Homegrown Superintendents
Plenty of upsides to leading the schools you once attended, but the personal connection can complicate decision making
BY SCOTT LAFEE/School Administrator, October 2018

San Juan, Calif., Unified School District Superintendent Kent Kern sits in the rear of a classroom with kindergarteners at Northridge Elementary School to celebrate National Teddy Bear Day.
Matt and Steve are not their real names, but they are real people and in many ways, one and the same. Both head small, rural Midwestern K-12 school districts in farming areas of comparable size and demographics. As students, both attended the schools they now oversee, returning after college to teach and coach before ultimately becoming homegrown school system leaders.

Lifetimes in pretty much one place has made both very well-known and pillars of their communities. In addition, both were the subjects of doctoral research completed in 2017 (hence the anonymity) on this topic. For Matt and Steve, being homegrown has proved both blessing and bane.

Personal Asides
In her dissertation for a Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership studies at the University of Iowa, Dorian Olsen collected these insights from administrators who were now serving as leaders in the same school communities where they spent their formative years of schooling:

» “I can’t go to Wal-Mart. I mean, it isn’t a huge deal, but like I will stop and talk to them if we are in Wal-Mart, and my family will go on and then I am not with them. People don’t understand that, but it is part of it. And I think most administrators deal with it somewhat, but when it is a small community and everyone knows you, it makes it a little harder.”

» “My wife gets mad at me when I run up to the [grocery store] for a gallon of milk and I am not back for over a half hour. She is just like what’s going on? And it’s because people stop me and want to talk school all of the time.”

» “With my daughter here this last year in sixth grade, it was kind of a rough class, and she kind of took a beating because I had to go in and crack the whip and deal with that class as a whole, and she got to hear about it and was shunned some. She handles it pretty well though.”

» “You are not afforded the luxury of being a parent in this role. It sucks, but that is the reality.”

» “My hat just doesn’t ever come off. Never.”

» “I think the answer to the positive and the negative of being in your hometown and growing up there is that the positives are everybody knows you and the negatives are everybody knows you.”

Although the two main subjects of her study, titled “Homegrown Rural School Leaders,” were principals at the time, Olsen believes her findings about the impact of being homegrown leaders would apply easily to superintendents.

“Knowing the families and having a background and history in the district helped to build trust and relationships for both principals,” she said in an interview. “However, when something went wrong or there was a (district-related) disagreement, it became difficult when someone you grew up with wouldn’t talk to you anymore.

“Though both had positive relationships and trust, which is a strength and important for eliciting change, they both also seemed hesitant to rock the boat, that is push for change that may be against the norm because they had such strong ties and history.”

Sweet Home Alabama
Jimmy Shaw Jr. is homegrown too. He is the superintendent of the Florence City Schools in northern Alabama, just across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals. Shaw grew up in the area, attending local schools throughout elementary and high school. Back then, he says, the region thrived with major factories, such as Ford and Reynolds Aluminum. The school district boasted more than 8,000 students.

Shaw left town for college, intending to eventually go to medical school. Then he switched gears and decided to become an economist. “Along the way, someone stopped me and asked what I wanted to with an economics degree,” he says. “They suggested giving education a try.”

He did and loved it, graduating from the University of Northern Alabama, also in Florence, with master’s and education specialist degrees in education, then a doctorate from Samford University, 120 miles to the south, near Birmingham.

Shaw didn’t begin his teaching career in Florence, but he worked in nearby Decatur, a larger district. His wife, however, longed for a smaller town. When an assistant principal position opened in Florence in 2007, Shaw applied and was hired.

“I never wanted to be an administrator,” Shaw says. “I enjoyed the classroom, the kids, the freedom of teaching. But I fell in love with affecting the lives of kids in a different way.”

Shaw climbed the administrative ladder and was named Florence superintendent in 2017. He was the district’s first African-American superintendent.

His first 18 months have gone better than expected, he says. Being a self-described “home boy” helped him mend previously strained relationships with city officials and the local university. “The advantages have been in my relationships,” Shaw adds. “People know my heart. They know my flaws. They know I eat, sleep and breathe the dirt of this place. They know I’m in it.”

Cherished Memories
Shaw’s homegrown story echoes in varying degrees across the country. It’s not unique to school leaders in rural places, though the smallness or isolation of a place can sharpen some experiences.

In the questions and answers that follow, other homegrown superintendents discussed their long-term relationships with the districts they now lead. For the most part, these are tales of cherished memories, hometown hankerings and a desire to give back to the schools and communities that made them what they are today.

Jimmy Shaw Jr. is superintendent in Florence, Ala., the same community where he attended elementary and secondary schools and now resides as the father of 7-year-old triplets.

“One of the unique things about the San Juan Unified School District is its family feel,” says Kent Kern, a student through high school, teacher, coach and administrator in the central California district before becoming its superintendent in 2014. “That’s always appealed to me. It’s something that I wanted to be part of and grow. I think that kept me close. I might have had opportunities elsewhere, but the people here kept me around.”

Was coming back and leading the district you grew up in part of a plan?

“It was a conscious effort to come back after college. I married my high school sweetheart, and our families were here and we wanted to raise our families in this community,” says Steve Dionisio, superintendent of Charlotte County Public Schools, a 15,000-student district located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, 20 miles north of Fort Myers.

“I feel an obligation to set the bar high so the children of this community are pushed to reach their full potential,” Dionisio adds. “I want to give them the opportunity to become high-quality members of this community.”

Likewise with Marilyn Hissong, who attended classes in East Allen County Schools in New Haven, Ind., and became its superintendent in 2017.

“When I went to Ball State University for my teaching degree, my goal was always to come back home to do my student teaching and eventually start my career here,” says Hissong. “My husband and I started dating as sophomores in high school. It’s the district where we’ve raised our children. This district and community have given so much to us.”

Karen Clarke was named superintendent in 2017 of Alachua County Public Schools, a 27,000-student district north of Gainesville, Fla., where she spent her childhood and all but one year of her schooling.

She says: “My family is here. My husband’s family is here. We are raising our family here. Two of my three children are products of the Alachua County public school system; one is currently in school. There was no question that we would have made it back here one day. It took just one year away to realize how much we missed home. For me, it wasn’t just about becoming a superintendent, it was about becoming the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools.”

What are the advantages of being “homegrown?”

In a word, familiarity.

“There is so much to be said about people who knew me when I was five,” says Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana, where she has spent the entirety of her 45-year career in education. It started a few months after college graduation with 13 years of teaching at Ward Elementary School in her hometown.

“My community has changed, but I still know a lot of people and a lot of people know me,” she says. “I’ve had ministers come to my support. I have parents who were once in my classes. There’s a lot to be said for people who know you at your core. And I know them,” Robinson says. “I’m aware of our strengths and weaknesses. I think this gives me a head start on knowing what priorities we need to focus on right away.”

Jacqueline A. Brooks, who grew up in the Macon County school system in Tuskegee, Ala., and who became its superintendent in 2010, says a decades-long relationship means “I have lots of partners who help from the heart.”

And a shared sense of earned trust can be a special asset when hard decisions must be made, adds Kern, superintendent in San Juan, Calif.

“Coming up through this district as both a student and an educator, you build up equity in the community and among individuals,” he says. “They have a real sense of who you are. That’s invaluable. Six months after taking this job, I needed to close a school. That’s a very tough thing to do. It is never popular. At the final board meeting, when the vote was taken, there were only two public comments — both were supportive. I’m not sure someone without my history in the district, someone people had not known for a long time, would have had a similar experience.”

What are the disadvantages?

“The downside for me was no traditional ‘honeymoon’ period,” says Clarke, superintendent in Alachua County, Fla. “The community knew that I had been here and expected me to step right in and have a seamless transition. Someone from the outside would have probably had the year to get to know the district and then develop their goals and objectives. For me, the expectation was to hit the ground running, which I think I’ve done.”

Adds Jeffrey Newton, superintendent of East Lyme Public Schools in East Lyme, Conn., who not only grew up in the district but whose mother was a longtime teacher there: “They think you know more than you do.”

Familiarity and entrenched expectations can create complications.

“Some people can’t handle ‘no’ coming from a hometown girl, especially about personnel decisions,” says Brooks in Macon County, Ala. “But I can’t hire ineffective people. This is the one thing that is really a hometown issue — hiring locally whether qualified or not, whether effective or not.”

Longtime closeness “can’t cloud the decisions you must make,” agrees Robinson, who has been Fort Wayne’s superintendent since 2003, giving her one of the longest tenures of big-city superintendents. “Sometimes people are so familiar with you that they take you for granted. You must be conscious to behave and act as if every year is the first year. You cannot assume that because people know you, they know your goals.

“And as older people leave, some of your political capital fades,” she adds. “You have to make it on your own. I think people do care that I come from here, but it cuts both ways. They like you or they don’t like you.”

Wendy Robinson (standing) did not envision returning to her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., when she completed college. She’s been the city’s superintendent since 2003.
Would you ever leave?

To a person, these superintendents said no — not if they thought they were doing a good job and enjoyed the support of school board members, their staffs and communities. After all, for most of them, the goal was always about coming home. Leaving now would be like leaving home.

Robinson is an exception — of sorts. Her original career plan did not envision becoming superintendent in her hometown. She says she returned to Fort Wayne “because there weren’t many teaching jobs. I wasn’t opposed to coming back, but I hadn’t planned on it.”

And she never left, progressing from teaching through a series of administrative positions. In 2002, Robinson was an inaugural member of the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 15-year-old program funded by philanthropist Eli Broad to train educators for leadership positions in urban school centers.

“We traveled across the country, looking at lots of districts,” Robinson says. “One expectation was that you would eventually interview for jobs in other parts of the country. I wasn’t opposed to that, but I got the superintendent’s job in Fort Wayne before that option happened and I’ve never sought another opportunity. I have a pretty good situation here — great staff, extremely supportive board. Sometimes you have to be mature enough to understand when you have it good.”

Passing Melancholy
But sometimes a tinge of bitter sweetness lurks not far away. Few superintendents stay on the job in the same place for extended periods of time. In a 2006 study by AASA, the mean tenure for a superintendency was five to six years. More recent data suggests the numbers haven’t much changed.

That reality can create a kind of passing melancholy, says Shaw, superintendent since April 2017 in the Florence City Schools. He has triplet 7-year-old sons. They attend school in the district. The entire family likes to wear team colors to events.

“I’ve poured my life into this system and I will continue to do so,” Shaw says. “I want to serve my community. But I realize that in this job you’re probably also hired to be fired so I guess the likelihood of my children ultimately graduating from Florence is not great.”

Maybe the author Thomas Wolfe was wrong: Sometimes you can go home again. Sometimes you never really leave. Until, perhaps, fate and a school board decision intervene.

SCOTT LAFEE is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif.