Five Inspiring School Leaders I Met This Year

As editor of Scholastic Administr@tor magazine, one of the best parts of my job is meeting inspiring educators and learning about what they are doing and how it is working for children. Over the past 12 months, I’ve had the pleasure of touring numerous schools including High Tech High in San Diego, Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago, and Williamsfield High School in Illinois.

Getting inside schools, seeing children work, talking with teachers and students, makes it clear how important—and hard—the work of education is. Here are five of the most interesting leaders we had the pleasure of spending time with in 2016.

Tim Farquer (Superintendent, Williamsfield Community Unit School District #210, Illinois) – It’s not everyday that a district of 300 students gets to host the U.S. Secretary of Education, but when Arne Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour pulled up to this one-building K-12 district, Williamsfield was ready. Nestled within acres of cornfields, Farquer has transformed his district by eschewing textbooks and embracing open educational resources. The superintendent figured that by spending the district’s money on computers, he could push his schools to one-to-one. Finding the right materials and getting teachers to enthusiastically buy-in has helped his students feel a part of the larger world. “This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where [it needs] to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”

Kenneth Grover (Principal, Innovations Early College High School, Salt Lake City) – As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, Grover kept seeing firsthand how some students just didn’t fit into the district’s range of high schools. He knew that a different model would help these students, something that was more molded to their individual needs. Grover went in search of a model, but couldn’t find what he wanted, so he set out to create what he knew was needed from scratch. A few years later, Innovations was born. Today, students in the public high school are firmly in charge of their learning, controlling the time, path, and pace of their education. “We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” Grover said.

Mark Benigni (Superintendent, Meriden (CT) Public Schools) – It would be easy for Mark Benigni to complain about what he doesn’t have in his school district. In the five years he has led Meriden, the small urban district hasn’t gotten a single budget increase, while its percentage of free and reduced-lunch students and English-language learners has continued to increase. Still, Benigni knew he needed a new program to shake up the district and reinvigorate teachers and students alike. Working closely with his teachers union, the superintendent was able to create an extended learning program at two of his elementary schools. This program brings children into school early for fun (and educational) tasks, while allowing his staff ample leeway in creating the content that stretches each day an additional 90 minutes. Absences are down, student engagement is up, and Benigni is hoping to continue to expand the program to more schools.   

Brad Rumble (Principal, Esperanza Elementary School, Los Angeles) -- When most people look out at this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, they look right past the section that grabbed principal Brad Rumble’s attention. That’s understandable, for on the road that stretches 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, the portion that jumped out at Rumble is just a 100-foot-long space filled with debris and barbed wire. But it wasn’t the clutter that grabbed Rumble’s attention, it was the possibility. The principal of Esperanza Elementary School, who’s also a Los Angeles Audubon Society board member, eyed the spot as a perfect place to restore a little nature in the middle of L.A.’s urban jungle. “We are embarking on the re-wilding of Wilshire Boulevard,” Rumble said, harkening back to the 1890s when Henry Wilshire first created a path on his barley field. Rumble is creating an outdoor classroom where students will be able to study native plants, and pretty soon, birding. “Birding works for students on so many levels,” Rumble added. Birding strengthens students’ power of observation and the social skills it takes them to interact with each other is a perfect complement for today’s more rigorous standards, he said.

Mike Oliver (Principal, Zaharis Elementary School, Mesa, Arizona) – Just one step into Mike Oliver’s office at Zaharis and you get the sense that something different is happening. Oliver’s office could be confused for an adjunct library as he’s used rain gutters to hold books from the ceiling to the floor. “We’ve decided to flood our school and our classrooms with real books,” the principal said. Classrooms are well stocked with a variety of books and comfortable reading spaces, ranging from couches to a refashioned bathtub. While students are encouraged to read and share their discoveries, so are Zaharis’s teachers. Staff frequently share what they are reading with children, all in the hope of creating lifelong readers who are also critical thinkers.

Photo: Mike Oliver, Principal, Zaharis Elementary School