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Wisconsin Superintendent Models a District Avenue for Diversifying Leadership Appointments

By Morgaine McIlhargey |

Women make up 72 percent of the K-12 education workforce but only 24 percent of school superintendencies nationwide.

Douglas Reeves, founder of Creative Leadership Solutions, and Lisa Elliott, superintendent of Greenfield Public Schools in Greenfield, Wis., discussed possible solutions to the gender gap in the school executive ranks and how to create strong leaders in their session “Women in Leadership: Developing the Senior Leadership Pipeline” at the AASA national conference on Thursday, Feb. 18.

“We have the opportunity to make much better use of this extraordinary talent pool,” said Reeves, a Brock International Prize laureate. “Lord knows, we need education leaders from every opportunity we can find.”

Reeves used his knowledge of education leadership to frame questions for Elliott, who spoke on the basis of 30 years of experience as a educator in the Greenfield district.

Elliott attributed her success as a superintendent of eight years to mentorships she received as a teacher and principal. Some women, herself included, can find it difficult to step forward and embrace new career opportunities. Now a leader herself, she helps other educators build the confidence to take on new professional risks.

“Having a mentor who not only pushed me to grow outside of my comfort zone but wholeheartedly supported me in that work was really important,” Elliott said.

Another way the Greenfield superintendent encourages new leaders is through involvement.

“One of the most valuable experiences for me was having those special projects,” she said. “Something that broadened the perspective added to the portfolio. So, I’ve been really intentional about finding those opportunities for our assistant principals and our principals so they can build that.”

Elliott uses “school leadership and innovation teams” to let educators in her district gain leadership experience with a two-year stipend for taking on extra duties while keeping their classroom responsibilities.

“We’ve had quite a few people who then decide to pursue school leadership and principal licensure,” Elliot said. “Two members right now are on their school leadership and innovation teams, and they see themselves being future principals someday.”

To diversify and broaden leadership overall, she said school board members should consider more than how the individual presents himself or herself in a formal job interview.

“What’s really important for boards to think about is to be really clear on what it is that they want from a leader when they’re interviewing, crafting questions and specifics they’re looking for, so it’s not about how the individual presents themselves but truly what are the answers and the responses that they’re looking for that align to the district's mission,” Elliott said. “There needs to be really tight alignment there.”

Reeves and Elliott, as well as former Missouri state education commissioner Chris Nicastro, Ohio’s Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District superintendent Elizabeth Kirby, and chair of California’s San Bernardino City Unified School Board Gwen Rodgers, examined gender role in school leadership in their National School Boards Association article, “Gender Gap at the Top.”

(Morgaine McIlhargey is a junior magazine journalism major at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication and an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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