Numerous leaders with backgrounds in entrepreneurial organizations have gone on to lead large traditional school systems. This afternoon’s panel asked current superintendents how their previous experience has informed their views as public school district leaders?
Jim Blew, of the Walton Family Foundation, moderated a panel with leaders from three public school systems. Cami Anderson, of Newark Public Schools, was involved in the Teach for America (TFA) program early in her career. Now that she is running a large public school district, she still feels her core principle remains that “schools are the system of change… We have to have awesome schools that run great programs to get great results, putting kids on a different pathway than what we are seeing.” Anderson explained that entrepreneurship and autonomy helps school leaders rise to occasion. To have change at scale, we have to have systems for all kids. “Individual islands of excellence are not options.”
Kaya Henderson, of District of Columbia Public Schools, is also a TFA alumnus. What has changed in her new position is her sense of possibility about districts. Henderson used to feel that districts “were too entrenched,” yet, her experience in D.C. has shown her that districts can have the “willingness to change the status quo.” She feels strongly about rethinking the district’s role, and allowing schools to have autonomy as long as they are meeting critical benchmarks.
Chris Barbic, of the Achievement School District in Memphis, Tennessee, emphasized the idea that “a system will never reform itself…pressure has to come from the outside.” Barbic feels his district’s role is to “push autonomy down to local level as much as possible,” by encouraging charter schools to replace the troubled schools in Memphis, becoming neighborhood schools and welcoming all students. Schools must include students, including special education students, that have often encountered difficulty enrolling in charters schools.
All three of the panel members have taken lessons from their days in entrepreneurial organizations and are finding ways to implement innovations in their public school districts.