A few selected anecdotes and other briefs about the qualities that define Kevin McGowan, superintendent in Brighton, N.Y., and the newly named 2023 National Superintendent of the Year.
Learning How to Be Culturally Responsive
Mindful of his suburban school district’s diverse population, Kevin McGowan was proud that Brighton had added Eid-al-Fitr as an official holiday to the calendar. In fact, Brighton became the first district in upstate New York to give all students (and teachers) the day off for what marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
However, Eid-al-Fitr is determined by the lunar calendar, so the celebration does not begin on the same day each year. For 2022, the district unintentionally put the wrong day on the calendar, and it was not discovered until about five weeks before when it was too late to adjust the school year calendar.
“It was an opportunity dressed up as a mistake,” McGowan says.
He drafted a letter of apology to the school community, explaining that he and the district leadership had attempted to be culturally responsive but didn’t get it quite right. He encouraged the Muslim students to take the appropriate day off anyway and promised no penalties for missing school.
To his surprise, the apology was well-received. “People just generally appreciated the honesty,” he says now.
Living With a Mascot Change
Dropping a school’s longstanding mascot and nickname for whatever reason is almost certainly going to generate waves. It did when the Brighton Central School District in Rochester switched from “Barons” to “Bruins.” Superintendent Kevin McGowan did not back down. He staunchly defended the decision.
“This was one of the many ways that we decided to ‘not just say it but live it,’ when it came to addressing issues related to equity and inclusion,” he says.
The Barons mascot was “elitist” and “out of touch,” McGowan says, and it conjured up images of privileged people who have subjugated others and profited from doing so.
“We owned it, included everyone in choosing a new mascot and moved on in the hopes that the imagery used to support our school would be more thoughtful and inclusive,” he says.
Asked what have been the most significant influences on his professional life, McGowan says: “My parents, my wife and children. … . My parents, including my mother who was a teacher, absolutely demonstrated an ethic of care and attention to the individual that has been a key aspect to my work. My wife simply makes me want to be more empathetic, caring and understanding while my children are a constant reminder of the need to consider every decision in the context of would I want this for my own children who are the center of my universe.”
A Veritable Youngster at the Top
Just 10 years after graduating with his undergraduate degree from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and starting to teach elementary school pupils in Lockport, N.Y., McGowan was appointed to his first superintendency. He was 32 years old, one of the youngest in New York state, when the Warsaw school board in Western New York handed him the office keys to lead 1,110 students and 200 staff members. Three years later, he moved 50 miles north to the suburbs of Rochester for his current post.
Lending Hair for a Cause
McGowan believes in the importance of showing up at the schools he oversees. He wants students to see him, and he wants to see them. He marches in the homecoming parade, he’s volunteered to sit in a dunk tank, and he’s allowed students throw pies at him.
Students also got to shave his head when schools were raising money for children with cancer.
“He puts himself out there,” says Tom Hall, principal of Brighton High School.
Books at Bedside
McGowan said his bedside reading choices were the following at the moment are:Five Practices for Equity-Focused School Leadership; The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz; Six Walks In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau; and A Short History of England.
Letting Students Lead
The early months of the pandemic were hard on Brighton’s high school seniors, who watched their final-year celebrations disappear when schooling went virtual three months before commencement. As the father of a child in that class, Kevin McGowan had a firsthand feel of the dismay.
Because no one loves a celebration more than he does, according to board of education member Julene Gilbert, the superintendent worked with Brighton High School principal Tom Hall to plan a senior class car parade throughout the Rochester, N.Y., suburb.
“The spirit and the joy that he was able to help create in the community was the lift that we all needed in that moment,” says Gilbert.
McGowan has supported students in other tough times. Board member Christina Lee remembers how McGowan prioritized listening to student voices when they were organizing protests against gun violence or walkouts in support of Black Lives Matter. While the school board considered safety concerns, McGowan also wanted students to feel empowered.
“He doesn’t want to silence student voices,” Lee says.
His Go-To Snack
Even when things are going well, the job of superintendent is inherently a stressful one. And like many other people, Kevin McGowan isn’t immune to the lure of snacks when the heat is on.
When she was new to the Brighton board of education, board member Christina Lee was a little bewildered when other board members regularly brought bags of Doritos to board retreats and meetings. “They would always just appear at our dinners, like if we had dinner during a retreat,” she says.
She soon discovered that the salty chips were a favorite of McGowan, and the other board members were just looking out for him. “It humanized him for me, that he has a go-to stress food,” Lee says.
(Compiled by Jennifer Larson, a freelance writer, Nashville, Tenn., and Jay P. Goldman, editor-in-chief of AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)