Oakland is the latest big district turning to an insider to head schools

June 5, 2017

Oakland Unified's new Superintendent finalist, Kyla Johnson-Trammell, has spent her childhood and career in the district.

When the Oakland Unified School District last month announced that it had settled on Kyla Johnson-Trammel to be its next superintendent, it was another example of a growing trend: school boards are turning increasingly to candidates with deep attachments to their districts to fill the top administrative post.

The 41-year-old Johnson-Trammell, who has never been a superintendent, attended elementary and middle schools in the district – and then returned to spend the last 18 years – her entire professional career – as a teacher, principal, and associate superintendent.

In announcing her selection, the district noted that she was born and raised in East Oakland, one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, and is in fact a third-generation Oakland resident. She also earned her doctorate in education from nearby UC Berkeley. “You have before you someone who embodies what it means to be of this town,” school board president James Harris declared.

Oakland is not alone in turning to an insider to head its schools. The move appears to be an increasingly popular – and unproven – strategy by California school districts as an antidote to the revolving door of school superintendents that can have a debilitating impact on progress in a school district.

It is based at least in part on the theory that someone who has deep roots in a district or knows it well has a better chance of succeeding by having an intuitive knowledge of the district, its potential and its pitfalls – and will be less likely to leave, if only because there will be fewer surprises and therefore less stress.  Such home-grown superintendents may also be more loyal to the district because they have enduring familial ties, as well as close friendships in their hometowns.

On the other hand, being an insider may not always be an advantage. It could make it more difficult to shake up district leadership if the targets of the shakeup are people the new superintendent knows or has worked with. Unlike an outsider, it’s also not assured that someone who has risen up through the ranks will bring fresh ideas, perspectives or experiences to the table.

According to an EdSource review of the state’s 30 largest school districts serving nearly 2 million students, the churn in leadership continues at a rapid pace. Currently 20 of the superintendents in those 30 districts have been in their posts for three years or less.

Within the past year, some of the state’s most respected, and longest-serving, superintendents have resigned, or will do so by the end of the year. After four years as superintendent, Richard Carranza left San Francisco Unified for Houston last August. Fresno Unified’s Mike Hanson stepped down in January after 10 years there. Janet Young will leave Clovis Unified at the end of this month after six years in her post.

But of 12 new superintendents appointed in the last two years, only three – Matt Duffy in West Contra Costa Unified headquartered in Richmond, Rick Schmitt in San Ramon Unified east of San Francisco and Marian Kim-Phelps in Poway Unified north of San Diego – were brand-new to their districts.

Some, like Michelle King in Los Angeles Unified and now Johnson-Trammell, stand out as having attended schools in the district as students and then returned to spend their entire professional careers in their districts.

Others, like Eliseo Davilos in Stockton Unified, grew up in the districts they now lead, and attended schools there, although they did not work there until becoming superintendents. In contrast, Randall Bassett in Fontana Unified and Nancy Albarran in San Jose Unified spent 20 and 17 years respectively in their districts in a range of professional roles.

Oakland has had a particularly severe bout of superintendent turnover. It has had eight school leaders over the last 16 years – some chosen by the elected school board, and others appointed by the state to help get the district out of state trusteeship. The latest to leave – in the middle of the school year, no less – was Antwan Wilson, who came to Oakland from Denver, and left in January after only 2 1/2 years to become schools chief in Washington, D.C.

In appointing Johnson-Trammell, the Oakland school board adopted the approach advocated by David Kakishiba, a former board president who saw many of the superintendents he helped hire leave the district. He urged Oakland for the first time in decades to “select a superintendent who is deeply rooted in Oakland” and who had “a substantive record of results in improving Oakland’s schools.”

Her appointment came in the wake of pressure from a number of community groups on the board to hire an Oakland resident for the position. “Together, we got the board to stop the revolving door of superintendents and hire a leader with local roots and a life-long commitment to Oakland kids,” the Justice for Oakland Students Coalition said in a Facebook post, taking some credit for the board’s selection. They noted that the original finalists were all from outside Oakland.

In an EdSource interview, Johnson-Trammell said she believes that her long history in the district, as a student and administrator, gives her “certain advantages” in her new position.

“I believe part of the call from the community is that you have to understand Oakland, the ecosystem, some of the challenges, so you can know how to move the work forward,” she said.

One advantage is being familiar with the talent pool in the district, as well as having a deep sense of what to expect from parents and community members.

“Because of the importance of putting the right team together,” she said, “that is why being very strategic around who your team is – internally and also at school sites – and including parents and community members, is extremely important.”

Having experienced the disruptions in Oakland’s district leadership herself, she acknowledged that frequent changes in the superintendent’s position “can have catastrophic impacts on attrition all over the organization.”

“To the extent the superintendent changes and senior leadership changes, it creates instability and sometimes ripples into the classroom,” she said.

That, in fact, has occurred in Oakland. When Wilson left in January, he was followed by several senior administrators he had recruited, including some from Denver, where he previously worked.

What if Johnson-Trammell does well in Oakland? Would she then, too, succumb to recruitment pressures from another district – perhaps one that pays more, has a higher profile, and perhaps fewer challenges?

“I’m committed to the city,” Johnson-Trammell insisted. “I have no aspirations at this point of being a superintendent all over the nation. I have children. They’re going to be going to school in Oakland.”

Yet she didn’t say categorically that she would never leave Oakland. She is only 41 years old, so it seems unlikely that she will stay in Oakland for the rest of her career, simply based on the average length of time superintendents stay in their posts. The question, then, is just how long she will be there.

“I think the amount of time I’ve spent in this district is a solid sign that I’m not necessarily chasing another opportunity,” she said.

One big unknown is that the fact that she knows Oakland and the district intimately doesn’t guarantee that she will be successful. She has never been a superintendent, a position that is widely viewed as particularly demanding. A superintendent has to manage multiple constituencies, often in a highly politicized atmosphere – a fractious school board that is beholden to voters, a teachers union chafing after years of budget cuts and wanting more, and parents who are desperate for the best education possible for their children.

Johnson-Trammell understands that Oakland’s revolving door of superintendents is likely to stir up some skepticism among the staff she will be leading. She herself has lived through nine or 10 superintendents in the nearly two decades she has been in the district.

She estimates that it will take one or even two years before she gains the trust of all the districts’ staff.

“I understand that part of my responsibility will be to show through my actions the commitment I have, understanding the skepticism that may be out there, particularly among those who have been in the district as long as I have, or longer,” she said.

At the same time, she said she has to stay focused on the urgent work of all superintendents, whether from inside or outside the district. To that end, Johnson-Trammell said she plans to reach out and listen to key constituencies before deciding how to handle tough issues facing the district, like a looming budget deficit, the possibility of closing schools and the potential impact of more charter schools.

“Our primary mission is to create quality schools and quality teaching for all of our students,”  she said, “and we can never take our eyes off that prize.”

Correction:  This story was updated on June 6 at 1 p.m. to indicate that Antwan Wilson came to Oakland from Denver Unified, and left the district in January 2017.


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