What you missed at DALI Naples: Awarding this year’s outstanding superintendents

Superintendent Alex Marrero of Denver Public Schools took home the award for Superintendent of the Year.

When asked to think outside the box and interpret what hands-on inquiry, a proven learning method to boost student engagement and understanding, means to them, superintendents slit the Lego bags open and poured into the blocks. In no other room in America were adults working as seriously on building with Legos as at this conference breakout session; it was so quiet, you could head a pin—or, in this case, a Lego, drop.

At the final DALI Summit this year at the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Florida, superintendents seamlessly shifted gears between commiserating with fellow district leaders and getting down to business to identify, diagnose and provide solutions to some of their most top-of-mind issues. Whether in a focused learning session or during a lunch break, the wheels spun passionately.

“You all know how difficult the role is, but we all have our challenges and our strategies, and we’re trying to do our best for students,” said Jose Dotres, superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools and Leader of Distinction awardee.

DALI’s inaugural award ceremony

At DALI’s inaugural Awards of Distinction ceremony, superintendents and district leaders across the nation celebrated their colleagues’ biggest accomplishments over the past year.

Ameca Thomas, superintendent of Laurens County School District 55 (S.C.), was awarded a Districts of Distinction award in the College and Career Pathways category for helping students enrolled in a pathway program achieve a 100% graduation rate. Alex Haltom, Director of Innovation, Technology, and Media Services for Hemlock Public School District (Mich.), received a Leader of Distinction award for ensuring students’ access to WiFi away from campus.

And Superintendent Alex Marrero of Denver Public Schools took home the award for Superintendent of the Year. Since assuming the position in 2021, Marrero has struck a deal with union bargaining groups to ensure a $20 minimum wage by 2025, and the graduation rate has increased by a district-high 2.5%. The DPS leader also guided his district through a school shooting that claimed one student’s life and injured two administrators.

Marrero turned to the crowd of superintendents, a position that continues to garner turnovers en masse, and addressed the challenge of making high-level executive decisions.

“There’s not many of us. There are a lot of fallen soldiers,” Marrero said. Then, quoting Richard Carranza, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education: “You have to do your job even if it leads to you losing your job.”

Alex Marrero receiving his award (Cred: Tim Gibbons Photography)

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In conversation

Superintendents and other district leaders covered a lot of ground together, exploring topics such as artificial intelligence and live learning. However, some topics seemed universal.

Cherie Washington (Photo: Tim Gibbons Photography)

Teacher recruitment and retention tended to dominate the conversation. Cherie Washington, Chief of Student Support Services at Fort Worth Independent School District (Texas), described it as a staffing crisis that goes beyond employing teachers. Washington, who also won a Women of Distinction award, suggested forging stronger assistant principal-principal pipelines.

“We have to really focus on how we are going to recruit and retain great teachers, and I think that also spills over into administration,” she said. “We focus on the principals, but as they leave, are we focused on preparing our next leaders?”

In New York City, teacher hiring has returned to pre-COVID levels, but it’s still attempting to rebound from a falling retention rate. Kelly Shannon, deputy superintendent of District 2 of New York City’s Department of Education, discussed the importance of supporting teachers across multiple dimensions. Leaders need to ensure teachers are working in a healthy culture and climate, provide individualized mentorship opportunities, and support veteran teachers as much as their new ones, she said.

Superintendents also grappled with methods to keep students engaged and involved in school amid rampant absenteeism. One method leaders discussed was creating more intentional and exciting before and after-school programs to limit students’ distractions.

Maura Horgan (Photo: Tim Gibbons Photography)

“Above all else, parents want their kids to belong,” said Dawn Bridges, vice president of educational affairs at Right At School. “Districts need capacity-building partners who can help build aftercare and enrichment programs.

Maura Horgan, superintendent of Newark City Schools (Ohio) and Women of Distinction awardee, has long been a proponent of developing STEM-focused afterschool programs to boost student engagement and camaraderie.

“If you’re not intentionally trying to make progress, you’re working in a vacuum,” she said.

Patrick Wnek, executive director of the North East Florida Educational Consortium, finished tooling together his Lego sculpture, emblematic of hands-on student inquiry. At first, embarrassed by the challenge, it reminded him of the chance students and leaders take every day to learn—and to lead.

“It’s important to fail forward,” he said.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a DA staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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