Laptop illustration with UNI's superintendent cohort meeting virtually

Where passion and leadership meet

Autumn Pino leaned forward in her chair, focused on the conversation in front of her and tonight’s topic: school finance.

She was about to ask the presenter a question when she sensed a slight movement to her right. She turned and smiled as her daughter slid a sandwich in front of her. With a quick wink and silent “thank you,” she returned back to the dialogue unfolding on her computer screen. Forty-five minutes remained in her virtual class, part of the Advanced Studies Certificate (ASC) in superintendency program at the University of Northern Iowa.  

This hybrid program — delivered via Zoom, with Saturday seminars four weekends of the first semester and a class on campus for two days each summer — combines a quality educational experience with a flexibility that gives future superintendents and senior administrators from all corners of the state of Iowa a doable path toward achieving a graduate degree. Every two years, a new cohort of about 15 students begin.

“We have students from all over the state, and they’re really appreciative of this virtual mode of delivery, but blended with face-to-face time,” says Denise Schares, ‘86, ‘94, ‘04, who has been with the College of Education program for the past seven years, including leading it for the last three. “I have a student in Marcus, in the far northwest near Orange City, and also in Keokuk. You can’t hardly get much farther in your travels [in the state of Iowa] than that. But it’s been great work, and it really attests to our commitment to serving all geographic areas, as well as metro areas.”

Superintendents are the lead learners of their school systems — and within the K-12 setting, the pinnacle of administration. Interested educators work their way up the ladder through a combination of experience and education, adding endorsements and graduate degrees to fill gaps, gain knowledge and meet licensure requirements. According to historical archives at UNI’s Rod Library, the issue of advanced degree offerings was a topic of discussion at UNI from its earliest days as a teacher's college. Today's graduate degrees, including the ASC for superintendency, as well as ASC and master's for principalship and doctorate in education, are a natural continuum for Iowa’s leader in teacher education.

Pino is one of hundreds of students who have successfully navigated the UNI superintendency program. As a principal at Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy in Cedar Rapids, she’s preparing herself for continued growth. Fellow alumnus Mark Lane, ‘16, became superintendent for Decorah schools in July 2019 after 25 years of experience in the Des Moines area, including as associate superintendent in Urbandale. Travis Schueller, ‘13, ‘16, has served as superintendent of the North Kossuth and North Union school districts since 2016.

The passion each has for their chosen profession is evident. When they felt it was time to prepare for that next step, each turned to the University of Northern Iowa.

“We have students from all over the state, and they’re really appreciative of this virtual mode of delivery, but blended with face-to-face time.”

—Denise Schares

A Flexible Approach

The superintendency program at UNI provides future leaders with the coursework, connections and context to prepare them to lead in accordance with the Iowa Standards of School Leaders. The primarily online, hybrid approach worked well for the three.

“I could be at school all day on Wednesday, work at the office, log in at the computer, connect with our cohort and whoever was teaching the classes. It just really worked with what I was doing professionally at the time. It was good learning, but also convenient,” says Lane.

 

“One of the challenges for any administrator is balancing work and home life. I take being a mom seriously. This program honored the fact I need a balance in my life, so not going to class every night was helpful to me,”

 

says Pino. “If I knew I had a Tuesday or Thursday night class, I was completely focused on class, but it allowed me to do everything I needed to do leading up to the class.”

A first semester on-campus Saturday class helps build cohort connections. “Because they brought us together — so you meet people face to face — when you were on (the online link), they weren’t just a face on a computer. You knew who they were. It worked really well for people hours away,” adds Schueller, who notes the connection with cohort members persists to this day.

 

 


 

Getting Practical

The UNI superintendency program is known for its practicality, both in experiences provided and expertise that’s shared.

“It’s taught by practicing administrators and central office administrators, those with practical experience,” explains Schares. “It’s taught in the field by UNI faculty; we rarely use any adjunct faculty, and we actually go into students’ districts three times during the course of the program, supporting their internship work. These onsite visits with candidates and their mentors is really key.”  

Mentors — or critical friends, as they’re called in the program — not only present as part of the curriculum, but coach and remain accessible to the students.

“Hearing from people in the field and finding opportunities via Zoom or on campus for them to share about their lived experience in the role was really beneficial,” says Lane, who recalled hearing from Tony Voss, ‘92, superintendent in the Hudson district, and Darwin Lehman, with Forest City.

Schueller found this an opportunity to strengthen his connection with Lehmann, an early mentor, while Pino gained new perspective on building community relationships from Mary Jo Hainstock, Vinton-Shellsburg schools superintendent. Listening to Superintendent Stan Rheingans, ‘12, from Dubuque was powerful, she says. “To hear him speak about the future direction of the district and thinking through difficult decisions, and how to do a good job honoring traditions, while leading with foresight, it had me thinking.”

 

Through hands-on practicum projects of benefit to their districts, cohort members bring what they’ve learned into focus, reflecting their move into broader issues and solutions.

While an ASC student, Lane helped gather information for potential passage of a physical plant and equipment levy and co-facilitated a curriculum adoption. He later used what he learned to support preparations for a bond referendum for new buildings, which later passed. He expects to apply this experience to a similar need for new buildings in Decorah.

With coursework, dialogue and hands-on experience, students move beyond the natural building-based approach of a principal.

“Key to superintendency is systems thinking and understanding the interdependence of all the components of the system. A school system is a massive organization, even a small school district,” Lane says.

As a member of the district equity leadership team, Pino used what she learned to help envision what it means to reach every student from a practice, policies and decision-making perspective.

“I appreciate being a part of the process, because there is so much systems thinking. It’s an area of growth for me,” she says. While she could implement some ideas in her building, she adds, “Now I have the ability to think broader about it as a future superintendent and how I would engage in shared leadership.”

Illustration of a man on a computer with a virtual cohort

 


 

Finding the Content Within Complexity

Schares, a former superintendent with Clear Creek Amana school, notes the work of a superintendent continues to become more and more complex.

“There are budget concerns, enrollment concerns, a great deal more work on the social and emotional well-being of students. Declining enrollment has created a great deal more conversation about operational sharing. There are additional requirements for safety planning, concern for securing appropriately endorsed teachers to serve in high need areas — all of those things continue to contribute to the complexity of the work. And they’re addressed in our program,” says Schares.

“What we emphasize is the context of the work. The actual district or districts that you’re serving will bring with it unique challenges and opportunities,” Schares adds. “Our work is really to do the best that we can to prepare them for those challenges and opportunities.”

Lessons Learned

Each program graduate recalls a specific aspect that left an impact. For Lane, it was a course on power politics and ethics. “That was an excellent foundation of the political side of the superintendency that you don’t necessarily understand as a principal,” he said. One of the first things he did upon his move to Decorah was to reach out to the mayor and city council members. “We are all public servants; we can’t work in silos.”

Pino liked being pushed to find her stretch points. “I can talk all day about equity and leadership for students, but an area I need to grow is finance. I liked the opportunities to work closely with the CFO in my district. It’s nice to be able to do that while still in a safe place and still in school.”

Schueller appreciates the practical tools he gained. “One of the things unique about UNI is they have you prepare an entry plan for the first 100 days of being superintendent, for you to present to your board and then return for an update,” he says. “This document helped guide me through that opening three months. I got that from current and former superintendents in class. Everything we did project-wise or assignment-wise had a meaning behind it.”

 


 

Moving Forward

Pino completed her final presentation in November. She welcomes whatever’s next.  

“This has allowed me to think more about the future. It’s been good to engage in conversations with really great mentors that have lived the superintendency experience, but also know me as an individual student,” she says. “Sometime in the near future, I will choose to go for a broader position, but will feel humbled enough to know that I would have to be the right fit.”

Last fall Lane was ready for his first fall as superintendent. “I watched my dad become a school administrator and superintendent and watched the way that work filled him with pride and joy. I’ve enjoyed every job that I’ve had. I’m already starting to feel the pride in the job as I walk around the district.”

Schueller’s days are filled with both the challenges and delights of a shared superintendency which covers seven communities, two districts and three building sites. The small town, rural Iowa native considers it a perfect fit. He values the connections made and lessons learned through the UNI superintendency program and regularly talks with principals about entering the UNI ASC.

“I just love my job every day I go to work. You have the best of both worlds; if you want to interact with students, if I want to help instructional leadership with teachers; be part of management, or the finance side,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to be able to impact all different aspects of education. And in the end, it’s all about the students.” UNI