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Here to be the leader

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By Kirsten Laskey

It started with a fortune cookie. Los Alamos Public School superintendent finalist, Dr. Eugene Schmidt, explained he and his wife were eating at a Chinese restaurant and the fortune he received in his cookie said, “You are a leader. Others will soon need your inspiration.”

It turned out to be true. Los Alamos Public Schools is looking for a new leader when current Superintendent Mary McLeod retires in July. And Schmidt, along with fellow finalists Dr. John Davis and Walter Gibson talked to a crowd of more than 100 Los Alamos residents about why they are the person to provide inspiration as the new superintendent.

Through PowerPoint presentations, the three men gave their pitches.

Gibson is currently the superintendent in a school district in Las Lunas. The basic principles he practices in his position include making decisions on data and visiting the classrooms in his district’s school.

A cornerstone of his principles is adopting and implementing new strategies for professional development.

As a framework for improvement, Gibson said representatives of each stakeholder are important as well as setting protocols and meeting schedules and reviewing and setting school professional targets.

He added he looks to see if school targets are being addressed and if activities are producing results.

To get positive answers to these inquiries, Gibson encourages an active school board and principals. Las Lunas principals are required to make monthly visits to the classrooms in their schools and school board members are brought in to the schools.

His achievements include having the school district operating in the black and helping to achieve a new elementary school, an athletic complex and several construction phases in the high school.

Schmidt is the superintendent of the Bridgeport School District in Washington.

A major issue at his school, he said, was a high drop-out rate, which was been addressed by implementing a College in the High School program. The program offers courses for college credit.

This is an example of the district’s strategic plan. The plan focuses several factors including leadership, strengths and weaknesses in the school district and an action plan.

As far as his philosophy, Schmidt said his beliefs include prioritizing a budget of student achievement, having the principals be instructional leaders and involving parents in conversations.

Schmidt emphasized expecting and celebrating success. He added his mantras include “no grant is too small,” and “you need to go there to get there.”

He explained a district should mold life-long learners and need to consider vocational classes, too. “Don’t forget about the other learners,” he said.

To gain success for his district, Schmidt said he does advocate for the school district to the state legislature.

Davis is the superintendent of the Bering Strait District in Alaska.

He stressed he does not want to be superintendent, but an educator who is a superintendent. “You’re always a teacher first,” he said.

For a framework in leadership, Davis promotes a shared vision which includes teachers, students and parents. Collaborative leadership, he said, is an essential part of leadership.

He also advocates making sure all students benefit from the school district. “Why should we be satisfied that 10-15 percent of students are not going to be successful,” he asked.

“We can teach all children,” Davis added.

Davis offers a very ambitious philosophy. A good district is not quite enough. He is looking for a district that wants to be great.

All three finalists were asked the same set of questions, which came from the audience. The first question addressed the role of principals in the district.

Gibson described principals’ roles as “instructional leadership.” He added he expects principals to be in the classroom and support their faculty. Principals should also need to know what to look for in the curriculum.

Schmidt said he has three things in mind for what a principal needs to address. Principals should expect a learning culture, recruit and retain teachers and understand instructional programming.

He added, “I see a lot of leadership in place here in Los Alamos.”

Davis said he believes principals should be the instructional leader at the school site. He expects principals to act as the chief.

Another question dealt with their vision of librarians and school libraries.

Gibson described school libraries as “the literacy center of a school.”

He said libraries are a critical component of an elementary school and become more a resource in secondary schools.

The issue with libraries, Gibson said, with access to information becoming so great, it’s important to teach students what is valuable information and what is useless.

In response to this question, Schmidt said, librarians have a huge amount of work helping teachers. To him, they “serve the role a lead research assistant.”

Davis called the role of the library “an essential role.” It brings together the many different resources available to students.

He added with the Internet becoming more and more significant, the issue becomes how to train students to determine what is good and bad information.

The third question asked the candidates how they felt about student dropouts.

Gibson said unless there are extraordinary circumstances, he almost never gives his approval for a student to drop out.

If a student is considering dropping out of school, Schmidt said, “We need to be talking to them. What is the school not doing for you that we can do better?”

He added there needs to be discussions with the staff and the school’s strategic plan and mission need to be reviewed.

When Davis deals with dropouts, he said there needs to be a will to step out to facilitate some changes in a school’s programs.

Another question was raised about how these candidates incorporate real world into the school while it is made to focus more and more on tests and data.

Gibson said he really values classrooms that encourage critical thinking and problem solving. And while testing has its benefits, he added someone told him that in the real world, there are no multiple choice answers.

Therefore, Gibson said there is a responsibility to educate all children and prepare them for the real world.

Schmidt said partnerships on different initiatives are a great way to deal with an environment that is driven on testing and data. “I see connecting with partners as a real plus,” he said.

Cascade Consulting Group from Bellevue, Wash., was hired to find qualified candidates, McLeod explained. The firm advertised for the position and received 31 applications.

After reviewing the applications, the firm picked the most qualified individuals. A committee was formed locally to determine  the semi-finalists and ultimately the three finalists who spoke Friday evening.

The next step is to conduct final interviews before selecting the new superintendent, which could happen as early as the end of this week, McLeod said.