What will the School District of Beloit be like
when the next superintendent leaves?
Beloit has had opportunities to confront this question in recent years because so many
superintendents have come and gone. Departures are met with frustration, anger, confusion,
and low morale followed by hope and fingers-crossed optimism during the successor’s search.
We are searching once more.
Whether they come from near or far, candidates for superintendent of the School District of
Beloit know sobering truths. Like low test scores, unmet standards, and challenging discipline,
along with disturbing numbers documenting the net outflow of students as parents reject Beloit
and choose other schools. Candidates also know about our successes.
All candidates will welcome the opportunity to turn around negative trends and reinforce
positive ones. The person chosen will emphasize ideas that appear to have promise, and if
significant progress emerges in a year or two, and if the superintendent decides to stay in Beloit
well into the future, there will be rejoicing. Unfortunately, a successful Beloit superintendent
will more than likely move on too soon, courted by other districts dangling compensation
packages and circumstances that Beloit cannot meet. Experience from recent decades has
found that too often effective school leaders leave while their abilities are still needed.
Hopefully, ineffective ones move on quickly.
New superintendents must address priorities articulated by the community and board of
education. The board will allow a honeymoon period as change begins in what is typically a
“top down” manner. Sadly, when several superintendents come and go in just a few years, the
mixed messages from their various top down directives lead to frustration, anger, confusion
and low morale. While there are exceptions to these reactions, and while examples of effective
Beloit administrators must be acknowledged, a revolving door of superintendents combined
with a dominating top down mentality does not serve our community well.
So, what priorities shall be emphasized irrespective of how long the next superintendent stays?
I offer this one: Every school must be encouraged to take on more ownership of its particular
challenges and opportunities. To be entrepreneurial. To be a source of ideas for parents and
other schools. To demonstrate professional competence and experience. To be a “bottoms up”
factor in school improvement.
While this emphasis may seem straightforward and obvious, it is not one that new
superintendents easily support, because they usually interpret their roles as providing top
down change. It is not easy for them to seriously and relentlessly invite on-the-job teachers
and principals to be strong partners in collaborative leadership, but that has to be an important
component of change if the Beloit public school district is to prevail and flourish.
Utilizing the creativity and intelligence of teachers and principals is a critical, necessary part of
long-term improvement. Such a practice is the rule in flourishing districts everywhere and it is
valued by independent charter, voucher, and private schools that compete for Beloit students. I
know wonderful, successful teachers and principals in the School District of Beloit. As
individuals, they shine. However, they–all of them–can become more empowered to the
benefit of the district if they are emphatically encouraged, trusted, and allowed to more
proactively address challenges and opportunities within their schools.
As the Board of Education discusses direction and focus with candidates, I urge that they signal
their strong, united support for empowering educators who are already in our schools. Support
their ownership. Give them a chance to shine and personify an entrepreneurial determination
that will stay as superintendents come and go.
I am not presenting this overture as a cure-all, but it is utterly necessary if Beloit public schools
are to survive and flourish. The best candidates for the superintendent’s position will welcome
a chance to champion something like this, that can become a testament to their leadership
when they are here, and a positive part of their legacy after they move on.
Tom Warren, a retired educator, is Emeritus Professor of Education and Youth Studies at Beloit College.
He has been a public school teacher, counselor, researcher, and professor. He served many years as
Education Department chair at the College and for two years as president of the [American] Association
of Independent Colleges for Teacher Education. He lives in Beloit with his wife, Anna Marie, another
retired teacher. Long ago he was president of the Beloit City Council.