The year ahead presents many challenges for K-12 education as it continues to contend with an economy that demands new skills in the wake of ongoing disruption due to automation and artificial intelligence. A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer effective (was it truly ever?). The implementation of a new law demands new approaches, and changes to the tax code and other regulatory concerns stand to present more challenges — to funding and otherwise.
Simply put, district administrators face stormy waters as they continue working to guide schools toward success. While there's no shortage of truly deserving district and school leaders, these five selected by Education Dive represent a spectrum of the issues — from stabilizing entire districts to implementing classroom technology and improving community engagement. If you're looking for leaders to watch in the new year, this group is an excellent starting point.
Recently announced as the latest CEO of Chicago Public Schools by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Jackson is in an unenviable position where many in the city are either skeptical outright or on the fence about their optimism for her prospects. Her predecessor, Forrest Claypool, found himself embroiled in a scandal over a legal contract that the district’s inspector general said he “repeatedly” lied about in a “full-blown cover-up.” And prior to that, former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was ousted and eventually sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison over a scheme that saw $23 million in no-bid contracts directed to specific vendors in exchange for $2.3 million in kickbacks and bribes.
But there’s reason to be optimistic about Jackson. As a former CPS student, she’s a homegrown leader with a first-hand view from both sides of the CPS experience. That background can provide vital familiarity when it comes to addressing a district’s challenges. And she has a daughter currently enrolled in CPS, which makes the job personal for her. Also working in her favor: A recent Stanford University study found that CPS, labeled 30 years ago as the worst system in the nation, now has students in grades 3 through 8 averaging six years of academic growth over a five-year period — a rate that is significantly faster than 96% of districts in the nation.
The most valuable administration in a district doesn’t always come from the office of a superintendent or principal. In recent years, the digitization of the classroom has seen tech chiefs rise in prominence, as well — and the importance of IT concerns ranging from digital resources to cybersecurity has potentially placed that role on a clearer trajectory with the pathway to the superintendency.
Stephensville Independent School District Director of Digital Learning Brianna Hodges has made a name for herself by continuing to focus sharply on pedagogy amid technological transitions. As TCEA’s EdTech of the Year for 2017 and an advisor for the Future Ready Schools Instructional Coaches strand, she has also brought wider recognition to her district via induction into Digital Promise's League of Innovative Schools. In her Future Ready Schools role, she oversees a team of coaches that support the work nationally.
As superintendent of Fall Creek School District in rural Wisconsin, Joe Sanfelippo has focused on helping school districts better tell their stories — not just in his community, but in stints as keynote speaker at large events, co-hosting the Successful Schools Podcast, and working with leadership teams. He also co-authored “The Power of Branding-Telling Your School's Story,” “Principal Professional Development: Leading Learning in a Digital Age” and “Hacking Leadership: 10 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students and Parents Love.”
Sanfelippo was recognized among 117 Future Ready Superintendents in 2014 and 50 superintendents as a Personalized Learning Leader in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, his dynamic leadership has made him a rising star while propelling his district to the forefront — which is no small feat given the funding and resource concerns rural schools must often contend with.
As superintendent of the Baldwin Union Free School District in NY, Dr. Shari Camhi has placed a consistent focus on implementing programs around ensuring students are college-ready and prepared to become global citizens in a fast-changing world.
Chief among her accomplishments is the success of the Baldwin High School Career Academies, a vocational learning model that provides small learning communities centered around rigorous academics within an industry context. Among those subject tracks: Global Business & Entrepreneurship, Government & Law, Medical & Health Science, New Media and STEM & Engineering. The variety of opportunities give students even more freedom to pursue individual interests, and they’ve even produced an astronaut.
As superintendent of Kentucky’s Fayette County Public Schools, which includes the city of Lexington, Emmanuel Caulk has received recognition for his leadership from Education Week. He took on the job in 2014, finding a school board in a state of discord and pressure from the state due to the district’s handling of special education, low-income and non-white students.
He set out to improve the district by focusing on establishing collective values, expecting results from others as well as himself, and building partnerships within the community. These strategies have led to a restoration of confidence and a success story worth continuing to watch.