A school superintendent has the potential to have a greater impact on a community than any other person.  They can shape the way a community thinks about itself, its children, and its future.

I skipped a great game to attend a great retirement party.  It’s been ten years since I was a public school superintendent and my deputy who took over from me will conclude 22 years of service this month.  It was a good choice.

When Tom Murphy came to Federal Way Washington (between Seattle and Tacoma) when it was suburban.  When he became superintendent it had twice the level of poverty of Seattle with more than 100 first languages spoken.  He was a pretty traditional principal that became an extraordinary superintendent and gap-closing champion.

Tom took seriously the commitment to educating all students.  He was known statewide for his mission—all means all.  But he never beat people over the head with the mission; he drew them to it with stories delivered every Sunday night.  Tom wrote about his family, especially his grandchildren.  He wrote about growing up and playing in mud puddles.  His stories were folksy, personal, and very intentional.  He explained, he encouraged, he inspired.  Tom left his community better than he found it.

America has a complicated education governance system—school boards, states, and the feds all think they are in charge.  With that complicated backdrop, superintendents need to create a coherent environment where teachers can do their best work.  It takes time.  And in revolving door districts, it remains tumultuous.

A good superintendent improves schools.  A great superintendent changes the way a community views itself and its children.  While LA celebrated a championship, Federal Way celebrated a hero.

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.



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