Leadership Equity: Q and A with Superintendent Dr. A. Katrise Perera, Gresham-Barlow Schools
Dr. A. Katrise Perera is a self-proclaimed life-long learner with nearly 25 years of service to learning communities and almost 19 in an education leadership capacity. She is an innovative and visionary public education leader in a progressively global and ever-changing learning environment. Her peers acknowledge her commitment, her dedication, her courageous leadership and for being an “equity warriorette.” In 2015, the National Association of School Superintendents (NASS) named her the National Superintendent of the Year. Before being recruited and hired by the Gresham-Barlow School District (Oregon) in May of 2017, she served in a variety of school leadership positions in Virginia, Texas, and as an executive leader with McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.
LC: Why is it important for there to be representation in education; more specifically, why is it important for school and district leadership to include diverse faces and voices?
Katrise: Whenever I visit our schools, I am always in awe of students who identify with or find inspiration in fictional characters. Moreover, I am fascinated by students who can clearly communicate, embrace hope, build upon failures, express appreciation, and who have a sense of assuredness but make it look effortless. What I often discover is that these students often attribute their assuredness to a teacher who believes in them and with whom they can identify on various levels of representation.
My discovery is not a new realization but there is a growing awareness that representation matters to all students that we serve. If our public schools' student population increasingly reflects the communities they serve, but our classrooms and board rooms do not have diverse representation, we should prioritize ways to address the imbalance among the core workforce of education, particularly in the classroom. In my Oregon district, we compete with 196 other districts for a very limited number of diverse candidates. Like most districts, we have prioritized opportunities to examine how different students learn culturally and how the brain is engaged in the learning process. This, to me, is the art and the science of learning. Consequently, we continue to strategically seek out diverse candidates who will reflect the community of learners we serve.
The data is crystal clear: Students of color who have even one teacher of color by third grade are nearly 40 percent more likely to graduate from high school. If they have two or more teachers of color by third grade, they are 32 percent more likely to enroll in college. These are staggering numbers.
In the end, we know that students determine what they can be or become based on the examples that are represented around them. This is especially important when it comes to our classrooms and schools. As teachers, leaders and support staff in the education arena, we must do our part to ensure that every student can see themselves and all of their peers as strong, knowledgeable, creative, resilient, happy, capable, and connected students with limitless options in the future. Representation matters because it is the clearest way to ensure that all basic functions of our students are met every day, in every classroom, and for all.
LC: For district leaders and board of education members who are currently in leadership positions, what actions can they take to prepare the next group of diverse leaders?
Katrise: Preparing the next group of diverse leaders in education is challenging but not impossible. What I have learned is that you must be intentional and deliberate in your actions when you are seeking to fulfill any level of educational desire. It begins with an intentional and deliberate message that diversity matters, coming from both the school board members and the superintendent. There has to be a clear vision or rationale for the importance of diversity and how it can serve the entire district.
Next, I believe you have to begin by assessing the existing structures and systems for strengths, weaknesses and potential changes. At the same time or soon after, a district must develop an intentional and deliberate method of identifying potential leadership capacity and ensure the method does not create barriers for diverse employees. Identifying baseline performance indicators will be key but one must be intentional and deliberate by allowing time throughout to assess the developed performance indicators for refinement. The performance indicators should be embedded in a district’s recruiting, interviewing, selection process, and on-boarding support systems. Being intentional and deliberate when developing partnerships with a higher education program, especially those that provide access to a diverse pipeline of potential recruits, will make the process easier. Subsequently, a district must be intentional and deliberate when investing in professional development, such as coaching, mentoring, and continued education programs for the next group of leaders.
Last, but not least, the process of being intentional and deliberate in identifying and building capacity has to be thought of as ongoing and should be routinely assessed for improvement. Most importantly, once the diverse leaders are prepared to lead in any capacity there has to be an intention to deliberately keep the equitable placement of leaders in the forefront.
This process requires perseverance and a touch of risk-taking. It is time-consuming and it takes a committed leader―a leader to move beyond the status quo. It takes a leader who is committed to being intentional and deliberate when it comes to developing measurable actions for preparing diverse leaders. The communities, the schools, the staff, and the students, alike, deserve no less.
LC: Looking more broadly at district leadership and actions that create access and opportunity for all students, what is your advice for superintendents who take over a new district―how can they assess what’s working and what isn’t? How can they ensure that new initiatives are viewed through an “equity lens,” including initiatives related to technology and digital leadership?
Katrise: This job is complex, and decisions are often a collaborative effort, but there are times when you have to make rapid decisions. So, my first words of advice will always be to know thyself and what you are willing to “fall on the sword for” in the end. Beyond that, a new superintendent should always allow himself or herself 60 to 100 days to listen and learn about the district―including the most recent student outcomes, the gaps and lags in learning, the needed resources, and key leaders who have the capacity to collaboratively lead the work―but at the same time identify small improvements for quick wins along the way. This will help build credibility and trust when it comes time to address the identified area of improvement.
From there, I advise new superintendents to view everything with a perspective from the core of the district, which is the classroom. This means focusing on students' needs, first and foremost, but that does not mean the needs of the instructional staff should be ignored. A new superintendent should gather qualitative data on what is working or, better yet, what yields the best return on instruction (ROI) and why. Analyzing a district’s ROI will help with efficiencies in spending, prioritizing instructional investments, and being intentional when re-appropriating funding to increase the impact and scale of another program.
All along, my advice is to keep the school board informed of findings, discoveries, and priorities, which helps to build that initial trust and to establish communication protocols. Subsequently, a new superintendent has to identify a team that will assist in analyzing the qualitative and quantitative data to build an equitable and strategic path forward. This is the core set of equity lens questions I recommend superintendents to consider in every decision, regarding whether or not to pursue a new idea or initiative:
1) Is it aligned with mission/vision of district?
2) Will it have a positive or negative effect?
3) Does it ignore or worsen existing disparities, or will it produce unintended consequences?
4) How will it affect those included in the process?
5) Were other possibilities explored?
6) Would the positive outcomes be sustainable?
It is one thing to establish an equity lens, but it has to be intentionally practiced and deliberately embedded in every decision related to instructional initiatives, human talent, staffing, budgeting, operations, instructional investments, inclusive practices, gathering of feedback, identification of student needs, and school-to-home communications.
LC: To look specifically at some of the work your team is doing in Gresham-Barlow, tell us about the work you’ve done to bring community and business partnerships into the support of your work, specifically the work in developing career and college pathways? Why do you think it’s important to include these stakeholders?
Katrise: Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, as I began my superintendency, I spent time listening and learning from our community stakeholders and by the summer of 2018, there were patterns of desired pathways that were common across the community. My team and I spent time identifying a potential model for developing new career opportunities and expanding our current career programs. We engaged our city leaders, economic development leaders and associations, our community colleges, and our local chamber of commerce leaders to visit a neighboring school district that had seen great success in implementing the model that would best serve our students seeking experiences in a variety of career pathways.
The visit resulted in a heightened excitement from the business, higher education, and municipal leaders, which fueled the launch of a stakeholder engagement committee and began the process to develop our college and career pathways. Our goal was to define our “why” ― to keep the group focused on our goals and on target to launch a pilot that upcoming winter of 2019, but we still allowed time to explore other pathway and partnership options along with alternative funding sources for long-term stability. The reality of career pathways was developing, which provided an extra boost of confidence from our community.
As the reality of career pathways stimulated excitement, we knew we still had work to do with our higher education partners. That work included identifying dual credit opportunities with our local community colleges that would help in developing specific business engagement strategies to best serve our students. Our goal was to partner with businesses to inform pathway development in the specific sector in which they are involved. For example, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and Wallace Medical Concern will help develop the health sciences pathway; Portland General Electric (PGE) and Fortis and Lease Crutcher Lewis Construction Companies are helping develop the industry, engineering, and manufacturing pathway; and MetroEast Community Media will work with us to fine-tune our Arts, Communication and Information Technology pathways.
To ensure the inclusivity of diverse ideas and input, we have partnered with culturally specific providers such as the Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA) and Migrant Education. This partnership is already paying dividends by ensuring that our equity lens is used and that we are serving all members of our student population and community. Our school board has played a big role in establishing this assurance of inclusivity and is not because we have to, rather it is the right thing to do.
The purpose of education is to prepare students to enter into the community and business sectors and positively contribute through career success. That charge is embedded in our district's mission and vision of inspiring and empowering each student to become culturally responsive so that they may thrive in an ever-changing global community. If we are to expect to fulfill our mission and vision, then it is a no-brainer that the inclusion of community stakeholders and having them at the table helping us shape pathway opportunities are vital to long-term sustainability and student success. Furthermore, our educational pathway program will only be relevant to our students if community and business partners are assisting us in that work, providing opportunities for our students to explore, and affording them real-world experiences in a variety of career pathways before they have to apply skills in real-world situations.
LC: What are some of your major goals over the next 5 years and how are you currently setting the course toward achieving them?
Katrise: When the Gresham-Barlow School District (GBSD) Board of Directors hired me in July of 2017, they charged me with assessing the district’s curriculum, equitable access and support systems for students, the effectiveness of instructional practices, teacher and student voice, external stakeholder input, customer service and communication methods. I was also tasked with ensuring we prioritize our investments. The charges set forth may appear overwhelming but auditing each area and identifying areas of improvement allowed my team and I time to prioritize the work.
The audits revealed areas of need, especially in curriculum and instructional practices. After going through a process of condensing the audit by prioritizing the recommendations, we developed a theory of action. Only then did we set our goals for the next 4-6 years were then identified:
- To provide effective, high-quality instruction to each student in our district
- To provide a physically and emotionally safe and culturally responsive learning environment that gives students and families voice
- To ensure the prudent use of resources that employs an equity lens in decision-making
Our work to accomplish the identified GBSD goals began with creating community consensus around the established goals with our stakeholders, soliciting their input on our steps forward, and ultimately creating a portrait of a GBSD graduate. The framework we are using to strategically plan both academically and financially focuses on our priorities through a logic model that analyzes the input/output/outcome as a means to efficiently use resources. The framework has consistently engaged our district leaders to align our systems; work to build professional capacity; ensure our curriculum and assessments are supported with equitable resources; provide support to our instructional staff for implementation; and identify key progress indicators (KPI) of success. The overarching framework also includes a multi-tiered system of support, which ensures equitable teaching and learning environments.
In the end, goals and strategic plans cannot exist only as well-crafted words on a page. If they are not implemented with fidelity, clearly communicated and supported from all levels of leadership, monitored and adjusted regularly, and provided with equitable funding, I can guarantee that the intended improved outcomes for students will fall short of attainment.
LC: To close, what is your advice for aspiring education leaders, particularly educators from groups who are underrepresented in leadership positions?
Katrise: I recently wrote a piece for ACT Equity & Inclusion blog, “I Am Not Supposed to Be Here.” Beyond the ACT blog entry and the above response to new superintendents, I would add to a few more areas of advice for aspiring superintendents from underrepresented groups.
First, I would advise an aspiring education leader from an underrepresented group to know and internalize their “why” in this work. When you know your why, the difficult tasks are not easier, but they become doable. Your “why” should be easily identifiable and communicated to others verbally but more importantly in your actions. It has been my experience that when a leader “talks and walks their why” others will work just as much to ensure success.
I have yet to meet a leader who has been successful without believing in their abilities and the abilities of the students they serve. So, for all aspiring leaders from all backgrounds but especially those from underrepresented groups, I advise each one to develop a positive growth mindset that will assist during the challenging experiences this job brings to each and every day. Keeping a growth mindset does not mean having a false sense that everything will be okay, but allows an individual to maintain an open mind toward a variety of solutions. A growth mindset can be further maximized when it is coupled with like-minded individuals who have the same outlook. Being a part of an affinity group or having a mentor, if available, has positively contributed to my career.
Before closing, there is one more piece of advice I would offer an aspiring leader from an underrepresented group. Don’t believe the labels. Your actions control your destiny. Good leadership is a process that evolves what and how you lead. Good leadership is good leadership. Period.