It's true--it is often lonely at the top. In five years as superintendent of District of Columbia public schools, I quickly learned that. While I saw my primary task as building an executive personnel team that could identify and service the educational as well as management needs of the schools, and while I accomplished that early in my tenure, I knew that there were going to be many, many decisions--and generally they would be the tough ones-- that would have to be made by me. This feeling was complicated by the fact that I was a black superintendent of a major urban school district in a metropolitan area that was not noted for interjurisdictional harmony and cooperation on these matters. Besides, I thought many of the problems I faced were very different from those faced by my colleagues in the surrounding jurisdictions.
In 1975, shortly after I became superintendent, I received a phone call from John Albohm, then superintendent in Alexandria, inviting me to join an existing group of area superintendents, called the "Superintendents' Seminar." My blackness made me suspicious, and I immediately thought, "Why haven't they asked the D.C. superintendent to join before now?" I called by colleague and good friend, Larry Cuban, then superintendent in Arlington, and asked him. Larry had no answer, but encouraged me to come. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my tenure.
I found an impressive group of intellectuals, experienced administrators and sound managers who were dedicated to children. They were also tough as nails.
The seminar met once a month. Meetings consisted of a presentation on a pre-identified issue, followed by lunch and open discussion, at which each superintendent was given an opportunity to bring up any subject for advice, recommendations or solutions. We found that our concerns were often similar and that our professional relationship transcended political boundaries.
Many examples of cooperation resulted. Several years ago, some school districts were suffering from a shortage of clean water and faced possible closings of summer school. The superintendents who did not have this problem offered to approach their boards for authority to let their facilities be used. The problem never got that serious, but knowledge that this cooperative spirit existed was what mattered. For the first time in many years, contiguous school distrcits were holding out helping hands to each other.
During one severe winter, many districts were short of natural gas for heat, and some were forced to close schools. I was keeping District schools open. Some board members in the gas-short districts felt that by keeping D.C. schools open, we were putting pressure on other superintendents to do likewise. I explained to the seminar that the District had schools heated by gas, oil and coal. I could not close those heated by gas unless I closed the others. They understood.
We also joined in carrying out provisions of a new law on education for the handicapped. Whenever possible, we made our transportation for the handicapped available to districts in need.
There were times, too, when help or advice was offered and not needed. I learned this at least once. The cost of class rings had gotten so high-- more than $100 in some cases--that I was troubled. Much pressure was being put on parents to find money that they didn't have for these rings. At the time, the school system had nothing to do with ordering class rings; they were handled on a school-by-school basis. I proposed a system-wide class ring, the contract for which would be awarded on a low-bid basis.
Several of my fellow superintendents advised me against what I thought was an excellent idea. I didn't listen--and it turned out to be a disaster. The students didn't like it; the parents didn't want it; and it was almost impossible to carry out. I should have listened to the voices of experience
Other topics have included computer technology, dropout problems, teacher and administrator evaluations, school and staff organizations; reading score improvement, criteria for school closings and board/staff relations. In addition, the seminar provided a constant support group.
The potential for such a group is limitless. Think, for example, about the possibilities of a student exchange program within our own diverse metropolitan area. Whatever the seminar has done and will do, the result is better education for all the region's children.