Supts urged to ‘shake off’ their titles

February 10, 2020
Superintendents from throughout California came together Jan. 29-31 to study “Courageous Leadership,” which was the theme of ACSA’s 2020 Superintendents’ Symposium, held in Indian Wells. Val Verde Unified School District Superintendent and symposium Planning Committee Chair Michael McCormick welcomed attendees to two-and-a-half days of learning and sharing with their peers. Although it’s known as a lonely job, superintendents had many opportunities to connect at receptions and between presentations. “We think we have unique problems in our districts, but they really are the same,” said Celso Ruiz, superintendent of Holtville USD. “That’s why I really like the networking — you meet some wonderful people.”
Keynote Chris Emdin Columbia University Associate Professor and #HipHopEd movement creator Dr. Christopher Emdin presented the first keynote. He asked superintendents to stand up and “shake off your title” in order to do the courageous work of changing schools. “Don’t be consumed by how others see you, by script,” he said. He urged attendees to talk to people who have been pushed out of the school system in order to see things through another lens.  “Somebody that’s under you has a skillset that can inform what you do,” he said. “Skip over the hierarchy and go to the hood.” Emdin lamented that educators begin their path in school leadership wanting to change the world, and when they rise to the superintendency, they feel they lack the freedom to make change. That’s when actor Derek Luke took to the mic (the “unkeynote, keynote,” Emdin said) to share a vital piece of advice he received from actor/director Denzel Washington on the set of “Antwone Fisher.” “You need to shut off your superintendent,” Luke said. “Lose it, let go, become it. Teaching is an art. Acting is an art. You can only do so much acting on script, after awhile, you must become it.” Presentations In the dozens of presentations, superintendents shared how they found solutions to big problems in their districts. Whether it was building solar arrays at their school sites or how to help students return to school following a tragedy, superintendents gained valuable insights from their peers and ACSA partners who are experts in the field of education. “I love getting — and stealing — ideas,” said Campbell Union School District Superintendent Shelly Viramontez, who said she enjoyed a session about branding. Presenter Ken Shelton introduced attendees to the idea of “techquity” — the intersectionality between technology and equity.  “You can’t have an equitable learning environment that is absent of technology,” said Shelton, who sits on state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Education Technology Task Force. He advocated that all seniors have a LinkedIn profile before they graduate because having a digital presence is necessary to be seen and heard in today’s world. Superintendent Norma Martinez of the Centralia Elementary School District said her favorite presentation was on the politics of board relations. “The room was packed, and when we finished the presentation, nobody wanted to leave,” she said. “It was the most practical insights about how we as superintendents work with board members — just like students have learning styles, board members have governance styles.”  Fred Van Vleck, superintendent of Eureka City Schools, said he enjoys professional development relevant to the job. “It targets what we do every day,” he said. Women’s Leadership Breakfast USC Dean of Education Karen Symms Gallagher spoke on the lack of female superintendents during the Women’s Leadership Breakfast. Some estimates say women make up 13 percent of superintendents, even though they account for 72 percent of all K-12 educators. “Why aren’t more women making it to the top? It’s not for lack of ambition,” Symms Gallagher said. She explained that women in education leadership face not a glass ceiling, but a labyrinth. A flowchart illustrated how a woman’s path from teacher to superintendent can lead to positions that can’t access the superintendency, while men often skip some of these wrong turns and go straight to the top.  “I followed that long path. I’m 56 and got this job this year,” said Superintendent Jennifer Wildman of Mammoth USD.  Symms Gallagher opened the forum up to questions, leading to attendees discussing a number of ways to help women ascend to the top, including mentorship and raising awareness with school boards.
But many women do find their way. Wildman took a moment after the breakfast to e-mail her mentor — retired Pajaro Valley USD Superintendent MaryAnn Mays — to thank her for her support. “That’s how you get to be a superintendent when you’re a woman,” Wildman said. Keynote Kimberly Bryant Founder of Black Girls Code Kimberly Bryant spoke on the need to support girls of color in the field of computer sciences. While Silicon Valley praises failure in the name of innovation, Bryant said protection against failure is not equitably granted to all. “For some people, failure is a door to opportunity. But for others, it could be the end of the road,” Bryant said. “For many girls of color, one failure could be the end of her journey.” With employers struggling to fill more than 1 million tech jobs with qualified workers, and data showing a decrease in black women pursuing bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, Bryant said this “pipeline” problem can be fixed by creating safe spaces for brilliant black girls.

“For some people, failure is a door to opportunity. But for others, it could be the end of the road.”
―Kimberly Bryant, Founder, Black Girls Code, and keynote speaker
“That’s the secret sauce that makes Black Girls Code unique,” she said. With 14 chapters and 15,000 students across the nation attending afterschool, Saturday and summer programs in computer sciences, Black Girls Code and programs like it will ensure young women of color will be able to access these new careers — and our tech will be better because of it.  “We need diverse perspectives to crack these hairy problems that are endemic around the world,” Bryant said. Keynote Luvelle Brown Ithica City School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown asked attendees to go on an authentic journey, as opposed to the academic journey that brought him and most other superintendents to their current positions.  Brown shared the importance of validating students’ experiences in school, whether it’s by affirming an African-American boy who dresses up as Black Panther for a book character celebration, or making sure the academic calendar is built around more than just Christian holidays. “Every one of our systems can be used to liberate or oppress,” he said. Brown told attendees to find ways to give students a voice. Brown does a social media takeover, allowing his students to share their experiences on his social feeds for a day. He also is evaluated by his students. Keynote Lisa Williams Executive Director of Equity and Cultural Proficiency for Baltimore County Public Schools Dr. Lisa Williams gave the closing keynote session, imploring educators to recognize their responsibility for serving all students by being curious about their needs. “When someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, do you lean in or do you lean out?” she asked.

© 2019 Association of California School Administrators