Leadership Transition

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For most urban school districts, a change in superintendent is a common practice.  While we celebrate the achievements of outgoing leadership and express hope and confidence in the future, under the surface, a thousand conversations are happening.  Old stories of former superintendents are retold.  Speculation on the future is rampant.

Personally, I try not to assume too much power, for ill or good, on the part of a superintendent.  Though we might project our hopes and fears on the leader, really the quality and impact of the work is much more wrapped up in how we each show up and carry out our work on a daily basis.  Yes, a superintendent can animate action and build positive momentum, or alternatively fracture coherency and impede progress.  In the end, however, we answer to professional and moral authority more than a hierarchical one.

With that said, we’re in the midst of a leadership transition in Santa Ana.  Our board appointed Dr. Stefanie Phillips as our new superintendent, starting August 1st, this coming Monday.

Anecdotally, the general reaction has been both positive and hopeful.  I was relieved, frankly, that our Board of Education opted for an internal candidate who is committed to building on and accelerating the good work already happening.  I too am rooting for Dr. Phillips.  Her success is very much tied up with our organizational capacity to provide a transformational education for our kids.

Of course no superintendent is flawless.  Each brings a unique set of strengths and areas of weakness.  Anyone expecting a superintendent to solve every problem or improve a district in linear fashion doesn’t understand how leadership works.  We are not waiting for superman (or in our case, superwoman).  My optimism for Dr. Phillips is tempered by the complexity and enormity of the work of such a large organization.  I’m anticipating setbacks just as I am expecting real tangible wins.

The same can be said for our outgoing superintendent.  We’ll have years ahead to pick over the legacy of Dr. Rick Miller, who now transitions out and into his retirement.  His name will come up in countless lunch conversations.  As the privilege and burden of the superintendency now passes to Dr. Phillips, I wanted to share a few reflections on some of Dr. Miller’s strengths that I hope find voice in the transition.

Amplify Connections

I’ve heard many people outside of Santa Ana Unified who have commented on how the district has adopted a more open stance towards partnerships within the community and across organizations during Dr. Miller’s tenure.  Some of these efforts to connect are formalized and highly public – Principal for a Day, LCAP parent input sessions at every district school, Superintendents’ Breakfast, and the appointment of a Director of Community Relations.

Just as important has been the encouragement and celebration of informal coalition-building.  Dr. Miller has pushed for a culture of connection.  I know employees up and down the system are building relationships in the community – whether it be with the City of Santa Ana, non-profit organizations, businesses, or students and families themselves.  Some of my most fruitful work has been the result of exchanging ideas with people who are similarly committed to the success of Santa Ana youth who are not necessarily employed by the district.  These relationships take time, and they don’t always yield an immediate product.  They have to percolate.

Focus on Formative Measures of Student Growth

There’s a lot of talk in the education reform world about using student performance for evaluation purposes.  Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants (SIG) have required the integration of student growth data into their proposal process.  Most districts have nervously waited for the state to tell them what successful student performance should look like.  We’re still waiting.

Dr. Miller didn’t wait to be told what to do.  Rather than rely on one-time annual state assessments of student performance – what Dr. Miller has referred to as the “autopsy” – we’ve pivoted our focus to growth measures that have the benefit of years of statistical vetting.  Unlike SBAC, assessment instruments like DIBELS and MAP create formative data points that can be used by teachers during the year to make adaptations to practice in ways that the SBAC hasn’t and probably never really ever can.  Dr. Miller has shifted the dialogue to one that asks whether students have made a year or more of academic growth.

The impact of this shift cannot be underestimated.  It has the potential to strengthen teachers’ sense of efficacy in the classroom.  It creates opportunities for rich, data-driven conversations amongst teachers who are pursuing insight into why students in different classrooms might be experiencing different levels of academic success.  It creates more accountability for classrooms and schools that serve gifted students or students from higher socio-economic backgrounds – every student needs at least a year’s growth, regardless of where they started.

Foster Enrichment and Personalization

It’s tempting in a large system to focus entirely on collective outcomes.  Certainly the quantitative data is important to indicate the degree of success across the system.  But most numbers are averages, and don’t come close to narrating the lived experience of our students.  Yes, a graduate is a graduate is a graduate.  But you can graduate from high school having had entirely different experiences.  He cares about what that experience looks and feels like to individual students.

Dr. Miller has put a premium on enrichment and personalization.  Summer school has transformed from a primary focus on remediation to one of STEAM projects, personal exploration, and artistic expression.  After school programs give students a taste of a variety of fun, engaging learning opportunities.  He likes to say ‘yes’ when it comes to direct services and experiences for students, and he’s worked in partnership with our certificated and classified associations to find ways to make sure that staff who want to work and earn more have the opportunity to participate. These have been good years for Santa Ana students to be exposed to new technologies and learning opportunities.

At his core, I believe Dr. Miller has wanted and advocated for what each of us want for our own children – a high quality, enriching, and engaging education.  No, perhaps a school district cannot be expected to provide all of the learning experiences and opportunities a child needs to grow and develop, but he’s pushed to make the system more attentive to the interests and needs of individual students and families.

Like parents, I’m not sure educators can ever really say they are finished.  Even on his last day, today, I found Dr. Miller going about the halls of the district office, engaging in conversations about moving the work forward.  I think he did.

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