Keith Lutz remembers his early days of being a superintendent: speaking in front of thousands of people, forgetting how to breathe, where to look and how to handle his nerves.
Nothing in his college speech or educational courses prepared him for that, he said.
Lutz, who leads the Millard school district, saw versions of himself as a young man when he looked at the roster of Omaha-area superintendents: Educators who, despite their advanced degrees and years of experience, may be overwhelmed.
What if, thought Lutz, the metro area had a program that trimmed the amount of on-the-job training needed?
When Lutz spoke with other area superintendents and officials at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he had an interested audience. The Midlands Superintendent Academy starts at UNO in September.
The idea apparently has a market in Nebraska and western Iowa. To date, 13 of the class's 15 spots have been filled. About half the students are superintendents, and nearly two-thirds of the leaders are from the Omaha area, said Dick Christie, a UNO assistant education professor sharing instruction of the class.
“They are people who know their craft inside out, but they don't know how to manage an organization that will deliver the services of their craft,” said Mary Hamilton, another UNO faculty member who will help lead the class.
Having well-trained superintendents is important because turnover is high. Eight of the metro area's 12 superintendents have started their jobs in the past four years.
National studies have shown that the average tenure for superintendents is three to four years in urban districts and six to seven years in districts of all sizes.
Ralston Superintendent Mark Adler said he applied to get better in all areas of school leadership. “I've been in school administration a long time, but the superintendent position is so unique,” said Adler, who started as Ralston's superintendent a year ago.
He expects his district to pick up the $2,000 academy cost.
New Papillion-La Vista Superintendent Andrew Rikli also has applied, a district spokeswoman said.
Christie, a former Council Bluffs superintendent, will lead the 10-month program with Hamilton, who years ago started a similar program at UNO for public managers.
They want the academy to broaden the pool of superintendent candidates, which has been shrinking, and help the leaders gain management skills.
Christie and Hamilton see the program serving as an intense run-through for people just starting their superintendent gigs or for leaders who want to become the district boss.
“You're in your career and you want to build a new set of skills,” Christie said. “It's sort of the transition.”
Superintendents in Nebraska have to have a doctorate of educational administration or an educational specialist degree. In Iowa, superintendents must at least have their master's degree, a State Education Department spokeswoman said.
But despite hundreds of hours of classes, superintendent academies — essentially more education — have popped up across the country to address gaps in the formal training.
New OPS Superintendent Mark Evans attended one of the nation's best-known academies, the Broad Institute's Superintendents Academy.
“It was the best learning opportunity I've ever had,” Evans has said about the yearlong fellowship in which he traveled to some of the nation's highest-performing urban districts.
Christie and Hamilton aren't trying to compete with Broad or other similarly themed programs. But they do have the same, broad mission as the national academies: they want their program to thrive where the typical preparation programs lack.
Take the process of creating a strategic plan and making sure it drives everything that happens in a school district.
The best urban districts in the country have such focused, long-term plans. The plans take months to create and countless hours to monitor and review to make sure they're being followed.
In regular education preparation programs, a professor might talk about strategic planning for a class or two, then move on.
The academy will go deeper.
|Omaha area superintendents and their experience|
|School district||Superintendent||Tenure started|
|Council Bluffs||Martha Bruckner||Jul-07|
|Douglas County West||Dan Schnoes||Jul-12|
|Papillion-La Vista||Andrew Rikli||Jul-13|
|Springfield Platteview||Brett Richards||Jul-12|
Business professors and a visiting superintendent will ask the students to critique their own district's strategic plans. The students will then develop and outline a strategic plan for their district or tweak the existing document.
In similar ways, the class also will explore ethical behavior, working with school board members and media relations, among other topics.
“Many of them have certainly not had that hands-on experience or seen their boss do that,” Christie said.
The academy will have nine classes — one a month except for December — that will last eight hours each.
Students can go to class remotely or in person, but, before class, they must have completed their readings and finished their homework.