Superintendent’s Playbook: Interviewing at a new district? Leave your vision at the door

When potential district leaders apply for superintendent positions, they’re often asked, “What is your vision for this district? What goals do you want to achieve?” Some general—yet vague—responses usually come to mind: To empower our educators, to improve academics and so on. But truth be told, no one can—or should—answer this question without input from the community itself.

This was the case for Denise Watts, superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools in Georgia, who told us it was illogical to rely on her own vision for success as she interviewed for the top spot ahead of the current school year. Neil Gupta, superintendent of Ohio’s Oakwood City School District, shares a similar experience.

“Last January during the interview process, people were asking me, ‘What’s your vision for the district?'” To which Gupta boldly replied, “You should be very scared if anybody gives you the answer.”

He had been studying the district for some time in preparation for these interviews, yet he felt it best to hold off on answering that question until he spent quality time face-to-face with the community.

“I hadn’t even moved here yet,” he explained. “I hadn’t gotten to know this district yet or understand the culture. Obviously, I’ve been in other districts at the local and national levels. I know what’s out there. But if I try to copy and paste the things that had been successful elsewhere, it could be disastrous.”

Fast-forward to today. The district appreciated his response and allowed him to carry out his mission to get a read on the district’s heartbeat, so to speak. However, given Gupta’s understanding of the importance of community voice and input, he decided it’d be best to include district stakeholders—including students and parents—in the creation of Oakwood Schools’ next vision for success.

It all started in a December blog post on the district’s website—where Gupta writes almost weekly—sharing the district’s latest updates and other news he deems important. In the article, he outlines the runway that they’ll use to “embark on a new journey together,” which includes some upcoming actions that “will allow us to provide clear and transparent communication,” the blog post reads.

These events include the release of their Oakwood Schools Quality Profile, a report that goes beyond a traditional state report card by providing community members with a clear look at the district’s strengths and growth areas. Last month also marked the beginning of Gupta’s monthly Superintendent Coffee Chats, which allow attendees direct access to their district leader to ask questions and share their ideas.

This month, it’s launched a community-wide survey aimed at gathering valuable insights on a variety of school-related topics. And just the other week, Gupta delivered a “State of the Schools” address during a board meeting celebrating some of the district’s recent achievements and discussed ways to keep the ball rolling.

2023-24 “State of the Schools”

Transparency and communication: They’re two principles that play a key role in Gupta’s process of creating a shared vision of success for his district.

“I kept hearing all along, ‘There’s a lack of communication and transparency,'” he says. “Well, how do you fix that?”

Gupta says the infographics, like the runway for the district’s strategic plan and his frequent blog posts, have become vital resources for the community as they seek to understand what’s in store for their students.

“It’s this idea of putting your kitchen sink on a visual,” he says. “Now, I take these visuals with me everywhere I go. When people ask, ‘What are you guys working on?’ I pull that sheet of paper out and I walk them through the steps.”

“This infographic has latched onto our community and other superintendents who have said, ‘We’re stealing that. That’s perfect.'”

Matthew Zalaznick
Matthew Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.