with seniors at past graduation ceremonies. “I’d ask, ‘What are you doing after graduation?’ and I’d get an answer of, ‘Ah, I don’t know, I’m going to figure it out, maybe work a little bit,'” he says. “Our answer was, ‘That’s not good enough.’ We need to know what they’re doing the day after graduation and that needs to be in a plan that has been in their pathway of preparation during their high school and middle school experience.”

Daria took the helm at Tuscaloosa City Schools in 2016. One of the biggest shifts he’s experienced is that he now feels the need to defend public education in a more turbulent political environment that has seen an expansion of school choice and vouchers.

“My position is that public education is the way to lift our communities and certainly our country,” he contends. “We recognize we have to be the best out there, and that does mean being future-focused and seeing around corners, and making sure we have the right funding to fund a high level of expectation and a high level of education for all students.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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