New superintendents soak up advice in K12 cohort

Dr. George Barnes (center) of the Balsz School District was one of the new superintendents taking in leadership ideas at the Superintendents Collaborative Network on Thursday at GCU.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

Dr. George Barnes certainly heard GCU President Brian Mueller’s vision, innovation and enthusiasm – a lot of enthusiasm.

“When you hear him speak, to a degree if he offered me a job as a janitor, I’d take it right now,” Barnes said.

Barnes already has a new job, and that’s why he was at Grand Canyon University on Thursday with 17 other new school superintendents listening to Mueller’s address to launch the Superintendents Collaborative Network into its eighth year.

The network, a partnership of GCU’s K12 Educational Development, the Arizona Department of Education and Arizona School Administrators, provides support for first-year superintendents in Arizona with four sessions throughout the year, mentorship from longtime superintendents, and networking and advice to help them excel in a job that is difficult and can be isolating.

GCU President Brian Mueller offers the story of GCU and leadership advice to new school superintendents.

Barnes became superintendent of the Balsz School District in Phoenix this year and loved to hear advice from a man who has led GCU from a small college of less than a thousand students to a thriving university of more than 23,000 traditional students and almost 90,000 online students.

“He has a wonderful capacity to rally the troops that will support him in the days ahead,” Barnes said of Mueller.

Barnes said he wants to take that passion to his district near Sky Harbor International Airport, where the demographic majority is minorities.

“Historically, we haven’t had the opportunities to do well, so what I’m passionate about is our students achieving excellence and having a fair chance and having opportunities to go to college,” said the Chicago native.

He said the Superintendents Collaborative Network can help those goals.

“I’ve learned in life it’s about networking and opportunities. I didn’t grow up rubbing elbows with doctors and superintendents and CEOs,” he said. “Some of those folks have been in the network and can say, ‘I know a guy,’ or say, ‘Don’t do that, it ends in abysmal failure.’”

A big takeaway from Mueller in his talk about the steps to GCU’s growth and success is the value of bringing a lot of people together in the effort.

“Get everybody in the room. People say you can’t run a meeting with 350 people in the room. You absolutely can,” said Mueller, who leads a large biweekly meeting with all departments. “It’s very objective-driven and data-driven, but we get everyone in the room, and there are going to be no silos. We are going to do this together.”

Whether they are public safety officers or professors, they come together to share opinions and ideas.

“It’s amazing the kind of commitment you can get, the lack of backbiting, if you can get everybody in the same room,” Mueller said. “We are all just human beings who are weak in some ways, and when we don’t know, we think the worst. We might not always agree, but if we think our voice has been heard, we will still buy in.”

Thursday’s sessions featured talks on what to expect in the first year, planning for their first 100 days, positive school board relations and resources, and information that is available to superintendents.

Dr. Jennifer Johnson (right) and Dr. John Baracy share information during the event.

Dr. Jennifer Johnson, K12 Educational Development’s Assistant Vice President for Academic Alliances, said the mission of this cohort is vital.

Schools are dealing with chronic teacher shortages, and administrators at the top set the tone of the organization and share a vision that keeps enthusiastic teachers in their classrooms.

“We know with support they will get better faster. We are very interested in superintendent retention because much of the school district’s success rests in the stability of its leadership,” Johnson said. “The more we can support a superintendent, the more likely they are to stay in that job.”

The meetings and match with an experienced superintendent “coach” offers valuable support for administrators often facing, for the first time in their careers, being at the top of the workplace pyramid with few to turn to.

“Everyone else can go to a supervisor or colleague with a similar job. But they need advice and support like everyone else,” Johnson said. “So we created this safety net that helps them understand the role and have safe spaces for tough conversations.”

The network includes mentors “who can help them maintain that perspective, not overreact or underreact, someone who understands the role of superintendent and can provide advice and wisdom.”

Speakers included Johnson, Arizona School Administrators Executive Director Dr. Paul Tighe, DOE Associate Superintendent Kelly Koenig, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chief of Staff Callie Kozlak Tyler and retired superintendent Dr. John Baracy.

Baracy summarized Mueller’s advice to hire team players who are not afraid to innovate and take risks.

“Not be reckless but take risks,” he said. “If you want to change the results, you have to change the design. He has sure done that, and we should think about that as leaders, too.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


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