Opening Up the Superintendency: There Is No Magic Formula for Becoming a Superintendent, but There Are Similarities in the Paths Taken by Most Successful Women and Minority Superintendents

By de Santa Ana, Thelma Melendez | Leadership, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview
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Opening Up the Superintendency: There Is No Magic Formula for Becoming a Superintendent, but There Are Similarities in the Paths Taken by Most Successful Women and Minority Superintendents


de Santa Ana, Thelma Melendez, Leadership


I firmly believe the superintendency is more than an occupation, it is a calling. We all entered education because we want to make a difference in the lives of the children. Through these children we shape the future. They are our true legacy.

I think author and friend Louis Barajas described this sense of calling best when he spoke of an "occupassion." It is the driving force behind our every choice, and it's why we seek to become superintendents.

I know one superintendent who set the superintendency as her goal because she believed it was important for children to have people in leadership roles who look like them. Another superintendent made it his career goal because he wanted to make a difference for as many children as possible.

The most successful superintendents stay focused on the needs of the children in their districts, in spite of all the obstacles.

So, you want to be a superintendent?

First, ask yourself why you want to be a superintendent. The motivation of a successful superintendent cannot be the money or the title. With these as your only objectives, you will fail even if you succeed. The goal cannot be simply to reach the "top." It has to be about the children, because as superintendent you will be regularly faced with making hard decisions that will be criticized, and will anger many stakeholders. At times your only support will be your own voice saying, "I am doing the right thing for children."

Today, more women and minorities are becoming school superintendents than ever before. As the nation's population becomes more diverse, women and minorities are moving into the role that has been called the most male-dominated executive position in the United States.

Once, virtually all school superintendents were married white male Protestants, but this is slowly changing. Fifteen percent of the nation's superintendents are now women. The number of minority superintendents--men and women combined--remains about five percent. This figure is only gradually increasing.

These female and minority superintendents lead some of the nation's largest, highest-profile districts. Ninety-five percent of female or minority superintendents in the United States serve districts with more than 25,000 students.

Minorities lead school districts whose student bodies are predominantly Black or Latino. African-American superintendents tend to be found in large urban districts, while Latino superintendents are generally concentrated in the southwest. They often lead challenging districts where they serve not only as educational leaders, but also as inspirational role models for students and staff.

If you are motivated to become a superintendent, then you are most likely a natural leader, a risk-taker and someone who seeks social change. You must also have good communication skills and be flexible, yet have strong core values to see you through the tough times and hard decisions. You will need strong family support, because the superintendency is a 24/7 job. Be sure you are doing this because you have a true passion for the work.

How do you become a superintendent?

Women and minorities who have reached this goal share certain things. Early in their careers many made a conscious decision to see how far they could go in public education to help the children. To this end, they set themselves a specific goal. They made certain that they had the appropriate academic credentials to get ahead. They put in the time to become the best possible applicant for the job. They acquired the credentials and degrees. They removed any excuse that anyone might use to exclude them, because those excuses are regularly used.

Most female and minority superintendents have a doctorate. Generally, they will be more academically qualified than other candidates for the same job. According to author and professor Flora Ida Ortiz (1999), the more prestigious the university from which they earned the doctorate, the more quickly they advanced to the superintendency.

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Opening Up the Superintendency: There Is No Magic Formula for Becoming a Superintendent, but There Are Similarities in the Paths Taken by Most Successful Women and Minority Superintendents
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