Clockwise from the Botton-left: Michele Shannon-Mingo, Shallegra Moye, Thomas Ralston and Kaya Henderson.
Clockwise from the Botton-left: Michele Shannon-Mingo, Shallegra Moye, Thomas Ralston and Kaya Henderson.

The path for a new superintendent is fraught. People who disagree with your priorities will complicate decision-making. Competition from charter schools will make it difficult to increase enrollment in Pittsburgh Public Schools. School closings to stem the growing district deficit will upset people. 

But these are not insurmountable challenges, according to three former leaders of other districts who spoke on a Zoom panel on Monday.

Black Women for a Better Education, a group that was critical of the district’s former superintendent who resigned in September, organized the virtual event to stir discussion about the search for a new leader for Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS]. The district’s board is in the process of selecting a firm that will lead the search. 

The three leaders emphasized the need to build a shared vision for the district that a new leader will be able to walk into and embrace. Few ideas were reiterated more frequently than the need to involve the community at every step.

Thomas Ralston, former superintendent of Avonworth School District for nine years, said he used to add people who were likely to disagree with him to important committees so that they would be invested in the decisions.

We innovate around the edges and that really doesn’t lead us anywhere.

Michele Shannon-Mingo, the former chief of schools for Boston Schools, said she once negotiated with a community that was about to lose its neighborhood school by creating a Haitian-Creole magnet school. The families and students that would’ve otherwise been upset instead could get excited about the changes.

Kaya Henderson, the former chancellor of DC Public Schools for six years, said one of the keys to closing schools during her tenure without the kind of backlash her predecessor faced was involving the community throughout. 

“Together, together, together. I cannot stress this enough,” said Henderson. “This was radical for us, and we got so much stuff done in the 10 years I was in leadership at DCPS because we did everything with the community.”

About 20 people attended the event, largely members of Black Women for a Better Education [BWBE]. BWBE formed in 2020 to raise concerns about the previous superintendent, Anthony Hamlet. But since Hamlet resigned last year after the conclusion of an ethics investigation, the group’s leaders say they are trying to build it into a sustainable political action committee, holding educational events, making endorsements and continuing to recruit candidates for the school board.

BWBE has sometimes been criticized for being too friendly toward charter schools, which pull students and funding away from district schools. BWBE’s leaders say they are trying to create a third way for educational ideas, where there is neither blind support nor blind opposition on issues like charter schools. 

The speakers Monday argued that trying to fight charter schools is a waste of time, and a new superintendent should take a more collaborative approach. But Henderson cautioned that charter schools struggle to achieve quality at scale just like school districts and that her attempts to collaborate with charters in Washington, D.C., were attacked from all sides, including by charters themselves.

Together, together, together. I cannot stress this enough. This was radical for us, and we got so much stuff done…Kaya Henderson

DC Public Schools increased its enrollment every year during Henderson’s tenure between 2010 and 2016, and she is often credited with helping to lead the largest test score gains of any urban district in the country in that period. She said her initial approach was to put out some of the major fires that needed to be addressed right away, such as closing schools. 

A superintendent is not a superhero, she cautioned, and Pittsburghers should be asking candidates about their plans to build teams around them to supplement their weaknesses. The community also needs to narrow its vision for what PPS can accomplish so that a new superintendent has a focus, she said. “It’s important to understand there might be 100 things that need attention but any good administration will only be able to focus on a few things at a time,” she said.

Ebony Pugh, the spokesperson for PPS, said the process for selecting the superintendent search firm would be concluding soon. “The Board’s goal is to have a permanent superintendent selected by the beginning of the next school calendar year,” she wrote in an email statement.

The timing of PPS’ leadership search could be a challenge as turnover among superintendents is higher than typical during this pandemic school year, said panel moderator Shallegra Moye, a doctoral student researching educational leadership at the University of Pittsburgh.

But Ralston said the pandemic also showed why school leadership is more important than ever. Some districts with innovative leadership managed to get through it in one piece, while other districts really struggled. 

“We innovate around the edges and that really doesn’t lead us anywhere,“ he said. “I find most schools are going right back to what they did before [the pandemic] rather than thinking about lessons learned.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...