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Superintendent Survival Guide

New to your job? Heed this advice from veterans and noteworthy rookies about how to make a winning first impression.

Tthe news trucks were the first tip-off that things would be different. Jean-Claude Brizard remembers waking up in his room at the Hyatt hotel in Rochester, New York, peering out the window, and seeing a fleet of vans from various local television news affiliates sitting in the parking lot. It was January and he was about to begin his new job as superintendent of the Rochester City School District, which serves 32,000 students.

"All of a sudden I had this realization that they were there for me," says Brizard. "It was the moment it hit me how public this job was going to be."

Although he had had tremendous responsibility in his previous role overseeing 100 schools serving 100,000 students in Brooklyn, Brizard had avoided the media's glare, which was focused primarily on school chancellor Joel Klein. But in Rochester, reporters and community members scrutinized his every move. (Post-Rochester, Brizard went to a high-profile job in Chicago. After 17 months as CEO, he resigned three weeks after last fall's seven-day teacher strike.)

Being a superintendent means balancing intense and often competing pressures. There are political minefields to navigate and harsh financial realities to contend with. In the current educational climate, chief administrators are expected to implement vast curriculum changes to adhere to Common Core standards and to revamp controversial teacher evaluation systems. Meanwhile, they have less control at the local level and fewer funds than ever before.

Despite the pressures, both veteran leaders and rookies say the job is worth the trade-offs. In fact, according to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the average tenure of a superintendent has increased during the last 10 years. But the toughest part is surviving the first year.

"It's the time that's crucial for laying the foundation for future success," says Gary Solomon, chief executive officer of PROACT Search, an executive search firm for school administrators. "Everyone watches the transition in leadership closely, and it will shape their views and set the tone."

While there may not be steadfast rules for rookies, those who have survived their first year can counsel others on how to avoid common pitfalls.

Going Public Early and Often
The Dilemma: Being chosen does not mean being trusted. New superintendents have won over the school board by being hired, but the bigger challenge is to gain the trust of the local community—and other civic leaders.

"The biggest mistake education leaders can make is assuming that the political part of the job is not the ‘real work of education,' " says Chris Barbic, who recently finished his first year as superintendent of Achievement School District in Tennessee. "It's when they ignore it that they're often undone by it."

Tips From Survivors: No matter the size of their district, new superintendents should plan a kickoff tour that spans their first year. They need to frequently and honestly communicate their educational vision and goals in public meetings with parents, staff, and board members. Listening to these groups, and getting their buy-in for new efforts, is also crucial. And don't forget to marshal the support of local power brokers: elected officials, influential business owners, leaders of faith-based groups, and administrators at the postsecondary level. They could prove crucial.

Take Barbic. He estimates that half of his time in the past year was spent meeting with community groups and leaders even before announcing which six of the 85 lowest-performing schools in the state had been chosen to be converted into new charter schools. Because of the honest and extensive dialogue he had prior to the decision, his team has thus far avoided expected political backlash.

It's Lonely at the Top
The Dilemma: Surrounded by staff, courted by the media, and highly visible in the community, new superintendents can still feel abandoned and isolated.

"It's a very lonely job because you're there to support other people and they don't necessarily support you," says Nancy Golden, who has served as superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Oregon for the past decade. "And even when you feel that way, you can't let them see that, because you're the leader and you need to be strong."

Tips From Survivors: No new superintendents should walk into their job without having at least a handful of trusted advisers they can rely on as sounding boards.

"No matter how difficult it gets, it's important to remember that others have dealt with similar challenges," says Golden, who, in 2011, was named Oregon's Superintendent of the Year due to her district's significant student achievement gains and the first 1:1 laptop initiative in the state. "Seek out their advice and learn from their mistakes."

For new superintendents who don't have a personal network to rely on, independent professional organizations such as AASA, state superintendents associations, and the Broad Foundation's Boot Camp for Education CEOs offer training programs and a chance to commiserate with sympathetic peers.

Setting Priorities
The Dilemma: An effective leader has a clear vision and executes it with laser-like focus—and successful superintendents are no exception. In their first year, newbies can be especially anxious to prove themselves, and often run the risk of setting overly ambitious goals that must be achieved on a very tight timeline.

Tips From Survivors: "Not everything is important in the first year," says S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. "It's more important that you show how what's getting done in the first year contributes to the longer-term success."

At age 32, Dance has just finished his first year on the job, and he describes himself as "ambitious and hard-­driving." It was tempting to focus on claiming early victories, but Dance says that communicating his long-term plan, and committing to staying with the district, went further in building support.

"The work is intense and it can become all-consuming," says Dance. "But if we stay focused on making sure we're moving forward step by step, it helps us prioritize and not get ahead of ourselves."

For those who want to show progress early on, Brizard advises finding one metric to focus on, because every district has one that it cares about deeply.

In Rochester, says Brizard, it was high school graduation rates. Because of this, he used his expertise running high schools downstate to ensure that Rochester's 39 percent district-wide high school graduation rate improved in his first year. He paid guidance counselors overtime, added extra tutoring options, and was able to show a sizable improvement in his first six months.

But That's Not My Job
The Dilemma:
Reality has a way of taking even the most determined superintendents down unexpected paths. What a new leader is hired to do and what they end up doing can be vastly different.

Tips from Survivors: Sometimes circumstances will thwart even the most stellar leader. Instead of getting frustrated with the situation or adopting a mentality that "it's not my job," it's important to tackle it as best you can, while tending to your other duties.

Warren Gemmill faced this challenge from his first day as superintendent in Bronxville, New York. Because of litigation, the 1,500-student district in a tony New York suburb had halted construction on the renovation of its main school (which housed all students K-12).

"That situation made it virtually impossible to have a conversation about anything else," says Gemmill, who has since retired. "It completely displaced any dialogue about educational issues."

For three-plus years, Gemmill contended with teachers who were unhappy about having classes in trailers, students who didn't have a cafeteria, and parents who regularly patrolled the campus, taking notes on construction progress and calling him incessantly. Gradually, issues with contractors were resolved, construction moved forward, and attention to education returned.

"I call it ‘administrivia,' the mundane issues that bog down our work," says Gemmill. "But if you can stick with it, it can be a very rewarding position. It's important to not lose track of that in the day-to-day of the job."

 

—Back to School 2013—

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