Three words lie at the heart of Superintendent Reuben Duncan’s mission to clear the way for innovative teamwork, student achievement and community prosperity.
Communication, collaboration and community are the guiding principles in how educators in New Hampshire’s SAU 47—also known as the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District—solve problems, such as financial constraints, and create conditions that should help its region thrive, says Duncan, the state’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year.
In the traditional hierarchy under which most schools still operate, the superintendent sits at the top with “everything else underneath.” “The success—or the lack thereof—is based upon how well things get delegated,” explains Duncan, who has been leading the district for eight years. “It promotes a very individualistic decision-making approach and change process, which I don’t think is healthy and that doesn’t create an agile organization.”
More from DA: 3 big districts make big hires to fill superintendents’ posts
Duncan and his team have been working to flatten that hierarchical pyramid (see video below) so the superintendent acts as a resource—and a provider of resources. The edtech, facilities, special education and other central office functions serve as a hub for smaller teams at each school, in each classroom and out in the wider community.
As a result, Duncan spends a lot of time in classrooms having conversations with teachers and ensuring all of his educators, including building leaders and administrators, are getting professional development and support.
“Rather than relying on individuals all over the place, we’re working on building collaborative teams everywhere,” says Duncan, who began his career as a high school math teacher and tennis coach at SAU 16, another New Hampshire district. “If we’re in a healthy system, this model will replicate over and over again.”
A shining example of how SAU 47’s collaborative problem-solving approach benefits students occurred two years ago when a $600,000 budget shortfall had leaders considering cutting personnel in the district’s elementary schools, despite the social-emotional needs of students trying to recover from the upheavals of the pandemic, Duncan says.
Leaders at the district middle and high schools stepped in and accelerated the often time-intensive and contentious process of revamping their bell schedule from periods to a block system. It took them two weeks to complete a shift that usually takes much longer and saved jobs at the elementary school by eliminating several middle and high school positions through attrition, Duncan explains.
[Video: Superintendent Reuben Duncan describes his district’s collaborative problem-solving process in an interview with District Administration.]
“They decided we’re going to improve education through this process even though it’s coming out of negative,” Duncan points out. “I just walked through the middle school and the high school and the energy is good, the kids are on task and learning, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
This collaboration extends outside the district in the district’s teacher preparation partnership with nearby Keene State College, which sends professors into SAU 47’s schools to run a leadership academy for teachers. In turn, the district’s teachers serve as mentors for education students at Franklin Pierce University, an initiative that involves holding college courses on SAU 47’s campuses and bringing pre-service teachers in to work in classrooms.
Among the district’s next big projects is creating a career and technical education center on 100 acres of land it owns. Plans to build a school there failed at the ballot box, so Duncan and his team are now having plans drawn up that would create new CTE opportunities for the district’s students and members of the Jaffrey and Rindge communities.
“Community, communication and collaboration—those three items are always challenges, yet they’re also the solution to our challenges,” Duncan concludes. “Let’s make sure we are in continuous communication in a way that’s meaningful to the community.”