Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wanted: Superintendent, Practically Perfect in Every Way

The Richardson school district (RISD) is seeking a new superintendent. Everybody has an opinion. Expectations and demands are as high as those set by the George Banks family in Edwardian England when advertising for a nanny.

"If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition.
Rosy cheeks, no warts. Play games, all sorts.
You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet, and fairly pretty.
Take us on outings, give us treats, sing songs, bring sweets.
Never be cross or cruel. Never give us castor oil or gruel.
Love us as a son and daughter, and never smell of barley water.
Hurry, Nanny! Many thanks!
Jane and Michael Banks!"
Assuming that someone with Mary Poppins' qualifications isn't available, what criteria should be used to identify the RISD's next superintendent?

The school board is holding a series of community meetings to gather suggestions. Meetings were already held in the JJ Pearce and Lake Highlands areas. Tonight, it was Berkner and Richardson High School's turn. Twenty six people attended. Given Berkner's attendance of over 2,000 students, plus the attendance at the junior highs and elementary feeder schools, that's much less than a 1% turnout of parents alone. I infer that choosing the next superintendent is not a burning issue in Richardson and that the school system itself is not a burning issue. Regardless, I attended the Berkner community meeting and provided my own opinion of what the next superintendent should look like.

Top Ten Superintendent Characteristics

  • Ethical/Moral (I put this number one for any interpersonal interaction. If you don't understand why, I can't explain it to you)
  • Leadership (Vision, inspiration, backbone)
  • Goal-oriented (More than keeping the ship afloat, setting course too)
  • Employees/colleagues (Skillful in hiring, delegating, holding accountable)
  • Alliances (Outward looking to community, region, state)
  • Finances/business (Never forget that RISD has a $250 million budget)
  • Curriculum/instruction (Never forget that RISD's purpose is to educate)
  • Student oriented (Never forget who ultimately benefits or suffers)
  • Human relations (Success depends on relationship with others)
  • Communication (Great programs can fail if stakeholders are in the dark)

Strengths of the RISD

  • TAKS scores. RISD is the largest school district in the state with a "Recognized" status. Credit the students, parents, teachers and administrators. Reward and retain current staff.
  • Fine Arts. RISD has outstanding marching band, concert band, orchestra, choir and theater programs that win state and national recognition year after year. Preserve the programs. (Full disclosure: Ellen and I both have more than a little involvement with the RISD Fine Arts department.)
  • Community. Richardson's concentration of businesses, especially technology firms, from startups to multinational corporations, the presence of an emerging Tier 1 research university, the presence of a top quality performing arts center, all are assets the RISD should appreciate and seek to increase the benefits from.

Challenges for the RISD

  • Funding. Lack of funding and support for public schools by the state legislature is a major challenge.
  • Socio-economic decline. Richardson's aging neighborhoods lead to a lower socio-economic, increasingly diverse demographic for the city as a whole and the school district in particular. Continuing to provide an excellent education for an increasingly diverse student body will become more challenging with time. Note that diversity itself is a strength, but serving it is a challenge.
  • Looking beyond TAKS. TAKS defines minimum standards. RISD should strive to raise the upper standards as well. A big challenge will be how to make improvements in AP test scores, SAT scores, National Merit scholar numbers, talented and gifted programs, etc., without losing ground on Richardson's already admirable state TAKS accountability ratings.

It's not too late for you to provide your own input to the search firm. The district has an online survey available here.

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