school leadership

Courageous Inclusive Leadership Can Overcome the Polarization of Public Education

School superintendents and state education commissioners have some of the most challenging jobs in America. To succeed, one must be a talented educator, a collaborative community leader, and a skilled administrator. Systems leaders must be both unrelenting and patient. Demanding and empathetic. Visionary and pragmatic. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic—now, leaders must also have a nuanced grasp of public health.

Despite the daunting job description, members of the network I lead, Chiefs for Change, work hard each day to give our nation’s children the excellent education they deserve. In addition, our chiefs are inspiring other dedicated educators who want to make a transformative difference for kids to seek and excel in the top job.

Five years ago, Chiefs for Change launched our Future Chiefs leadership development program. We set out to identify talented and diverse educators from across the country and prepare them to lead state and large district education systems. Future Chiefs engage in collective learning on issues central to effective K-12 leadership and receive coaching and mentorship from the members of our network.

Recently, we were proud to announce our sixth cohort of Future Chiefs:

  • Devin Fletcher, Chief Talent and Equity Officer, Tulsa Public Schools (OK)
  • Jacob Oliva, Chancellor, Division of Public Schools, Florida Department of Education (FL)
  • Dr. Heather Peske, Senior Associate Commissioner for Instructional Support, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA)
  • Dr. Thomas Taylor, Deputy Superintendent, Chesterfield County Public Schools (VA)
  • Heather Tow-Yick, Deputy Superintendent, Mukilteo School District (WA)
  • Dr. Avis Williams, Superintendent, Selma City Schools (AL)
  • Dr. Theresa Williams, Chief Operating Officer, Plano Independent School District (TX)
  • André Wright, Chief Academic Officer, Aurora Public Schools (CO)
  • Iranetta Wright, Deputy Superintendent of Schools, Detroit Public Schools Community District (MI)

As Chiefs for Change board member and chief in residence Janice Jackson, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO, noted, these Future Chiefs must lead in a time unlike any other. The pandemic has presented significant challenges as well as new opportunities. Future Chiefs will make decisions about how to use a massive amount of emergency federal aid for schools—more than ever before—and how to measure the difference those dollars make. They’ll need to address educational inequities that already existed but have been exacerbated by the crisis. And they’ll have to implement new school models and options in response to families’ changing needs. I have no doubt that our Future Chiefs will meet this moment and help design better education systems for today’s world and tomorrow’s.

Indeed, alumni of the program are already doing exactly that. At a time of transition in many systems, and when bold and principled leadership has never mattered more, seven former Future Chiefs are starting new roles this summer as chiefs:

  • Mohammed Choudhury, State Superintendent of Schools, Maryland State Department of Education (MD)
  • Dr. Margaret Crespo, Superintendent, Laramie County School District 1 (WY)
  • Christine Fowler-Mack, Superintendent, Akron Public Schools (OH)
  • Dr. Christina Grant, Acting State Superintendent of Education, District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education (DC)
  • Brian Kingsley, Superintendent, Poudre School District (CO)
  • Dr. LaTanya McDade, Superintendent, Prince William County Public Schools (VA)
  • Matt Montaño, Superintendent, Bernalillo Public Schools (NM)

Future Chiefs reflect the diversity of our nation. Over the course of our six cohorts, 79% are leaders of color and 54% are women. Although they come from various backgrounds and live in different regions of the country, these leaders—and all of our chiefs and Future Chiefs—stand united around a core set of beliefs about what it takes to create schools that serve all children well. For years, political polarization and complacency have impeded progress in public education. But we know the remedy: courageous, inclusive leadership.

As we look ahead to the fall, the coming school year, and all the work that lies ahead, the people in our network are leading the way. Our chiefs are sharing their expertise with rising stars, and new leaders are boldly stepping up to serve. After all our nation has been through, their work makes us proud and gives us hope.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the ...

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