Executive Perspective

Engaging in a Not-So-Secret Recipe
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, May 2019

I NEVER MISS the opportunity to speak to our aspiring superintendent cohorts about the importance of family, school and community engagement. There is ample evidence suggesting it is a viable strategy to support student success, but it also is a powerful tool for making schools more collaborative, equitable and culturally responsive.

But here is the kicker: It endows the superintendent with the level of support needed to implement those programs and procedures that go against the grain but are in the best interest of the students.

Of the four school systems that I led, Fairfax County, Va., was by far the largest. Today Fairfax County is the 10th largest system in the country with a student population of 190,000.

Although it was incredibly time-consuming, I made it my business to spend as much time as possible with all segments of the school community. We had a business advisory board that included the CEOs of most of the large companies in the area. A spin-off from that group was a foundation that provided welcome financial support to school programs that could not make the district’s budget. When we implemented a mentor program seeking volunteers to spend up to two hours per week in schools with students needing assistance, the business community responded by allowing employees to volunteer during their work day.

The business community also became highly supportive of our budgets when they realized that attracting a quality workforce depended on having a community with quality schools.

Modeling Behavior
We also established a parent advisory council made up of the PTA presidents of all the schools, all 196 of them. I met with that group once a month, giving me the opportunity to share with them what was happening in the district and to take their questions regarding issues affecting their schools and their children. This often led to invitations to visit schools and speak to that parent community, which I accepted when I could. It also gave me the opportunity to explain how we decided on inclement weather days to close schools or keep them open, always a high-risk decision for superintendents.

During visits, I attempted to model a behavior for our principals to form strong and positive working relationships with their parent community. Parental support played a major role in maintaining the high quality of Fairfax County schools.

I had honed my family, school and community engagement skills long before I arrived in Fairfax. In my first superintendency in Deer Park, N.Y., I assumed the job in a district that had incurred a budget deficit. That is not allowed in the state of New York and my predecessor in Deer Park was summarily dismissed from his post.

I was faced with overcoming that deficit, which was substantial. Doing so required a major reorganization of the district involving school closings. If you have gone through the experience of closing a building, we probably share the same scars. Deer Park, at the time, operated four K-6 elementary schools, two 7-9 junior high schools and a grades 10-12 high school.

My plan had called for closing two of those elementary buildings. Working with the community and the PTA leadership, we devised a plan where two elementary schools would remain as K-3 buildings, one of the junior high schools would be converted into a 4-6 intermediate school, the remaining junior high school would become a 7-8 middle school and the high school would take on the 9th grade.

Parents loved the idea of a K-3 building and grouping the older students into one facility had some appeal. The big challenge became what two schools to close. Because we had involved a large segment of the community to gain support, the school board approved the plan and it was implemented.

Secret Sauce
Within two years the deficit was erased. The model was so successful that a larger neighboring district, South Huntington, hired me to replicate what I had done in Deer Park. We improved on the plan by adding full-day kindergarten and child care.

When Fairfax County hired me, one goal was to bring full-day kindergarten to the 141 elementary schools. We began the process with the 20 schools with the most students on free and reduced-price lunch. I did not finish the job, but today all schools have full-day kindergarten.

Most superintendents can share similar stories and counsel those of you aspiring to the job. Family, school and community engagement is the secret sauce to a successful superintendency.

is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan