Aspiring Superintendents Train Under Former Statewide, National Educational Leaders Through College of Education’s Educational Leadership Doctoral Program

The NC State College of Education has a history of graduating principals with a track record of improving low performing schools in North Carolina, but in order for those principals to succeed, they need to be supported by district leaders who encourage and accept an innovative approach.

The college’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership is designed to prepare such superintendents. Students in the program are trained with leadership strategies designed to improve K-12 student performance as they learn from instructors that include three former state superintendents of public instruction and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education. The program will welcome its second cohort of 17 students this summer.

“The challenges and the opportunities confronting schools and their communities have never been more complex,” said former State Superintendent of Public Instruction and Professor of the Practice Mike Ward ‘77BS, ‘81MS, ‘93EDD.

“We need thoughtful, well-trained, inspirational leaders to step up and take on these issues. Having served as both a local and state superintendent, I want to do my part to ensure that aspiring leaders have a thorough grounding in the knowledge, skills and professional dispositions that will enable them to help our students grow.”

Ward, along with former NC State Board of Education Chair Bill Harrison and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Henry Johnson ‘90EDD, have all served as professors of the practice and mentors for the students in the educational leadership program for several years. As a new cohort gets underway, they will be joined by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson ‘96EDD, who has previously been a guest speaker in the program.

Professor Bonnie Fusarelli, Ph.D., director of NC State’s Leadership Academies including the Educational Leadership program, believes it is important for aspiring superintendents to have access to this group of instructors who have a “40,000 foot view” on district leadership. While coursework can teach the theory behind the work, she said the experience of these instructors can help bring the job to life through real-world scenarios that help students connect theory to actual problems they may encounter in the superintendency.

Dana Jernigan ‘14MSA, ‘20EDD, a recent graduate of the educational leadership program’s first cohort, was working as a district leader for Johnston County Schools when she began pursuing her doctorate degree. She said that Ward, Johnson and Harrison provided her not only with support, but with lessons she was able to immediately bring into her role at the district’s central office.

“The coursework, the classes and instructors are very knowledgeable in educational issues specific to North Carolina. They bring the coursework to real life applications that I was able to take from class and implement into the work I was doing,” Jernigan said. “The professors, with the knowledge and the experience they had, were able to take educational philosophy and really help us put it into action.”

The cohort for aspiring superintendents was designed to compliment the College of Education’s principal preparation program, which is one of only five in the nation to be recognized as exemplary by the University Council for Educational Administration and was ranked the No. 14 best program of its kind in the nation and No. 1 in North Carolina in the most recent U.S. News & World Report’s rankings.

The principal preparation program, which offers a Master of School Administration (MSA) degree, focuses on training future school leaders to be divergent thinkers and problem solvers who view problems through a new lens and develop innovative solutions to help turn around low-performing schools. Fusarelli said many of these MSA graduates, however, were facing resistance in implementing the strategies they learned because they were not receiving support from their superintendents.

It was this struggle that spawned the cohort model to train aspiring superintendents using research-based instruction that aligned with the cutting edge methods utilized in the college’s initial leadership academy — the Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA) — and subsequent principal preparation cohorts.

“We were turning our graduates loose into systems that weren’t always supportive. That is when we started thinking about the need to specifically have a cohort [to train superintendents in the northeast part of the state] because we were seeing the challenges our graduates were facing,” Fusarelli said. “The alignment is important because we like to think of a principal as being the leader of a system, but really they’re like a middle manager. They still have to report to the superintendent and until we can get those processes aligned, there’s going to be a conflict.”

Fusarelli described the coursework in the doctoral program as being similar to a Master of Business Administration program, but through the lens of education.

Students, about half of whom are graduates of the NELA program, learn about the finance, leadership and logistical aspects of running a district, and complete a part-time, two semester internship experience in which they work with a mentor in a central office. Courses like Superintendent-School Board Relations help aspiring district leaders navigate the politics involved with the position as well as help them to become leaders who develop district goals and agendas that are focused on the needs and best interests of their community.

“There’s just so much a superintendent has to know and be able to do. They’re like a mayor, CEO and educator all wrapped into one,” Fusarelli said. “There are so many aspects to the job that it requires a different skill set and disposition, and that’s where our former school chiefs come in. Coaching from these people helps accelerate our students’ learning and their impact.”

In addition to the experience offered by the instructors who are former state superintendents of public instruction, Fusarelli said a new course called Educational Policy Making in North Carolina that will be offered in fall 2020 will help expose students to people who have influenced educational policy throughout the state over the years.

Co-taught by Atkinson and Ward, the class will bring in educational policy figures including former Gov. Jim Hunt ‘59, ‘62MS and Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, who will break down their educational policies and decisions as well as discuss how they accomplished their policy goals.

In addition to giving aspiring district leaders an opportunity to learn from prominent policy figures, Fusarelli said a secondary goal of the course is to film the lessons to create video archives of the major pivots in North Carolina educational policy. These videos would eventually be made available for educational researchers, historians and the general public to access.

“We feel like we benefit so greatly from having these contacts and being able to bring those people in front of our students, but that won’t always be the case,” Fusarelli said. “Some of these folks are getting older and we don’t know how much longer we’ll have to tap their expertise, so we want this class to be part of keeping their story alive.”

It’s expertise from instructors and guest speakers that Erica Shoulders-Royster ‘12MSA, ‘20EDD cited as one of the most beneficial aspects of her time in the educational leadership cohort.

The ability to speak with professors who had both real world experience as high-level educational leaders and connections with experienced educators and policymakers throughout the state, Shoulders-Royster said, was an invaluable resource as she was writing her dissertation, which focused on charter schools.

“When you’re writing a dissertation, you want to make sure that the information you’re putting out there is accurate. In my research, I didn’t just have to read articles because I had a one-on-one connection and contact with people who possessed relevant knowledge that I probably would not have had otherwise without this cohort,” she said. “That personal connection within this program is very different and the connections I’ve been able to make throughout the state have been astounding.”

Harrison said he believes that after a long career in education, in which he has gained so much, it is important to give back to students like Shoulders-Royster.

He noted that effective superintendents must understand the importance of aligning educational standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment and support, and are critical to district success, as they can attract and retain good staff as well as create and support learning environments that improve learning outcomes. He was drawn to the College of Education’s doctoral program, he said, because it is able to cultivate the skills needed to become an effective district leader.

“I think the components of the program effectively address increasing the knowledge base, expanding the skill set and strengthening the disposition needed for successful school leadership at senior levels. The focus on combining theory and its practical application in the process is a real strength,” he said. “I consider it an honor to be associated with a program that works to develop these behaviors and attitudes in aspiring senior leaders.”