Supporting the superintendent: Why this leader says collegiality is key

Networking and visionary training at DA academy inspires the director of federal programs in one Mississippi district.
Betty Wilson-McSwain

In 1984, the image of Geraldine Ferraro as the first-ever woman to be nominated for the vice-presidential seat had a profound impact on a young girl in Mississippi. Betty Wilson-McSwain, then a sixth-grader, was inspired by the thought of being in a position to make a difference.

“If she can lead, so can I,” she said.

For the past 32 years, Wilson-McSwain has done just that in education in a variety of roles but perhaps most impactfully now as the director of federal programs for the McComb School District in Mississippi. She oversees critical Title I and Title II areas as well as Community Learning Centers to help their children succeed in school. The district serves more than 2,200 students, more than half of whom are from families that fall well below the poverty line. Some face long odds, but McComb’s amazing work on early literacy, even during the pandemic, is leading to great outcomes. According to early data, the number of kindergarten-ready students and those going from third to fourth grade has jumped significantly.

“People thought that the children would not be able to excel,” she said. “We have had some of the best results that we’ve ever had. One of our slogans was, you can’t make the pandemic an excuse. That’s all the more reason we’ve had to give them the best that we had because they had to overcome learning loss and accelerate learning.”

As a district administrator, Wilson-McSwain knows her work goes beyond covering helping to deliver resources. As a leader in McComb, her role is also crucial to supporting her superintendent, Cederick Ellis. It is one of the reasons she decided to attend the recent National Superintendents Academy held by District Administration–hoping to gain new knowledge about the position and what those who hold it go through each day.

“My immediate goal is to make sure that I’m supporting my superintendent and his platform in the right way from my office,” she said. “How do I support in a better manner? How can I be intentional about not only what I’m doing but how to supervise people and best fit into our overall picture of what we’re doing in our district? That’s very important to me. I believe that collegiality and cohesiveness, those things are going to propel children and support adults. I don’t want to be an outlier in my own district. I want to support my superintendent as I wish someone would support me.”

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The academies bring together a diverse pool of up-and-coming administrators who share perspectives about their jobs with each other. But they also provide serious professional training from a cadre of leaders, including Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, the superintendent at Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin and author of the book referenced by Wilson-McSwain in her own mission to back her leader, titled “Lead From Where You Are.”

“You don’t have to be the superintendent, but we do all need to be functioning as a superintendents’ cabinet,” she said. “We need to be functioning in harmony. [The academy] proved to be what I anticipated. I really appreciated the diversity among the group and learning about inclusion, all the various stakeholders within the district and those in our community, and how they may impact the education and the livelihood of children. One of the quotes we had in our readings was, “You’ve got to look at your plan. You get what you plan to get. Are you planning well? That’s a profound statement. So, where are you lacking? Why are you lacking? What are root causes?’”

Gaining communications skills, the ability to look more closely at data and managing up are all strategies that come through at the academy. But a big bonus is the quick bonds formed in these groups of like-minded educators that often last.

“We still text each other now,” Wilson-McSwain says. “Even our summer program, I’m doing it differently based on the things that I learned in the academy. For one, approaching the bus drivers on the first day, making sure they know that every role is important when they’re touching the lives of children. And making sure that we say that we’re intentional–not just about teaching, but all the support pieces for that child to have a good day. They are key stakeholders. Custodians, you’re all over the school. You are a key stakeholder. Do we make you feel that way?”

Another key takeaway from the sessions was how a district should handle social media in an age when negative comments can affect all of the positive work being done in districts.

“If we don’t tell our story, others will tell the story and not necessarily in an accurate manner,” Wilson-McSwain said. “So how do we continue to put out the positives, to not just deflect the negative, but also so there’s a good balance. There’s always more good than bad. But the bad is what catches people’s attention if it is something newsworthy or noteworthy. We have to make sure that’s not the story of our district. It’s our responsibility to let the world know that the children do well.”

As for her own career path, it has been an amazing one. Wilson-McSwain studied engineering at Tougaloo College. But she realized the allure of education that began from a Junior Achievement course in high school was her true calling. She taught math for five years before landing in administration. She eventually gave up curriculum because of the demands of her new position and the district’s Early Learning Collaborative but is impacting children in a different way. She is still working on her doctorate at Mississippi College, about which she joked, “As soon as I finish my dissertation, they’ll be happy and I’ll be happy.” Whether she will eventually rise to become a superintendent someday is not something in her plans–yet.

“I was an industrial engineer, so you’re looking at human capital, efficiency. I still transfer the knowledge now. I just help children,” she said. “They made me believe that I can be a superintendent. I’m not going to become one immediately, but it is something that I can aspire to in the future. And I feel like I’m better prepared to do it.”

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