I cannot think of a more critical responsibility in a community than ensuring our schools are laser focused on what’s best for kids. Achieving that goal requires us to hire and retain superintendents with the constructive leadership mindset and courage to stay true to that course. We need leaders, not managers.
I’ve been thinking about this topic lately as the Wenatchee School District has been searching for a new superintendent. The average tenure of a superintendent is three years, which is not enough time to make a meaningful difference. Finding a courageous and principled leader committed to longer-term change is essential.
The question is, what kind of leader do we need?
The Center for Educational Effectiveness recently interviewed Ephrata native Nick Brossoit for its Outliers in Education podcast. Brossoit served for 22 years as a superintendent in the Edmonds and Tumwater school districts in a career spanning more than three decades. He’s the kind of leader who makes positive things happen and builds systems that last. I highly recommend listening to the interview at effectiveness.org.
Nick, a man of great faith, has pancreatic cancer and is receiving hospice care. He told me he’s at peace that the end of his life is near and was gracious to agree to an interview about how we can help all kids thrive by creating a positive school environment.
Nick, who grew up in a household with lots of anger, has a heart for kids and parents who are struggling in life. He’s written a book called “Love the People in Line” about leadership, his journey with cancer and how his Christian faith has supported him through life’s challenges. It is a riveting read and all proceeds go to a children’s charity in Guatemala.
“I just tried to live what I feel God called all of us to do, which is to love Him and love others,” Brossoit said in the podcast interview. “So a lot of my book and the stories and the things that I tried to do through education was just bringing God’s love and compassion to people who maybe don’t have that or hadn’t experienced that,” he added.
Clarity of focus is essential to a school system. Brossoit’s success can be attributed to his focus on what’s best for kids and what enhances learning in the district. As important, his style of leadership has been based on building personal relationships with parents, staff and the school board. He’s a deep listener who looks for common ground but isn’t willing to bow to pressure from school board members, parents and community members who pushed agendas that conflicted with those priorities.
He shared some meaningful examples. A school board president at Tumwater demanded that Brossoit keep schools open during an upcoming one-day teacher walkout. After thinking and praying about the matter, Brossoit concluded that doing so would poison relationships for years to come and chose to close the schools. “I did what was belt for students and learning in the district in spite of politics,” Brossoit recalled.
At another time, he faced criticism for a decision to feed kids who had come to school hungry and without money. Ken Schramm, the late broadcaster for KOMO television, awarded Brossoit a notorious ‘Schrammie’ for this supposedly bone-headed public policy decision. Imagine that — castigating a school district for feeding hungry kids? Brossoit’s board backed him up. “I was blessed with school boards that.. supported me to do what was best for kids in the district and they knew I wasn’t going to cut deals,” Brossoit said.
Effective leaders create a focus on what’s best for kids and work to make sure everyone is pulling their oars in the same direction. That’s how to build sustainable success.
The Wenatchee School District, which is facing serious financial challenges, needs a leader in the mold of Nick Brossoit who builds trust, listens deeply and is committed to the success of all students. But that person cannot do it alone. We need school board members and community leaders who are equally committed to the success of all kids who have the superintendent’s back.
Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 665-1162.
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