Five inspiring superintendents we met this year

Whether we’ve met at conferences or talked by phone, the staff of Scholastic Administrator magazine has had the pleasure of crossing paths with many inspiring superintendents this year. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the students who attend their schools. Some of these leaders took the reins of their districts after moving up the ranks from teacher to principal to central office staff. Others have been chosen to lead districts because of their qualifications in management and business. Here are five such superintendents we’ve profiled in 2014 who are leading their school districts to success:

  • Michele Taylor (Calhoun City Schools, Georgia) -- Ms. Taylor is a homegrown product of Calhoun City’s school having served in just about every role from student up through superintendent. She was recognized as Georgia’s 2014 Superintendent of the Year, and we quickly found out why. The high school graduation rate soared from 67 percent in 2003 to 94 percent in most recent years. Personnel within the district credit this accomplishment to Taylor’s emphasis on analyzing data. “Teachers were living and breathing data and utilizing it to make instructional decisions,” a retired principal from the district told us. Taylor also led the charge for building sorely needed new facilities, garnering community support to pass a bond referendum at the height of the recession.
  • Frank Till Jr. (Cumberland County Schools, North Carolina) --Mr. Till’s district was a finalist for the coveted Broad Prize in 2013, a distinction given to large, urban districts for narrowing the achievement gap. Cumberland County stood out from the competition because its graduation rate increased at twice that of comparable districts from across the country. When we spoke with Till, he told us that he no longer focused on overall proficiency rates in a class or by schools. “We stopped talking about proficiencies and started talking about every student making it,” he said. Like Ms. Taylor, Mr. Till also made data analysis a pivotal component of conversations about student achievement and constantly focuses on growth for both staff and students alike.
  • Cindy Marten (San Diego Unified School District, California) -- Ms. Marten became the unanimously appointed—albeit unexpected—superintendent of California’s second-largest school district in 2013. With her background in literacy instruction and as an elementary principal in the district, she has focused on fostering equity across all neighborhood schools. She also has made parent input and teacher support a priority early on in her tenure, understanding that the people within a community are what bolster a solid school system. "I really believe in teachers. I believe that the heart of the classroom is a high-quality teacher who is well supported," Marten told us. "I really believe in the role of the parent as equal partner in how we do our work.”
  • J. Alvin Wilbanks (Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia) -- The Broad Prize is so prestigious that we couldn’t help but take note when it was handed out again this past fall. Having won in 2010, Gwinnett County received the $1 million prize again in 2014 (this time sharing it with Orange County Public Schools in Florida). What’s behind the success? Stability, for sure. Mr. Wilbanks has been CEO and superintendent since 1996—a tenure that is almost unheard of as far as superintendents go. Over that time, he has developed a deep relationship with an equally stable board of education. Among the district’s accomplishments are higher proficiency rates for black and low-income students, as well as notable participation rates in AP programs and the SAT. Mr. Wilbanks credits the district’s ongoing success to a dissatisfaction with the status quo, noting that what has worked in the past might not prepare students for the future.
  • Robert Runcie (Broward County Public Schools, Florida) -- Mr. Runcie took the helm of Broward County’s schools after serving as chief of staff to the board of education in Chicago Public Schools under Arne Duncan. When he arrived in the Florida district in 2011, student behavior was a major issue and, in turn, impacted academic achievement. “We had the largest number of student arrests, expulsions, and suspensions in the state of Florida,” Runcie recounted. “That’s not a category you want to be a winner in.” His team revised zero-tolerance policies to cut off the school-to-prison pipeline. In place of expulsions, Broward County instituted programs that included mentorship and counseling. As a result, Runcie told us expulsions, suspensions, and arrests were all down by at least 50 percent as of last spring.

Do you know an inspiring school administrator we should meet in 2015? Tweet us at @ScholasticAdms to introduce us.

PHOTOS: 1.courtesy of michele taylor 2.courtesy of cumberland county schools (Nc) 3.Peggy Peattie/U-T San Diego/ZUMA Press 4.Invision for The Broad Foundation 5.Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/ZUMAPRESS.com