Profile: PAUL W. IMHOFF
Acting to Right a Racial Wrong
BY JULI VALENTINE/School Administrator, February 2021
“There’s a cemetery at the high school.”
That’s how Paul Imhoff, superintendent of Upper Arlington Schools in Ohio, was greeted by his assistant one morning last summer, while the district was in the middle of building a new high school and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
That discovery launched Imhoff into an unexpected episode in the nation’s uneasy racial history.
Upper Arlington Schools are situated in an affluent, white-majority suburb of Columbus that, due to deed restrictions when it was founded a century earlier, allowed only white Christians to settle there. The land occupied by both high schools once was owned by a free slave named Pleasant Litchford, one of the largest landowners in the area at the time. His family cemetery rested under the existing high school.
Imhoff immediately began working with the Litchford family to relocate the burial remains and commemorate Pleasant’s contributions to the community. He moved boldly to require the district’s history curriculum be rewritten to include the story of the Litchford family and more accurate details of Upper Arlington’s founding.
“To me, Paul’s greatest accomplishment is he’s brought everyone together and he is a stabilizing force,” says Kirk Hamilton, executive director of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. “It’s the steady hand that he’s had and the leadership he’s displayed throughout. I know it’s been stressful, but he’s just stayed the course and approached those things in a very calm, yet confident manner.”
This is not the first time in his eight years in Upper Arlington that Imhoff has bolstered the district’s work on diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2015, he launched a series of trainings for his staff, and last year he formed the district’s equity advisory board composed of community experts, staff and students.
“I believe our intentions were great (in 2015) and we did some really good work, but as we went further into the work it was clear that really going at this at a systemic level is how we’re going to drive change,” says Imhoff, who will be installed in July as AASA’s next president. “We need to really make sure that we are focusing on equity and on meeting the needs of each and every child and adult in our care.”
As someone who wrote his doctoral dissertation on servant leadership, it’s no surprise that Imhoff focuses on ways to positively impact the lives of those he oversees. He says servant leadership is something he has believed in since he was a child, but it was only when he began studying it that he was able to put a name to it.
“For me, you go back to why I wanted to be a teacher and why I wanted to be an administrator — it was all about changing lives in a positive way,” says Imhoff. “So, throughout my career, that’s something I’ve always striven for — I don’t always meet that mark. I wish I did, but I don’t. It is always my goal to start there and that has served me well.”
One of main expectations Imhoff holds for his faculty and staff, as well as himself, is that they love every one of the 6,300 students in the Upper Arlington schools.
“We also have to be masters of our craft, and we have to be on top of our game, but that’s not where I start,” says Imhoff, who was Ohio Superintendent of the Year in 2018. “We have to bring our best every day for every kid and that’s whether I’m the superintendent, the English teacher, the band director, the bus driver — we all have to be part of that mission.”
JULI VALENTINE is digital content editor at AASA.
BIO STATS: PAUL W. IMHOFF
superintendent, Upper Arlington Schools, Upper Arlington, Ohio
superintendent, Mariemont City Schools, Mariemont, Ohio
GREATEST INFLUENCE ON CAREER:
I grew up in poverty and developed a severe stuttering problem that led to a great deal of bullying. Jim Morgan, my high school band director, told me I had a gift for leadership and could accomplish anything. He was the first person who saw something in me. I began to believe that I did have some special gifts.
BEST PROFESSIONAL DAY:
Traveling along with our high school choir to New York City. While waiting for the subway, the students broke into patriotic songs, giving an impromptu concert. Seeing the joy and pride on our students’ faces as their audience erupted into applause is something I will never forget.
BOOKS AT BEDSIDE: So You Want to Talk About Race
by Ijeoma Oluo
WHY I’M AN AASA MEMBER:
AASA is committed to authentic work in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion and truly values every child and adult in our schools.