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What Makes a Great Superintendent?

What does it take to be a great leader of a school district? The superintendent must wear many hats but always keep the focus clear.

By GreatSchools Staff

The superintendent of a school district sets the direction and tone while responding to the often competing demands of the board of trustees, administrators, teachers, parents, students and the community.

What Does the Superintendent Do?

The superintendent is the CEO of the school district. He or she sets the tone, charts the course of the district, and works closely with the board of trustees. The superintendent is also responsible for hiring and supervising the other administrators in the district, including the chief financial officer and the school principals.

Working with the board can pose significant challenges for the superintendent. The board is the superintendent's boss. They are responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent, and evaluating his or her performance on a regular basis. Since it is an elected body, new members might be chosen every few years. This change can create a different dynamic in the relationship with the superintendent from year to year, depending on who is elected.

The principals are the key leaders at each school. It is the superintendent's job to evaluate their performance and see to it that they are effective leaders, working with the teachers at the school to serve the needs of students and meet the district goals.

The superintendent must also respond to the demands of all the other constituencies in the district: the teachers, students, parents, staff and the community at large. He or she must consider how to allocate the financial and human resources of the district in order to achieve the best results. While being mindful of all the competing demands, a great superintendent will ultimately be guided by a singular question: What is best for all students?

How Do the Superintendent and the Board of Trustees Work Together?

The board of trustees is responsible for setting the policies of the district, overseeing the budget and hiring/firing the superintendent. The board and superintendent work together to establish goals for the district, and then the superintendent must see to it that the goals are met. In a well-run district, the superintendent is evaluated regularly by the board, based on the goals that they have jointly set. The superintendent takes the broad goals set by the board and translates them into real programs that achieve results.

When Should a Parent Contact the Superintendent?

If your child is having a problem in his classroom, you should first communicate with the teacher. If you feel that the teacher is not responding adequately, contact the principal. If communication fails with the principal, then take the problem to the superintendent. Most superintendents will want to know that you have attempted to handle a problem in this way before bringing it to their attention.

If you have a concern that applies to the entire school district (such as declining achievement levels throughout the district or mass flight out of the district), then approach the superintendent.

Signs of an Effective Superintendent

  • A great superintendent has a clear vision for the district. He or she works with the board of trustees to set the vision, goals and objectives for the district, and then sees to it that the goals are achieved.
  • A great superintendent is an instructional leader. He or she knows that the most important job of the school district is to make sure students are learning and achieving at high levels. He or she is knowledgeable of the best practices for maximizing student achievement and is supportive of teachers in the district.
  • A great superintendent is an effective communicator. He or she must make a concerted effort to communicate the needs and accomplishments of the district in a variety of formats: through written reports, communication with the media, public meetings and attendance at school events.
  • A great superintendent is a good manager. He or she directs the administrators to accomplish the goals of the district, monitors their progress and evaluates their performance.
  • A great superintendent is a good listener. He or she must listen and take into account differing viewpoints of various constituencies, and then make the best decision.
  • A great superintendent is not afraid to take risks or make a commitment. An average superintendent might set goals that are either vague or easily achieved but a great superintendent would not be afraid to boldly set goals, such as "The majority of third graders will be able to read by the end of the school year," and then put the programs and resources in place to achieve those goals.
  • A great superintendent is flexible. He or she needs to be able to manage the politics of the job - to adapt to new board members, changes in state funding and changes in the school community while not sacrificing the district's vision. A great superintendent takes a collaborative rather than a confrontational approach.

Comments from readers

"This information has been very helpful. I am dealing with a situation at my son's school that has required a lot of attention. I have taken the steps to address and squash our concerns with the teacher, principle, assistant superintendent, and now the superintendent but we have not yet resolved the matter. We have a scheduled meeting next week with the superintendent and concerning parties. In case we do not get results to our satisfaction, I am researching my options. I am glad to know that I can go to the board if this problem continues to go neglected. "
"this helped me with my project. thanks!"
"sir, The write-up is educative and interesting.I need more of it to run my local school in Nigeria."
"This article sounds as if it were written about our Superintendent (Lee County,SW Florida), Dr. James Browder!"
"Thanks for the great article."
"Our schools Supintendent, Mr. Simpson, is an exceptional person for our school. He has humor, consideration, and is always available and visible. Our students, staff, and parent genuinely appreciate his hard work. Our school is small and the atmosphere is family-like and for our particular population of students, it is that something extra they need in addition to meeting their academic needs. Mr. Simpson is also very generous and fair. He is a visionary and is always looking to the future to improve the school environment, in all ways, for our staff, students, and community. We appreciate him very much!"