Challenges and Changes Faced by Rural Superintendents

Article excerpt

This research study was designed to build grounded theory about the challenges faced by rural superintendents. Participating rural superintendents identified five areas that presented a challenge but that also applied to superintendents in other settings: school law, finance, personnel, government mandates, and district or board policies. Further, these superintendents identified challenges related specifically to the rural setting and to their lack of acculturation to the demands of rural school leadership. Focus group research conducted among rural superintendents in New York, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee indicated that the challenges of the rural superintendency were distinct enough to warrant some specialized preparation for such service

Our public school districts face a serious shortage of candidates for the superintendency (Cooper, Fusarelli & Carella, 2000; NYSCOSS, 2000). Fewer candidates find attractive the role of school superintendent, and many school administrators now wait until the end of their careers before they venture into the superintendency (Glass, Bjork, & Brunner, 2000; NYSCOSS, 2000). Further, many "middle managers" among public school administrators - for example, principals, curriculum directors, and associate superintendents - see vividly the daily stresses and difficulties in the role of superintendent and choose consciously to avoid those problems by not advancing their careers into the superintendency.

Rural school districts and their superintendents face specific obstacles that render service in such districts and roles less attractive than elsewhere. These obstacles include isolation, limited resources, and community resistance to change, and have persisted over time (Barker, 1985; Beckner, 1983; DeYoung, 1994; Sher & Rosenfeld, 1977; Stephens & Turner, 1988). Many Americans lack value or respect in general for "ruralness" (Haas, 1991; Herzog & Pittman, 1999). Rural school superintendents seem to be relegated to the bottom rung of the administrative farm system (Jacobson, 1988b), and rural districts endure rapid and frequent turnover among superintendents in their service (Bryant & Grady, 1989; Chance & Capps, 1992; Grady & Bryant, 1991a & 1991b; Wilson & Heim, 1985). The simple reality for rural school districts at the start of the 21st century is that it is difficult to attract, reward, and retain school leaders.

This exploratory study sought to understand the challenges and changes in the role of the rural superintendent of schools. Seven focus group discussions were completed with nearly 60 rural superintendents in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Through their feedback and this analysis, the study aimed to develop an understanding of the challenges faced by superintendents in rural service. In confirmation of the issues raised in the literature, the results of this study revealed that practicing superintendents in rural areas have unique experiences in their practice that require specific training through content, instructional techniques, and connections to the field of practice.

Further, the issue of "ruralness" needs to be distinguished from the issue of "smallness" among school districts. Many small districts exist in suburban and urban settings, and they share some of the challenges of rural districts, such as difficulty to recruit and retain qualified teachers, transportation costs, and lack of central office staff or expertise. But there are challenges that are unique to the leadership of rural school districts. Only in rural districts does the superintendent find him or herself to be the sole (or almost) administrator, the only chief executive in the community, and often the only target of public criticism. These superintendents manage what is often the largest employer in the community and thus also bear sole responsibility for both success and failure in the school district and often in the community. …