New Connecticut Regional School District 14 Superintendent Jody Goeler credits the Advanced Leadership Development Institute for Early Career Superintendents at the Neag School of Education with giving him not just the tools, support and opportunities needed to better manage the practical, day-to-day aspects of his job, but also to tackle the unavoidable sticky—and inevitably unexpected—situations.
“When you’re the superintendent of schools, you’re literally the only one in town, and it sometimes can be a lonely position,” said Goeler, who was assistant superintendent in Avon before becoming the head of District 14, which covers Bethlehem and Woodury, in August. “But the Institute has given me the opportunity to develop strong networks and relationships with others doing similar work. It challenges my thinking and has given me real-experience answers to challenges related to all matter of my work.”
Created as part of an ongoing partnership with the Connecticut Association of Public Schools Superintendents (CAPSS), the CAPSS/Neag Early Career Superintendent Institute provides superintendents who’ve been at the job three years or fewer the opportunity to actively participate in purposely structured seminars with other early career superintendents, said Robert M. Villanova, Ph.D, who co-facilitates the Institute with Diane Ullman, Ph.D., Simsbury’s superintendent of schools and adjunct faculty member at the Neag School of Education.
“Even experienced leaders require a network of support and continuing education,” said Dr. Villanova, a professor in the Neag School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and former schools superintendent himself. “Learning and the need for ongoing professional development doesn’t stop because you’ve been appointed superintendent, and the truth is that there’s a big difference in the scope of responsibility between serving as an assistant or deputy superintendent and the one with the ultimate responsibility for leading school district improvement.
“The position of superintendent is unique, and the benefits associated with participating in an ongoing professional learning community made up of other superintendent colleagues cannot be overstated,” he continued.
Focused on providing the kind of strategic leadership support that can help a superintendent stay focused on district leadership work that has the best chance of improving district effectiveness and performance, the Institute meets roughly nine times during the school year at the CAPSS headquarters, 26 Caya Ave., West Hartford. Based on past participants’ feedback, classes take place on either a Tuesday or Wednesday from 9:30-11:45 a.m., after which superintendents can either stay and network in small groups over lunch or head back to their districts.
Neag faculty and experienced CAPSS superintendents often participate and help guide Institute sessions. Each session is organized around the following activities:
- Problems of Practice Analysis. Either facilitators or Institute participants introduce a timely district leadership “problem of practice”—authentic district leadership challenges that superintendents face in leading school districts. Institute facilitators or other invited, experienced superintendents present specific examples of district leadership challenges, such as how to work with the board of education in developing and presenting the district budget; strategies to use in supporting and developing the instructional leadership capacity of principals; and successful strategies used to develop a collaborative and results-oriented partnership with the board of education. Other topics addressed in recent seminars have included ethics and decision making in district leadership, creating the conditions for transparency and accountability, and strategies to engage the full range of community stakeholders.
- Collaborative Inquiry Around a Particular Problem of Practice. A superintendent presents a real and pressing problem he or she is facing that is directly related to improving district performance. Through a structured, reflective protocol, colleague superintendents then offer analysis, suggestions and a practical take-aways for the presenting superintendent to consider. These take-aways most often result in new perspectives and learning for each superintendent in the group.
- “Pressing Issue” Roundtable. Each participant briefly shares a current and “pressing” district leadership challenge, and members of the group both give and receive feedback. These pressing issues often become the focus of future practice problem analyses.
“To have a district that values learning, you need to have a superintendent who values learning—and the Advanced Leadership Development Institute for Early Career Superintendents provides an opportunity for superintendents to model that learning; to show that they are committed to their own continual learning and growing, which hopefully will have a trickle-down effect, inspiring other administrators, principals, teachers and students to do the same,” Villanova said.
But it’s more than a belief in education that drives the program, Villanova explained. There’s a real need.
Each year, roughly 39 of Connecticut’s 157 public school districts get a new superintendent, said CAPSS Executive Director Joeph Cirasuolo, which means that at any given time, 25 percent of Connecticut’s educational leaders are facing new challenges and responsibilities—and need a proven resource to turn to for best practices in district leadership.
“The access to experienced superintendents that the Institute provides gives participants years of experience, knowledge and leadership to learn from,” said Wolcott Schools Superintendent Joseph Macary, who’s attended the program since 2009. “The sessions are collaborative, there’s always time for discussions, and you leave knowing that you’re not alone—and that you have colleagues to reach out to, if needed.”
Cost for the program is covered by CAPSS through each superintendent’s membership dues, which means that any Connecticut superintendent who’s been in the role three years or fewer is eligible to attend. Soon-to-be superintendents can also attend—a benefit that Seymour Assistant Superintendent Christine Syriac is taking advantage of right now. She’ll become Seymour’s schools superintendent in July.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s much more to gain from working as a team than as an individual,” Syriac said, “and the Institute team has provided me with so much: a common language, the opportunity for dialogue, access to applied research, and the opportunity to learn from highly experienced and respected educational leaders. Being a part of this team also helps remind me not to get lost in everyday minutia and to keep sight of our goals, our students and our instructional core.”
Although each new program cycle begins in September and ends in May, eligible superintendents may join on a rolling basis and start at any time. However, a commitment to be an active participant is required.
“We come to rely and count on each other—something that I imagine will continue after our time in the program is over,” said Newington Deputy Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Schumann, who on July 1 will become Enfield’s superintendent of schools. “Building these relationships is nothing but beneficial, as is having this direct connection with the Neag School of Education and all of its resources, research and timely information on virtually any topic a new superintendent might face.”
For more information about the program, contact Villanova at (860) 486-4812 or Robert.Villanova@uconn.edu. Register through CAPSS by calling (860) 236-8640.