Challenges Faced By Urban School Superintendents


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By Annika Darling
There was a cartoon once, on the cover of the School Board Journal, in which a vacancy notice for a superintendent of schools had been pasted on the front door of a board of education office. The board was seeking an individual who must please everybody, from ultraconservatives to radical progressives.
This was in 1907, and as far as the role, Hartford Superintendent of School Christina Kishimoto, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manuel J. Rivera and New Britain Superintendent of Schools Kelt Cooper, say things haven’t changed much.
All three face the challenges of being a superintendent in heavily Latino urban districts. Too many of their students are English language learners, are living in poverty, are being raised by single parents and move frequently, adding to the difficulties in educating them.
The Role
Being a superintendent is like being a CEO, the three Connecticut administrators say. Directing the course of an entire school district is not an easy task, one that calls for a number of required skills, including, but not limited to: personal skills, business skills and social skills., they said. They each bring their unique personalities and philosophies to the position; to the battle if you will.
As it turns out, some battles are harder than others.
Tackling the Position
When asked about the challenges and obstacles a superintendent faces, Cooper, 51, said, “It really depends on the circumstances on the ground. Every district is different. And a district can change quickly, as far as landscape. Politics can suddenly change; the demographics of a community can change. All these dynamics occur and shape what the trials and tribulations are going to be. Time and space and location are circumstantial and relative.”
Cooper was named among the top five superintendents in Texas. He was the youngest superintendent in the state of Texas, and later, earned the same recognition in the state of Arizona in 2000. With 18 years of experience, Cooper is surely no stranger to the position ofsuperintendent.
Cooper, 51, recalled his thoughts, from his first superintendency, as being, “What the heck did I get into?” After laughing a short while, he added, “I think I’d probably be way over my head here if this were my first superintendent job, but I’ve been at this for 18 years. So you get better at the game, so to speak, over time.”
“Being a school administrator is like being a rugby player, if you’re not willing to take the hits when they come and get back up and do it again or stand your ground and push, then you’re in the wrong job,” he said.
After all his years in “the game” Cooper speaks with confidence, seemingly not affected by the pressures of being a superintendent, speaks like a true veteran, saying the position deals with “a lot of it is common sense stuff.” He continues, “I told them ‘I’m not the kind of guy the guarantees rocket scientist, because I’m not a rocket scientist, and this isn’t rocket science.’ Give me teachers, give me technology, give me books, and we’ll run it the right way.”
His first, and swift, course of action at New Britain was the implementation of his “bad language policy” where any student caught using bad language could be suspended, at the discretion of the principle. Its success has been overwhelming, and thoroughly well received by administrators, teachers and the like, he said.
“There are going to be people who want their way, and it’s clearly not the right thing. I might get bruised up a little in the fight, but I know what I’m doing is right and righteous, and it will ultimately lead to a better situation for the kids,” Cooper said.
He also has been heavily criticized for his stance on truancy. He has proposed implementing a daytime curfew that would include fines for violations and blames parents for the truancy problem.
“Parents elected to have children,” Cooper said in a New Britain Herald article. “They brought them into the world and in doing so created a responsibility to see their children are safe, fed, clothed and go to school. They have a duty when they bring a child into the world.”
Cooper said he’d like to see a daytime curfew policy in effect “as soon as possible.”
New Britain High School, Cooper told the Herald, has a serious problem when it comes to truancy.
“Last year it was clear to me that one of the things plaguing the high school is the truancy,” Cooper said. “That includes kids just not showing up or showing up and ditching classes or showing up and walking away before school starts.”
According to school district numbers for the 2012-13 school year, 32 percent of ninth-graders were chronically absent; 40 percent were chronically absent in 10th grade; 46 percent in 11th grade; and 45 percent were chronically absent in 12th grade. Chronically absent students miss at least 10 percent of school or 18 days of school a year, according to state standards.
A Positive Start
Manuel J. Rivera, also a seasoned superintendent, recently transferred to Norwalk, in July, from Rochester (N.Y.) Public Schools. He has been named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, after having been named New York State Superintendent of the Year.
Rivera said he is prepared for any challenges he should face this year, and throughout his superintendency, and is looking forward to working with leaders inNorwalk and with the teachers and staff.
“I’m ready to hit the ground running,” he said.
Last week marked the first week of school for Rivera at Norwalk
Rivera is the first Latino superintendent in Norwalk’s history, according to Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons. Rivera has a long record of working to close the achievement gap affecting minority students, for which he received recognition from the Congressional Black Caucus as its TEC Champion Award recipient in 2005.
An Unfinished Job
Just as Rivera is digging his feet in at Norwalk, Christina Kishimoto, 44, the current superintendent of Hartford schools is packing her bags. She was recently denied the renewal of her contract. The sailing wasn’t so smooth this go-around for Kishimoto, who had a tough time winning over her school board, which, in the end, voted 7-0 not to renew her contract, which ends in 2014.
Though Kishimoto will not be returning as superintendent, she has plenty of reasons to call her superintendency a success, including raising the achievement gap by one-third, showing dramatic improvements in reading and notable gains in mathematics, and research shows special education students in the city are “outpacing” their peers statewide in math and keeping pace in reading. This was Kishimoto’s first superintendency.
“I’ve been steadfast on answering all the push-back on me. If it’s not student-oriented, and it’s not good for the students, then I’m not interested,” said Kishimoto. “And I think that comes at a cost, too.”
“Push-backs come in varying ways. From beliefs on how a traditional schooling should happen, or from the agendas of individuals that aren’t part of the strategic operating plan”
She goes on to say, “Specifically, this year there has been a lot of push-back on whether we should be looking at doing things differently, whether we should consider significant strategic changes, and it’s too early in what has been a very well coordinated fundamental change process, to say that we should be changing course at this time. We have a very strategic plan, and so that is what I stick to.”
Kishimoto called it an honor to be the first Puerto Rican women to lead Hartford schools. The advice she said she would give to anyone considering taking on the position of superintendent, is both a caution and advice, saying, “My caution would be to be ready for what I consider a position that often faces very illogical, unpredictable situations on a daily basis, and just be ready to be able to handle that without letting it burden your day to day. And at the same time my advice is to stay strong on your sense of decision, and remember that it’s all about the kids, and it’s only about the kids.”