Eight months ago, millions of educators and parents woke up with completely different jobs. Parents and caregivers became teachers. Teachers and guidance counselors became online advisors and personal cheerleaders. Superintendents became food and technology distributors, and some of the most high-profile and consequential decision-makers of our time.
And as the incoming Biden-Harris administration seeks to appoint cabinet members with demonstrated results and management experience, it’s a good time to look at what strong education leadership looks like. As we navigate out of a pandemic and face epic learning gaps and funding shortfalls, we need nothing short of a Marshall-like federal education plan to do right by kids.
Not everyone is up to the task of leading in a crisis, but there have been some clear standouts, and they are disproportionately women. Research shows countries, states, and cities run by women have fared better in stopping the spread of COVID and saving lives. We don’t have similar data in education, but if we did, I’d bet we would find it’s comparable.
So I talked with three high-performing female leaders—Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools; Angélica Infante-Green, commissioner of education in Rhode Island; and Sonja Santelises, superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools—about how they lead and what we need to do as a country to move forward.
It’s More Than Just Schools. Way More.
Many don’t understand the critical role school systems play in so many communities. I know it firsthand.
After Hurricane Sandy, a good chunk of the Northeast, including Newark, lost power for the better part of two weeks. Schools were shut down and the city came to a grinding halt. In a community with a median income of $19,000, as superintendent, I was working with then-Mayor Cory Booker to ensure residents had access to what they needed. We had massive facilities teams to cut down trees and fix power lines. Our technology team made sure everyone had a laptop and coordinated on an hourly basis to get power and connectivity restored. Our large fleet of vehicles delivered supplies to seniors and homeless shelters. Our food services team prepared and fed thousands. Our security team and counselors teamed up with law enforcement to conduct health and welfare checks on residents. We had a reverse-311 system that could push out ever-changing information to residents as well as receive emergency messages.
Sharon, Sonja, and Angélica have had to do all these things and so much more in the face of even more persistent and unthinkable obstacles.
For instance, Sonja shares, “We have grandmothers waiting in school lines with their grandchildren—and (the federal school’s food program) technically doesn’t even pay for us to feed them. But if it weren’t for us, in the early days of the pandemic, they wouldn’t eat.”
Angélica, much like the other two women, had to work around the clock to buy devices and get hundreds and thousands of families connected so their students could even get online. “We had to get donations and devices from here, there, and everywhere,” she explained of her whatever-it-takes approach. “It is a fundamental public good and an issue of access, like water and heat,” she adds.
Sharon coordinated with other city departments to try to find every single homeless family—including sending work and laptops into shelters.
And, in the face of no clear national standards for interpreting science and making decisions, all three have been steeped in understanding epidemiology. “It’s nuts,” says Sonja who summarized the sentiment from all three about the amount of time they had to spend on something that is fundamentally a public health decision.
All of this is before they can even make decisions core to their actual jobs—like how to make remote learning work so that kids can read and do math in ways that give them access to 21st-century jobs.