Superintendents in Classroom with Arkansas Leadership Academy
Superintendents from 28 school districts across the state took part in the yearlong institute focusing on systems change conducted by the Arkansas Leadership Academy.
School superintendents are expected to have all the answers. They are community leaders, especially in small towns like those that make up a mostly rural state such as Arkansas.
But, for one year, 28 superintendents from across the state gathered to ask questions. They learned from some of the leading educators in the nation and they learned from each other.
The Arkansas Leadership Academy at the University of Arkansas offers opportunities to principals, teachers and other school personnel – more than 10,000 of them since 1991 – to develop their leadership skills with the end goal of improving student learning.
A year ago, the academy launched a new institute, this one to carefully selected superintendents. The districts that were represented ranged from Springdale in northwest Arkansas, one of the largest and most diverse districts in the state, to Fouke, 13 miles south of Texarkana. Springdale reported 16,511 students last year, while Fouke had about 1,000 students. The institute drew superintendents from the eastern corners of the state, too, from the Blytheville and McGehee districts.
The institute's theme was systems change.
"We believe change takes place faster in groups," explained Beverly Elliott, director of the Arkansas Leadership Academy, which is based in the College of Education and Health Professions. "People can support each other. We at the academy asked them what they need and where they are. That's how this institute started."
With guidance from representatives of the national Council of Chief State School Officers and Collaborative Communications Group of Washington, D.C., at a meeting in July 2006, the participants got to know each other, formed collaborative working groups and mapped out goals for themselves for the upcoming year. Everyone met in person three more times at various locations and communicated online while they worked on their plans in the subsequent months.
Some of their goals included how to raise academic achievement levels by 5 percent, how to increase parental involvement and how to add a service requirement for graduation. They studied trends in education and what they called hot spots, where innovative techniques were being tried, and then learned about new technology and its impact in educational settings.
"The institute really pushed them to think of the possibilities and of the circumstances they would be facing in the future," Elliott said. "Superintendents 10 years ago didn't think about diversity as a driving force but now it's here. In the institute, they looked at how they could prepare the school system to be proactive, instead of waiting and reacting to changes. We brought in people to discuss what's coming tomorrow and what some people are doing."
One presenter, Jack Dale, superintendent of Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, talked about his idea of putting teachers on a 12-month contract so that they could devote more time to leadership functions. Teachers would be compensated based on responsibilities in addition to the traditional teaching function. The new responsibilities included mentoring other teachers, both before the school year started and throughout the year, and tutoring and nurturing struggling students outside normal class time.
Dale and others who talked with the Arkansas superintendents have real-world experience, Elliott emphasized. They're not paid consultants who haven't spent time in a classroom. The academy looked for speakers who could describe something they tried and explain how well it worked or didn't work.
Debbie Beldock directs special projects for prekindergarten through 12th grade in the San Diego school system. She used vacation days to meet with the Arkansas educators, describing the importance of developing an accountability system based on data, how certain leadership behavior can positively influence teaching and learning and how to organize the operations of a school district around the improvement of instruction.
Even the University of Arkansas' own Denise Airola, assistant director of the National Office for Research, Measurement and Evaluation Systems, brings her experience as a classroom teacher in four states to her job teaching educators how to use databases on academic achievement as measured in standardized tests. In her session, she explained how NORMES uses interactive technology to identify best educational practices and curriculum interventions contributing to improved student achievement. The office based in the College of Education and Health Professions provides an improved system for early detection of students at risk academically and the specific information necessary for educators to help those students.
A Web seminar presented by the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., took the Arkansas administrators on a world tour of achievement patterns and then narrowed in on U.S. schools that have overcome poverty and other challenges and are showing achievement gains.
The superintendents completed the institute in July 2007 and as charter members are helping with plans for the second year. They recommended colleagues to be invited in the opening of the next program in September at Mount Magazine.
The academy designed the institute to offer a different type of atmosphere, more of a learning culture, than the typical business meetings superintendents may attend each year, according to Elliott. The superintendents may know a name and a face, but the institute gives them a chance to learn each other's strengths. By working together in the institute, they become a huge network of people who trust each other. They can pick up the phone and ask someone they now know better for advice.
"The culture dictates that superintendents know the answers," Elliott said. "They don't have many opportunities to learn, and for superintendents from very small to very large districts to see each other sitting there, taking notes, asking questions, it's liberating in a way. Superintendents are under tremendous pressure from parents, the media and their own faculties, but here in the institute, they can open themselves up to something they may know nothing about.
"If we're successful, more adults learn and more children learn."
Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions
(479) 575-3138, email@example.com