Council Launches Leadership Program for Aspiring Urban School Superintendents

  • Ebony Johnson is a graduate of Oklahoma’s Tulsa Public Schools and returned after college to become an educator in that system. She has held a variety of positions-- teacher, teacher's coach, dean/assistant principal, principal, and executive director overseeing the district’s student and family support services.

    Currently serving as the district’s Chief Learning Officer, Johnson can now add one more achievement to her list of accomplishments.  

    She is one of 10 senior-level administrators in urban school districts recently selected to participate in the initial class of the Council of the Great City Schools’ Michael Casserly Urban Executive Leadership Institute for Aspiring Superintendents.

    The Institute is headed by Michael Hinojosa, the Council’s Superintendent-in-Residence. Prior to joining the Council, Hinojosa was the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, where he worked to increase the number of people of color and women in the district’s leadership ranks.

    In an interview with the Urban Educator, Hinojosa said his goal is to have 10 people per year ready to step into superintendencies.

    “I’m extremely excited about the Institute,” said Hinojosa. “If we can train 10 people every year for five years, we will have prepared 50 people who are well equipped to lead an urban school system and help urban schoolchildren in our big cities.”

    Council Executive Director Ray Hart said he believes the Institute will play a vital role in training the next generation of urban school leaders and establishing a pipeline of talented and diverse big-city school educators. “I look forward to watching them succeed at the helm of our urban school districts and help our schoolchildren meet the highest educational standards, while reducing turnover in the superintendent ranks,” Hart said.

    Michael Casserly, the Institute’s namesake, said he wants the Institute to be the finest and most rigorous training for aspiring school superintendents in the nation. “I hope it will expand the pool of top-flight talent working in the Great City Schools and strengthen the expertise of our leadership to boost student achievement.”

    Superintendent Turnover

    Recently, superintendents in Wichita Public Schools, Omaha Public Schools, Texas’ Arlington Independent School District, Colorado’s Aurora Public Schools, and Ohio’s Columbus Public Schools announced plans to step down. Meanwhile, interim leaders head school districts in Des Moines, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Austin, Kansas City, Memphis, and Florida’s Broward County Public Schools.

    Turnover in the ranks of urban superintendents is not uncommon as the job leading a big-city school district with thousands of students and staff and billion-dollar budgets is a tough one. But Hinojosa said he has noticed a spike in the number of departures.

    “It used to be that only leaders in urban districts would face a lot of the vitriol, but now even in suburban districts the job has gotten much harder with a myriad of issues that are being put at the foot of the superintendents,” said Hinojosa, who served 27 years as a superintendent in six school districts.

    Ready to Take the Reins

    To be considered for selection to the Institute, cohort members needed to be a direct report to the superintendent or head of a major division in an urban school district. Participants did not apply directly but rather were recommended through a rigorous nomination and selection process.

    “You had to be recommended by someone who thinks you are ready to take the reins of a big-city school system,” said Hinojosa. “Because of the intensity of the job, we wanted people who were already working in that environment at a high level.”

    Cohort members will attend monthly sessions where they will receive instruction and mentoring from Hinojosa as well as other current and former superintendents who have had a history of success and significant tenure in a Council school district.

    The first session will be held in February in Los Angeles and focus on school board relations, a vital issue, according to Hinojosa, “Because if you don't know how to work with the school board, you're not going to get a chance to deal with academic outcomes for students, finance, operations, or anything else.”

    Jorge Aguilar, superintendent of California’s Sacramento City Unified School District, and Sacramento board president Chinua Rhodes will discuss how they have built a productive relationship. Participants will also learn about the Council’s school board governance model from AJ Crabill, director of governance, who travels across the country conducting training sessions for urban school board members.

    In following months, the Institute will cover such topics as media relations, academics, operations, finances, and labor relations. At the end of the program, participants will receive a certificate of completion from the Council to be presented at the organization’s Annual Fall Conference in San Diego in October.

    Hinojosa said is pleased with the diversity of the cohort, with seven of the members being educators of color. However, he expressed disappointment that only two of the participants are women but said future cohorts will include more women. According to Hinojosa, nine people have already been recommended to join the second cohort, with several of them being women.  

    Johnson, the Tulsa participant, said she is undaunted by the challenges she may face leading a large urban school system, a goal she has been working diligently toward. As a participant in the Michael Casserly Urban Executive Leadership Institute for Aspiring Superintendents, she looks forward to learning from seasoned urban school chiefs.

    “I know that being a superintendent is a huge task, and I have so much respect for them and applaud the work they are doing,” said Johnson. “I’m excited to dig deeper into understanding that level of leadership and how I can be positioned, prepared, and poised to take what I've learned and make a difference for urban students.”

    The members of the cohort are:

    • Harold Border, Chief Strategy Officer, Orange County Public Schools (FL)
    • Arcelius Brickhouse, Chief of Schools, East Baton Rouge Parish Schools
    • Jermaine Dawson, Chief Academic and Accountability Officer, Birmingham City Schools
    • Ebony Johnson, Chief Learning Officer, Tulsa Public Schools
    • Brenda Larsen-Mitchell, Deputy Superintendent of Schools, Clark County School District (NV)
    • Robert Moore, Chief of Schools, Jefferson County Public Schools (KY)
    • Michael Ramirez, Chief of Staff, School District of Lee County (FL)
    • Scott Schneider, Chief of Schools, Duval County Public Schools (FL)
    • Matias Segura, Interim Superintendent, Austin Independent School District
    • David Zaid, Assistant Superintendent, Human Resource Services, Long Beach Unified School District