California Rain Turns to Gold at National Conference on Education

A steady rain and unseasonably cold temperatures in Los Angeles did not put a damper on the 2019 National Conference on Education.

Off in the distance from our hotel, one could spot the infamous Hollywood sign perched on the Santa Monica Mountains. They say Hollywood is where the stars are. As far as I was concerned, the only stars that mattered were the 2,000 superintendents and other administrators who joined us in the City of Angels to celebrate excellence in school system leadership.

Congratulations to Curtis Jones, superintendent of Georgia’s Bibb County Schools for being named the 2019 National Superintendent of the Year®. Here’s a man who spent the first 20 years of his professional life serving in the U.S. Army and now is dedicated to providing the highest quality education to the students he serves.

Let me also congratulate Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Michigan’s Oakland Schools, and Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade Schools, for winning top honors in our Women in School Leadership Awards.

Congratulations as well to the 2019 recipients of our annual Dr. Effie H. Jones Award, a recognition of school leaders who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of equity and the advancement of women in education. Honorees included Wanda Cook-Robinson; Traci Davis, superintendent of Washoe County School District in Nevada; and Karl Hertz, past president of AASA and retired superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville School District in Wisconsin.

It wasn’t too long ago when our national conference convened over the course of three days. Today, with the expansion of our leadership services, our annual gathering, from beginning to end, stretches for about a week.

A few short years ago, we offered just two leadership cohorts. Today, that number has swelled to more than 35, mobilizing more than 2,000 superintendents as well as those aspiring to become superintendents. Participation spans all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

We were thrilled to recognize the outstanding educators who successfully completed the National Superintendent Certification Program®, Aspiring Superintendent Academy® and the Urban Superintendents Academy®. At a time when public education continues to be put under the microscope, I am so pleased that dozens of men and women who wish to grow their professional careers on behalf of students in their respective communities were honored for completing our rigorous professional development programs.

The award winners and program participants are all champions for children. They are leaders who matter. They are ambassadors of our campaign, showcasing exemplary leadership. I am proud of each and every one of them.

I thank our three General Session speakers—former U.S. National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice; Bill Daggett, the founder and chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education; and former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott. We owe each of them a debt of gratitude for joining us.

A final thank you to all the public education leaders who made the journey to Los Angeles for our special event. We hope you enjoyed the conference as much as I did. The AASA family looks forward to seeing you in San Diego for the 2020 National Conference on Education.

For wall-to-wall coverage of AASA’s 2019 national conference, visit Conference Daily Online.  

Dan Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Creating Cultures Through Cohorts

By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, February 2019

THOUSANDS OF SCHOOL superintendents will convene this month in Los Angeles to attend AASA’s National Conference on Education. The attendees will be exposed to more than 100 sessions focusing on topics relevant to their work as the educational leaders of their communities.

The General Sessions will include a discussion I will have with former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. Always a popular presenter at our national conference, Bill Daggett will share his latest research on innovative practices, while former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott will deliver an excellent talk on how he overcame having one hand yet still pitched a no-hitter with the New York Yankees. It’s a gripping story relevant to the bullying and adversity that students with disabilities face.

The conference also provides for professional networking with colleagues. We have discovered through the many leadership development opportunities AASA provides that educational leaders greatly value the time to engage in discussions with critical friends. Learning from one another and knowing that you can reach out to others for counsel when needed is essential for personal growth and professional development.

Championing Children
Leadership development is a critical component of our mission. As a nation now divided, perhaps it is too late for the adults to reconcile, yet as educators we must do everything we can to ensure our youth, who are our country’s future, come together to overcome those differences. Our schools must become the safe havens that embrace diversity and equity and affirm the last words in the Pledge of Allegiance: “liberty and justice for all.”

Consequently, the role of the superintendent as the champion for children and public education is more important than ever. AASA will carry your message to Congress and to the U.S. Department of Education, but at the local level, you must prevail. AASA is here to support you in that effort.

In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed a system of public education for males only and further studies that were limited to the best students. We have progressed much further than that but, in many ways, we still focus on the best students. Consider that our goal is to prepare our students to be college-ready, yet the reality is that fewer than 40 percent of our students earn a four-year college degree. The focus is still on our “best” students.

What happens to the other 60 percent? Have we done enough to make them “career-ready”? According to corporate America, we have not. They constantly bring up the fact that there are thousands of skilled jobs that cannot be filled because we have not trained students to capably handle them.

Networking Cohorts
At a recent meeting of our superintendent/community college president cohort, cosponsored with the American Association for Community Colleges, a participating superintendent said that when he asked a group of parents how many wanted their children to be four-year college graduates, they all raised their hands. We are living in a culture where a vocational education is not desirable. A skilled laborer is not given the same respect as a college graduate. Statistics show a direct positive correlation between earnings and level of education.

AASA’s Redefining Ready! cohort is trying to change that culture. Yes, we still want to provide our students with the quality education that enables them to pursue the highest degree they want to achieve, but at the same time we must provide students with the option to pursue alternative pathways. Our partnership with AACC has resulted in a significant increase in dual credit programs where high school students are graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree. Youth apprenticeship programs create collaboratives among high schools, community colleges and businesses that provide students with an education while they learn a trade and are guaranteed employment.

Our Personalized Learning cohort seeks to transform education as we know it and to redesign it into a 21st-century version that provides every student with instruction that is always appropriate to their ability and interests. The true definition of equity is not to provide all students with the same, but to provide each student with what he or she needs to be successful. Students will progress at their own pace and assume responsibility for their learning as they choose the areas of study that interest them.

AASA members are hard at work creating a culture that will produce a bright future for all. 
 is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan

Equity on Visible Display in Ecuador

By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, January 2019

FOR MANY YEARS, AASA has conducted its international seminar to provide our members with the opportunity to see education up close and personal in countries across the world. I first participated in the seminar in 1998, the year that I was president of AASA, when we went to Cuba. Traveling to Cuba then was quite different than traveling there now, but our group still had an amazing experience.

Since becoming AASA executive director 10 years ago, I have had the opportunity to travel extensively with our members. This past October, the international seminar took the group to Ecuador, with a side visit to the Galapagos Islands. Compulsory education there begins at age 6, although pre-school and infant care programs are available in select private and public schools. The secondary program goes from ages 12 to 18 and encompasses the equivalent of our middle school and high school.

Postsecondary technical schools are similar to our community colleges, and four-year university programs lead to a bachelor’s degree. Fewer than 20 percent of high school graduates attend college, with the majority attending public universities, and some 20 percent attending private schools.

High Calibre
Our first visit was to the American International School in Quito. I have the honor of serving on the advisory board to the Office of Overseas Schools, a section within the U.S. Department of State whose mission is “to promote quality educational opportunities at the elementary and secondary level for dependents of American citizens carrying out programs and interests of the U.S. government abroad.” My experience always has been that these schools are among the best in the countries we visit. Although they must comply with the rules and regulations of the host country, they tend to follow “American educational principles and methods employed in the United States.”

The International School in Quito was no exception to the rule. It is an outstanding institution providing the highest-quality education to the students it serves. At capacity serving more than 800 students, the school has a waiting list even though tuition runs $18,000 a year. The student population has an international flavor with 58 percent being international, 42 percent Ecuadorian and 22 percent North American.

We next visited the Vigotsky School in Riobamba, also a private school serving more than 1,000 students from age 3 through high school. Their base is mostly middle-class, charging a tuition of $77 per month. They tend to follow the American Productivity and Quality Center standards and focus on English instruction. Indeed, one of the high school classes we visited demonstrated proficiency in English, sounding just like American high schoolers.

Our first visit to a public school was the Milenio School in Guano. This school also offers pre-K to high school in a facility that is only five years old and brought together students from seven smaller schools in the community. The school’s population is predominantly poor indigenous children. Holguer Paucar, the school’s director, expressed pride in the facilities, which include athletic fields, science labs, language labs and libraries.

The milenio schools in Ecuador were the brainchild of the nation’s previous president who sought to provide quality education facilities for the poor. The Guano school has become the focal point for a community that takes advantage of the facility to stage community events. It epitomizes the community school model we foster here in the U.S.

Paucar, however, shared his deep concern that although students benefit significantly from an improved environment, the quality of the curriculum and the high level of instruction that should accompany such a beautiful school are seriously lacking.

Resource Poor
In the Galapagos, members of our seminar contingent visited the Carlos Darwin School, a K-7 facility with 75 students and seven educators. The school has a so-named “institutional leader” who doubles as a 6th-grade teacher. Darwin and other schools on the islands are small, poorly equipped and suffering from a weak teacher base. Isolation is a major factor in limited teacher training and professional development.

Equity is a major concern in the countries we have visited over the years. In Ecuador, we saw exceptional schools and quality education for those able to afford it. But for the poor, even when the government stepped in to build a beautiful facility, the quality of the curriculum and instruction was not up to par.  

Our Campaign To Show How Leaders Matter

By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, December 2018

MY PARENTS WERE proud of me when I became a teacher and then moved into administration. They were aware I was in a Ph.D. program that would lead to further advancement.

When I called my mother to proudly inform her that I had been appointed superintendent of the Deer Park School District in New York, I heard a deafening silence at the other end. I asked her if she had heard me, and she finally replied, with an edge to her voice, “Son, after all of these years of study, you have accepted a job as a superintendent?”

As a New York City resident, my mother knew the superintendent as the individual who maintained the buildings we lived in. She was perplexed as to why I had made such a drastic change in occupation.

A Role Explained
Like my mother, many people do not really know what the superintendent does. Friends who knew the superintendent was the person in charge of the school district still assumed I had a regular school day schedule and my hours ended when school let out, plus I had summers off.

Earlier this year, AASA launched the Leaders Matter campaign to better inform the public about the role and responsibilities of the superintendent and to highlight outstanding education leaders who are making a difference in the lives of millions of children. Four such examples follow.

Mary Sieu has been the superintendent of the ABC Unified School District outside Los Angeles since 2012. As the daughter of an immigrant family from China, she learned English as a second language in the Chicago Public Schools and was inspired to become a teacher by the wonderful teachers and principals in her schools.

Though she grew up in poverty, Sieu believed demographics do not determine destiny. She proved that in her own case and was determined to make that belief a reality for the ethnically diverse and low-income students in the ABC communities. Today, the district boasts of a 98 percent high school graduation rate with zero expulsions for the past six years. Sieu’s leadership matters, and she has been recognized by her colleagues who selected her to be the 2017 California Superintendent of the Year and a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year®.

David Schuler has been the superintendent of Township High School District 214 outside Chicago since 2005. Schuler, the 2018 National Superintendent of the Year®, has taken the lead in launching the Redefining Ready! campaign that has been adopted by school districts nationwide.

At a time when so much emphasis and importance is attributed to the results of scores on standardized tests, Schuler is changing the definition to include a wider range of metrics to indicate postsecondary readiness.

District 214 has become a demonstration site that shows the multiple pathways that students can choose toward a high school diploma and college and career readiness. Indeed, students are empowered to exercise their intellectual curiosity and pursue courses of study that truly motivate them. District 214 boasts six nationally recognized comprehensive high schools offering more than 600 academic courses and 140 co-curricular opportunities.

Wendy Robinson has been the superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools in Fort Wayne, Ind., since 2003. Realizing the need to have highly trained and effective staff to meet the needs of her diverse student population, Robinson focused on developing an outstanding professional development system. She began by turning the traditional evaluation system into a learning process rather than an accountability process. The goal was not to punitively evaluate but to provide needed support.

Working with Learning Forward, the district developed a districtwide culture of continuous improvement. Their success led to a $42 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant followed by a $50 million Performance+Equity=Excellent Results grant.

Mike Winstead is the superintendent of the Maryville City Schools in Tennessee. The achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers has been a bone of contention for most school systems. Winstead decided to tackle the issue in his district.

He focused on 3rd-grade reading where the gap was at 25 percent. A literacy council composed of teachers with a strong aptitude for teaching reading developed a literacy framework that included materials for the students and training for staff. Literacy support for the students extended beyond the school day and during the summer months. Tutoring was provided to students living in subsidized housing. In just a two-year period, the literacy efforts resulted in the reduction of the achievement gap to just 12 percent.

Giving Thanks … in More Than 13,000 Ways

As families coast to coast are celebrating this blessed Thanksgiving holiday, I am so proud of the more than 13,000 school district leaders who are working diligently to enhance the lives of our young learners.

Thank you for the powerful contributions you are creating and providing on behalf of the future leaders of society.

Thank you for serving as a voice for our public schools, the real lifeblood of our democracy.

Thank you for being champions for children.

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A Comparison Between Public & Private Schools on the International Seminar

This year’s AASA International Seminar took our group of superintendents to Ecuador. This was not our first journey to South America and we found education in Ecuador to be very similar to what we have seen in Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Chile.

AASA President Chris Gaines and Executive Director Dan Domenech with children from the Milenio School in Guano, Ecuador.

Like their neighbors, Ecuador’s public schools serve primarily the poor while the middle class and up tend to send their children to private schools. We visited two such schools, the American International School in Quito and the Vigotsky School in Riobamba.

The International school is truly a model of outstanding education. Catering to the children of American diplomats and those that can afford the $18,000 per-year tuition, the school offers programs to infants through high school. We were very impressed by the college-like campus and the quality of the teachers and administrators.

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A Visit to Unidad Educativa del Milenio GUANO during the AASA International Seminar

A guest blog post by Amy Sichel and Gladys Cruz

Today, we began our school visits at the Unidad Educativa del Milenio GUANO, a Pre-K to high school, housed in a four-and-a-half year-old government-built facility. The school has an enrollment of 630 students who previously attended seven different smaller schools now consolidated into one new building.

The children attend school from September 4 through July 10 and live in the area of Guano. Some children are bused to school.

As superintendents from across the U.S., we appreciate the opportunity to see the value placed on education in other countries. Clearly, other countries often aspire to provide a mandatory education for all, as we do.

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Next Stop on the 2018 AASA International Seminar: A School on San Cristobal Island in Galapagos

A guest post by Gladys Cruz

I ventured to visit schools on a hot sunny morning on the island. Not knowing if I would be given entrance to the schools, I decided to take the risk and was joined by David Woolly, the superintendent of the Alma School District in Alma, Ark.

Given the lure around Charles Darwin on the Galápagos Islands, I was immediately attracted to visiting the Carlos Darwin School. Upon arrival, a native from Ecuador greeted us.

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First Stop on the 2018 AASA International Seminar: Academia Cotopaxi

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel

The AASA International Seminar is always a meaningful experience for superintendents. During this year’s trip, we are learning about the culture and history of Ecuador, which includes the opportunity to visit schools. The value added is traveling with fellow superintendents from across our country, making connections and learning from each other.

Superintendents on the AASA International Seminar listen to a presentation at the American International School in Quito, Ecuador.

Our first school visit was to Academia Cotopaxi, an American International School, educating children from 12-months-old to high school. This school has a beautiful campus and is located in Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. The Academia is a private, English-based international school. The parents of many of the children who attend are stationed in Quito either through the embassy or are U.S. government officials. The children come from 38 different countries with a total enrollment of 850. Fifty-eight percent of the students are international, 42 percent are from Ecuador and 22 percent are from North America. The tuition is $18,000 per student.

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Remembering 911

he Message of an Unforgettable Day
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, September 2018

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY Public Schools’ leadership team always met on Tuesday mornings. On Sept. 11, 2001, my administrative assistant walked into the meeting room to place a note in front of me. It read: “The North Tower of the World Trade Center has been hit by an airplane.” She did so because she knew that, as a New Yorker, I would be interested.

Initially, I assumed the pilot of a small plane, blinded by sunlight, had crashed into the building. Half an hour later she came back to inform me another airplane had crashed into the South Tower. Recognizing this as an improbable coincidence, I dismissed the meeting and requested everyone return to their posts. I had barely reached my office when the report came in that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

Fairfax County, where I was the superintendent, not only is located in proximity to the Pentagon, but it also is home to CIA headquarters, the National Reconnaissance Center and Fort Belvoir, all major military and intelligence operations. When my phone rang, an agent from one of the federal agencies informed me of the likelihood we were under attack and that additional planes were in the air with targets unknown, but certainly in our area.

Rapid Mobilization
We had to mobilize quickly. Every September, our district sends all of its 5th graders — about 13,000 — to the Wolf Trap International Children’s Festival. It’s a special, youth-oriented cultural affair dedicated to the performing, visual and interactive arts. Because Wolf Trap is located eight miles from CIA headquarters, I realized our students were on buses that were near a potential target. I immediately called my transportation director and instructed him to contact all the buses and have them return the children to their respective schools — 140 elementary schools spread across the county.

Television news then flashed the bulletin that another plane had crashed in western Pennsylvania. The possibility that we were under attack was credible. Panic and chaos quickly spread throughout the Washington, D.C., region. I sent a message to all 190 schools and centers that they were now on lockdown. Not knowing how long the situation would last, the directive was that no child would be allowed to leave school unless picked up by an authorized adult. Similarly, all staff were directed to remain at their posts until further notice. At that point, the overwhelmed communication systems crashed, and we were all in the dark, waiting for the next explosion, the next attack.

Hours passed without any additional incidents, but the escape out of the D.C. area created massive traffic jams. Many parents were unable to retrieve their children until late that evening. They were appreciative that the schools had kept them in a safe environment rather than dismissing them into a potential war zone. I was incredibly proud of our staff who, to an individual, remained at their posts until the last child was retrieved. Many had friends and relatives at the Pentagon and were aware of the assault on that facility, but they stayed to protect the children under their care.

After the smoke cleared and search and rescue operations were completed at the Pentagon, we learned more than 200 had lost their lives there, many of them the spouses, relatives and friends of our staff.

Conscious Avoidance
As a former New Yorker, I hold many memories of the World Trade Center. The New York State Education Department had offices in the building, where I attended many meetings. I had been part of many conferences at the hotel in the building complex, as well as dinners at Windows on the World atop the North Tower.

The New York City Education Department also had offices at the World Trade Center, and it was there in 1995 that the city’s board of education voted unanimously to name me its chancellor of schools, an appointment that lasted only 24 hours, but that’s another story.

I had consciously avoided visiting the 911 Memorial & Museum. I was not sure I could handle the memories it would evoke. I recently made the trip, 17 years later. I am glad I did because it will forever be a reminder of the 2,996 lives lost and the more than 6,000 people injured by an attack on our country’s mainland. I found it’s also a good reminder of how important it is that we remain a United States of America.

is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan