DA Superintendents Academy prepares next district leaders

Educators gathered virtually for three days to prepare to inspire and lead school districts. Here’s a look at what they learned.
By: | October 8, 2020
Devin Avery on UnsplashDevin Avery on Unsplash

Angela Burse, a regional principal of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Georgia Preparatory Academy, saw back when she was a teacher the kind of education leader she would be one day. She had lost her husband suddenly, and her principal’s compassion, she says, “changed my own leadership style.” As the oldest of nine children growing up, she had always been “sort of in a leadership position,” she says. The principal’s support taught her that there’s “no need to be a stern, firm disciplinarian all the time.”

It was a story Burse shared as part of a breakout group “Strength Bombardment” exercise at DA’s National Superintendents Academy, an exercise that served as a starting place for attendees—mainly aspiring superintendents—to begin to craft an individual leadership story. Such stories are often told within the interview process for superintendent roles.

Graduates emerge from the Superintendents Academy prepared to inspire and lead school districts toward the cultural shifts that enable better collaboration between stakeholders, a stronger focus on the mission, and improved outcomes for every learner.

Like nearly all events since March 2020, the three-day Academy shifted to a virtual model this year. Burse had originally registered to attend an in-person DA Leadership Institute Event, but she wound up deciding to be part of the National Superintendents Academy virtual cohort, which gathered in late September for three days. “For me, a great part was to hopefully be able to network and get to know people across the United States. I was able to make similar connections in the virtual world as well,” says Burse. “I Iearned so much.”

It was obvious to Burse by the end of the first day that the agenda items—as facilitated by Peter Gorman, DA’s Superintendent in Residence and the former leader of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina—are in a purposeful order to build on each other. “It’s so eye-opening how Dr. Gorman has formatted these exercises where he chunks the information. A little bit of this, and the next time a little bit of that, and then at the end of the day it’s like, ok he did this on purpose,” she says. “He is giving us a piece of the puzzle so at the end of the day we can put the pieces together.”

Upcoming DA National Superintendents Academies

Cohorts for all:

• March 18, 19 and 20

• April 15, 16 and 17

• May 6, 7 and 8

DA Leadership Institute also works with individual groups of local districts to present the content of the Academy in a customized presentation format. Learn more here or call 561-622-0352.

Melissa Morse, chief of learning and performance at Henry County Schools in Georgia, had already been working with Gorman because he coaches her superintendent and had been working as well with Morse and another colleague. She participated in the Academy as a way to make connections across the country. “I am not sure that ultimately I want to be a superintendent but I feel like this is helping to prepare me to understand what goes into doing that job,” she says. “It’s very hard at the level of a chief to get good, solid professional development. This was an opportunity for me to hone my skills in a way that very rarely is offered.”

As for the virtual format, Morse says having to make relationships across the computer screen is something everyone has gotten used to since the pandemic began and in some ways felt more intimate than an in-person event. She valued the breakout sessions—during which she was in a group with Burse—for the opportunity to have less structured conversation than with the whole group.

During the exercise about pinpointing pieces of her leadership story, she found it helpful that others in the group were asked to share what they heard from you. “It was really powerful,” she says.

DA Superintendents Academies also feature chats with superintendents. Alexandra Estrella of Norwalk Public Schools in Connecticut shared her story with the September cohort in an interview format with Gorman asking leading questions.

Estrella, a former superintendent in New York City who originally had med school plans but then started teaching and “got hooked,” began in her current role on July 1. It was just two weeks before Connecticut required that school districts submit their plans for reopening this fall. “I spent those two weeks with an unfamiliar team and had to come up with a plan for action plus finalize the plan for summer school,” she explained.

Sample exercises within the National Superintendent Academy

• Level 5 Leadership: Based on Jim Collins’ work, Level 5 leaders are those who make others better and exhibit humility and professional will. Participants examine the characteristics of someone they have identified as the “finest leader they have ever known.”

• Belief System: Participants list and discuss their beliefs about children, parents, teachers, principals, school district office staff, board members and the community.

• Great School District Leaders: Attendees discuss the common traits and characteristics of the best school or district-level leaders they have ever known or read about and develop a definition of school district leadership.

The agenda also includes chats with current superintendents, district case studies and advice for cover letters, resumes and interviews.

She shared her experiences as a Latina in a profession dominated by white men. “When we show a sense of assertiveness and don’t go with the status quo, we tend to get some pushback because people see us as aggressive—not what people think a Latino woman is supposed to be,” she said.

In going for the Norwalk job, Estrella said, telling her leadership story “showed them that I’m human, that I come from a place, that my place has a story that connects to the overall frame of the work that needs to be done. The story became the essence of the process.”

While COVID may have changed Estrella’s original plan and timeline for the district, she also sees it as a positive. “COVID allowed me more opportunities to embrace and engage folks,” she said.

The Fall 2020 Superintendents Academy participants also got to talk with Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, and Scott Muri, superintendent of Ector County Schools in Texas.

The group will meet again in a few months for session two of the Academy.

Overall, Morse says of the event, “we spent so much time on what we’re good at and what we believe. Having that asset model of building from our strengths was invigorating.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.