During my first 100 days as superintendent in Sacramento, I visited with anyone who would give me 10 minutes of their time. I wanted to understand their hopes and dreams for their children and our community, how we could improve education in the school district, and what advice they would have for me as their new superintendent. Two visits will always stand out. One with a young mother to be who told me: “superintendent, take risks for kids.” The other with a Hmong community leader who reminded me that “those in positions to make change must make change.” Sage advice.
Fast forward to the leadership academy for aspiring superintendents hosted by the Stuart Foundation, where we’ve been showing this year’s cohort members the power and importance of living with purpose and leading with vision. One way we’ve approached this is to help them shape their own leadership stories, and as an example, I shared a video my staff prepared for me as a parting gift when I left the school district. I hadn’t watched it in almost two years, and found myself tearing up as my thoughts shifted back to those most formidable years, to the rare opportunity I was given as superintendent to have a positive impact on children’s lives, and to the visits I made in my first 100 days.
Unlike most other jobs, superintendents are given the power and authority to do things that can very quickly make change happen. I recalled my visit to a third grade classroom where a young student asked me: “superintendent, why do we have Styrofoam trays in our lunch room that take 50 years to break down in a landfill? What are you going to do about it?” Wow. I was stunned by the boldness and honesty of his question, and four months later we replaced that Styrofoam with biodegradable trays. The very first one was presented to the student and his family, signed by trustees from our school board. It was a teachable moment for all of us!
And that was just the start. We changed what was carried on those new trays, too, offering more healthy and nutritious meals. Heck, we were in California; fresh salad bars and locally sourced dairy products, fruits and vegetables became the norm. Through Project Green, student-proposed initiatives made our facilities more sustainable. We replicated and expanded successful education programs including our Waldorf instruction schools, dual language immersion and international baccalaureate programs. All designed to give our families and children a range of high quality education options.
Another opportunity to make change arose in the spring of 2010, when the State of California published their bottom five percent school list. Only one of our schools appeared on the list, but our own internal data identified several other schools as equally under-performing. That data wasn’t public, but punting wasn’t an option. Instead, we set a course that changed some of the neediest and most neglected neighborhood schools in Sacramento.
The Superintendent Priority Schools were just that: schools where leadership, teaching, resources, and innovative ideas were top priority. Where the culture had been “good is good enough,” we aimed for greatness. Even as California schools were in dire crisis, at a 50-year financial low, we wanted to show our community, the state and the nation what our neediest children could do with the right supports and expectations in place. Because with all the changes we made to these schools, we didn’t change the most important thing — the children! And despite the dismal failure of the millions and millions of dollars spent nationwide on federal school improvement grants, the Sacramento Priority Schools defied the odds, outperforming similar schools throughout the school district and state, and in many instances earning the highest rating in the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) school quality index.
Our path to change didn’t involve closing the schools, or converting them into charter schools. After our Priority School Plan was rejected by the State Department of Education, we applied what discretionary dollars we could find within the district, and transformed the schools with our own principals, our own teachers and our own money. It was a proud moment for everyone when, the following year, California’s State Superintendent came to Oak Ridge Elementary School to announce state testing results because Oak Ridge, our official bottom five percent school, had outperformed every other bottom five percent school in the state!
Watching the video, I thought of the hundreds of other districts in California and thousands throughout the county. What ARE these leaders doing with their power and authority to positively impact the life of children? Are they leading with vision, courage, boldness and conviction? Are they controlling the one area squarely in their domain — the vision and message? Are they creating a culture of boldness, and giving space for others in their districts to be bold and bring their best for kids? Sadly, most do not.
My time as superintendent in Sacramento was a once-in-a-lifetime gift. A chance to live a dream and use my abilities to make positive change for children and inspire other adults to carry this most critical work for children forward. If we are serious about seeing more advances like arts education in San Diego, or hormone-free meals in Los Angeles, we need to intentionally prepare our future leaders to live with purpose and lead with vision. At the Stuart Foundation, we believe preparing leaders for the challenges of running a school district can’t be left for chance. After all, our Superintendents have the rare power and authority to make change and take risks for kids.