The recent actions of two superintendents caused me to take pause. Why, because they are polar opposite examples of effective leadership. Their actions are two examples of what K-12 superintendents are doing to lead or not to lead their school districts into the 21st century. First, let’s take a look at a “good” superintendent. Recently, Albany Public Schools made headline news because a teacher required her students to write a report from a Nazi perspective as to why ”Jews are evil”. It was called “Pretend You are a Nazi”. Several students refused to participate and protested the assignment. The protest reached the ear of the superintendent Dr. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard. She immediately began what would seem is a routine investigation as any superintendent would do. Prior to the investigation was recognition that she understood the intent of the lesson, the connection and understanding that as an assignment, students do need to address issues that are uncomfortable and use writing to learning how to argue from both perspectives. However, the distinction is that the exploration of multiple perspectives just for the sake of gaining diverse perspectives should never be undertaken at the expense of others who were victimized.
What distinguishes Dr. Vanden Wyngaard is how she chose to address the situation. She listened and responded to a perspective that is not typically acknowledged: the students. What makes her “good” is that she responded and not reacted. Dr. Vanden Wyngaard, as quoted in CNN, called the assignment “completely unacceptable.” “It displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate in our school community,” Wyngaard said, “I am deeply apologetic to all of our students, all of our families and the entire community.” Through the investigative process she invited the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to provide trainings to her staff and students. Wow! From what I read from the copy is that she was not threatened by a different perspective and decided to make much needed systemic changes in the curriculum and instruction. We can learn a lot from her example.
The second superintendent example comes from Georgia. The story continues to be in the news because of the wonderment that a high school in 2013, Wilcox High School was finally having an integrated prom. Steve Smith is an example of a “bad” superintendent. Mr. Smith stressed, according to a CNN report, “the segregated proms aren’t organized by the schools”. He later wrote that “he and the county’s board of Education “not only applaud their (the student’s idea), but we also passed a resolution advocating that all activities involving our students be inclusive and nondiscriminatory. I fully support these ladies, and I consider it an embarrassment to our schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in any way”. Mr. Smith also was quoted as saying his high school will consider hosting an integrated prom in 2014. Consider! How’s that for leadership savvy? At first, I thought that the superintendent was responsible for finally making changes to the prom policy but found the contrary to be true. The prom was actually organized by an interracial group of students who decided enough was enough. A segregated whites only prom was still held in the county.
What makes Mr. Smith a “bad” leader? It is the fact that he is not taking the opportunity to lead his students and families into 21st century multiracial America. He did not stand up to the parents and the school board by supporting his students with an integrated prom. By allowing the district to not host any prom as a strategy to not host an integrated prom sends a terrible message to his students. The message he sent to them is that white and black students should not mix and be friends. This is unacceptable. Proms are an example of a school related activity that should be hosted by district officials with the help of volunteers not parents who want to keep white students away from black students.
Who makes the lists of “indifferent” superintendents? They are the leaders who accept educational racial disparities and gaps in their programming and achievement and do nothing about them. They allow mediocre teachers to continue to teach poorly to the very students who need access to the best educators and they allow principals to improperly lead their schools by perpetuating inequitable conditions of learning and achievement. Children under the care of these “indifferent” superintendents do not reach their potential. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond recently summed up what indifference looks like today and what America needs to do for the better. Superintendents can learn from her research and expertise. She was interviewed by Dr. Eric Cooper on NCEBC (National Council on Educating Black children) blog radio and shared her views called: Educational Inequality and America’s Future: What Must Be Done? Her key points:
- We should treat our children as our most precious resource.
- We need to advocate for an equitable school system.
- Provide equitable funding, resources and opportunities to all students not just the students who come from affluent families.
- We should pay attention and provide equitable education to English language learners, low income students and students of color. Provide the supports needed for success. This is an investment.
- Provide high quality teachers to students and high quality programming as well.
- Provide job embedded professional learning opportunities for teachers.
- Invest in high quality teachers and principals.
- Take care of our children by providing health care, housing, high quality pre-school, access to learning opportunities and meals.
- Provide enriched curriculum for all children not just basic skills.
- Analyze what is needed for children and then provide the necessary supports.
We must keep our school districts and superintendents accountable to provide equitable education for our students. It is critical for us to work together and advocate for changes or our nation will continue to decline in educational outcomes. What will we tell our grandchildren and future generations? That they were not worth the investment? As Dr. Darling- Hammond eloquently states: “We should treat our children as our most precious resource”.