Profile: Kristen Stringfellow
Personal Challenges in South Kingstown
BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, April 2017
Kristen Stringfellow knows what it’s like to be the new kid in school. As a child, she moved 18 times as her divorced mother sought work and affordable housing.
“I was always the new kid,” she says. “Always.”
Stringfellow, now superintendent of Rhode Island’s South Kingstown School District, bounced from her mother’s house to her grandparents’ to her aunt’s. Sometimes she accidentally left her backpack — and her homework — behind. Her mother and grandparents, while loving and supportive, often could not help her with the “new math” or much of her other schoolwork.
Those early life experiences stayed with her. “I’m very aware of kids feeling welcomed and fitting in and feeling like they matter,” she says.
Since Stringfellow took over the leadership of her 3,300-student district in 2009, she has initiated or expanded a raft of programs to ensure all students get the learning support they need, regardless of their home lives. They include before- and after-school help centers, “maker spaces” in libraries and a one-to-one technology initiative.
Most notably, the district introduced a dual-language immersion program. Stringfellow embraced the idea after then-Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist convened school leaders to meet with the heads of the largest companies in the state. To compete globally, the CEOs said, they desperately needed a bilingual workforce.
Stringfellow took it as a personal challenge. “I left that meeting thinking, ‘The entire Rhode Island economy is relying on me. We have to start a bilingual immersion program.’”
Despite the fact the seaside district, 30 miles south of Providence, has no native Spanish-speaking students, she did just that. The voluntary program teaches kindergartners and 1st graders entirely in Spanish for half the school day. In middle school, the cohort will have one of the four core courses taught fully in Spanish. In 8th grade, they’ll take the AP Spanish exam.
“By the end of kindergarten, they are in my opinion fluent in Spanish and they sound like native Spanish speakers, and they’re 5 years old,” the superintendent says. “It puts a smile on your face that can’t be wiped off.”
Named 2017 Rhode Island Superintendent of the Year, she has pushed through those innovations despite severe funding cuts caused by changes in the state’s school finance system.
Mike Farrelly, president of South Kingstown’s teachers’ union, says Stringfellow has managed all this through a transparent, collaborative approach — and the expansion of teacher-leader positions, particularly through participation in the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.
“There is buy-in in terms of their enthusiasm for the work,” he says of the district’s teachers. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck model.”
School board member Raissa Mosher adds another key to the superintendent’s success: “She’s the hardest working person I think I have ever met, so her expectations are very high for her staff. But she’s working very, very hard right beside them.”
Meanwhile, Stringfellow promised herself that she would give her own family a rock-solid home life. All four of her children, now grown, lived in the same house and attended the same schools through the entirety of their K-12 careers.
Paul Riede is a journalism instructor at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y. E-mail: email@example.com
BIO STATS: KRISTEN STRINGFELLOW
: superintendent, South Kingstown, R.I.
: assistant superintendent, Scituate, R.I.
Greatest influence on career
: As a primary grades teacher, I came home complaining about the principal and how difficult he was with teachers, how inflexible he was with diverse groups of parents. My husband Peter, my greatest cheerleader and supporter, challenged me: “If you think you can make a school better for students and teachers, maybe you should become a principal.” The rest is history.
Best professional day
: Graduation day. To have the rare privilege to personally honor and congratulate each student in my district.
Books at bedside
: Mind in Society
by Lev Vygotsky; Pedagogy of the Oppressed
by Paulo Freire; Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap
by Richard DuFour.
: Attempting to open an alternative high school quickly because of an urgent need and not taking time to research best practice, visit other programs, train staff and get buy-in from all stakeholders. A rookie mistake.
Why I’m an AASA member
: I enjoy growing and changing and AASA provides best-practice research and information and serves as the flagship for superintendents nationwide to work, think and learn together.