When Michelle King was appointed to head the Los Angeles Unified School District last week, she became the most prominent African-American school superintendent in the state and the nation.
But her ascent to the top post is hardly typical of California districts. She is one of only a small number of African-American superintendents in California, and of an even smaller number of African-American women to head a school district in the state.
There are an estimated 25 African-American superintendents in California – or 2.6 percent of superintendents in the 947 elementary, high school and K-12 districts in the state, according to a list compiled by the California Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators, or CAAASA. In addition, two other African-Americans are elected county superintendents of education, and another is an appointed county superintendent.
By comparison, of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, 6 percent are African-American.
African-American women are especially underrepresented. Women make up more than two-thirds of African-American teachers in the state but only 25 percent of African-American superintendents.
To address the issue, CAAASA has established a “California African American Leadership Academy,” which is holding a series of workshops to provide support and training to aspiring superintendents. Established in collaboration with the Association of California School Administrators, the California School Boards Association and the California Department of Education, the next workshop will be held in Oakland on Jan. 30.
In a paper outlining the launch of the program, CAAASA argues that “African Americans frequently encounter a glass ceiling: an invisible, yet very present, barrier that keeps them from rising to positions of leadership, regardless of their qualifications and achievements.”
Crucial to the selection process are the recruiting firms that school boards typically contract with to identify candidates. The firms often aren’t aware of potential candidates from diverse backgrounds, said CAAASA Executive Director Dwight Bonds. The organization has invited leading recruiting firms to attend its events to meet potential candidates and observe them making presentations so they can be more in the mix of names that search firms offer to school boards.
“If there isn’t the opportunity for these search firms to know about these potential candidates from diverse backgrounds, the status quo will continue,” said Bonds.
Carl Cohn, the newly appointed director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, said that African-American superintendents in the state have had an impact far exceeding their numbers. “While their numbers may be small, the African-American superintendents that I know and have worked with are a very impressive group,” said Cohn, who was formerly the longtime superintendent in Long Beach Unified and later in San Diego. “They’re all what I call ‘little ego’ superintendents who are getting great results for kids without creating chaos and conflict in the communities that they serve.”
“That’s the ballgame for me: good results without conflict in communities that already have too much conflict,” he said. If Los Angeles’ King can get similar outcomes, he said, “the LA Unified board has made a very smart choice.”
There are nearly three times more Latino superintendents than African-American superintendents in the state, according to David Verdugo, executive director of the California Association of Latino Superintendents. An estimated 73 Latino superintendents comprise 7.7 percent of superintendents in the state, three times the proportion of African-American superintendents.
But compared to the large number of Latinos in the state’s schools, who make up 53 percent of student enrollment, Latino superintendents are even less reflective of the state’s student population. So clearly there is considerable room for growth in Latino school leadership as well.
An EdSource report in 2006-07 found that principals were twice as likely as superintendents to be racial or ethnic minorities, suggesting that many of them either don’t aspire to higher positions, or can’t break what Bonds described as the barriers that still exist for promotion to the top job in a district.
CAAASA president Judy White, who has been superintendent of the 34,000-student Moreno Valley Unified for the past five years, welcomed King’s appointment, which she said “gives me hope for the people of California.”
But the small number of African-American superintendents, she said, “does give you pause, and make you wonder if there is more that can be done.”
She worried that without African-Americans in leadership positions, the needs of African-American students can “become an afterthought.”
Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said the disparities in African-American and Latino representation are “indicative of disparities throughout our system.”
“This is precisely why we must be held accountable for the access and opportunity gaps as well as the persistent achievement gaps as we develop a new statewide accountability system and continuous improvement system,” said Smith, who is participating in the Leadership Academy being hosted by CAAASA in partnership with other organizations.
Santa Cruz County Office of Education Superintendent Michael Watkins is one of three African-American county superintendents in California’s 58 counties. Typically, these are elected rather than appointed posts. When Watkins was first elected in 2006, he was the first African-American to be elected to a county superintendent’s position in the state. Noting that there is not a single African-American school board member in Santa Cruz County, he said greater diversity on school boards would contribute to greater diversity in school district leadership as well.
“We need to educate educators about what equity means,” Watkins said. “It is not hiring someone because of their skin color. It is about having a diverse community that represents the demographics of our state.”
At the same time, he said, having people of color in top posts in a school district provides essential role models for African-American students, which in turn contributes to their long-term success. “Young African-Americans need to see more people like themselves who have achieved, and not just President Obama,” Watkins said.
LA Unified’s King, in an email to EdSource, affirmed Watkins’ sentiments. “As one of the few female African American superintendents in California, I have a responsibility to serve as a model and a source of inspiration to students,” she said. “They need to know that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can achieve your dreams.”
Ramona Bishop, superintendent of Vallejo City Unified, and CAAASA’s president-elect, said that being a superintendent is “not for everyone.” Many administrators prefer to be at the senior executive level in a district, not necessarily in the top job, which typically becomes highly politicized and is characterized by high turnover. Prospective applicants need encouragement and support to reach for the top positions, she said.
The challenge of promoting diversity in superintendency ranks is no different from those of other sectors of the economy. “You look at the top levels of any organization, and you will find the same issues we are struggling with,” she said. “We have work to do.”
Santa Cruz’s Watkins said that even if there is not sufficient progress in the “raw numbers” of school district leaders, he sees more awareness of the challenges facing African-American students. Next week, for example, all county superintendents will review a “blueprint for action” focused on African-American students. “In the old days that would not have happened,” he said.
That is a first step in increasing the pipeline of students going to college, and some of them choosing careers in education, which down the road will translate into more superintendents of color. “You have to start at the beginning,” he said.