The Escambia County School District in Pensacola, FL is getting ready to select the county’s first-ever appointed superintendent. As they begin the journey, the district has a lot of questions. What skills should this new superintendent have? What experience should they bring with them to this vital role? What traits do the community want to see in their next school superintendent? To answer these questions, CivicCon gathered a half-dozen distinguished district leaders from around the country and gave Escambia County citizens a chance to ask “What does it take to be a great superintendent?”

In October, Studer Education partners from across the country joined the panel, held at the Rex Theatre, to share their stories of success and give expert advice on what to look for when selecting the head of schools. Studer Education Managing Director and Executive Leader, Dr. Janet Pilcher, said that this panel offered a look into “…how they have moved through their professional career path and what they think are the most significant and important roles of a superintendent. As our county is hiring its first appointed superintendent … how do we make sure we get a really highly-qualified, respectable and high-performing person to lead our school district?”

What Makes a Great Superintendent?

When asked to provide one attribute or capability that the school board needs to consider when hiring a great superintendent, the answers varied, but all gravitated around a driven, people-first mindset: accountability, courage, aspiration, putting students first and listening.

Find Someone Who Stays Accountable

Bonita Coleman, Ocean Springs School District Superintendent, emphasized the critical importance of accountability. “At the end of the day, what happens when scores come out and ratings come out is not only critical, it also relates to the viability of your community in terms of whether or not businesses want to move here, whether or not individuals want to move here. So, it’s important to keep that conversation about accountability. How do we make sure the system is high-performing?”

School District of Menomonee Falls Board President, Faith VanderHorst, echoed the importance of accountability. She recommended seeking out “a superintendent that is not afraid to get in and evaluate staff to understand if they’re a right fit in the building or in the district to make those decisions.”

Look for Someone Who is Courageous

“The word I wrote down was courage,” said Illinois Superintendent Dan Woestman. “… a superintendent has to balance the needs of the majority, or the hopes of the majority, with the needs and hopes of the few. And sometimes those smaller groups need someone who is able to show courage and make courageous decisions to meet the needs of those smaller but just as important groups.”

Bonita Coleman agreed with Dan. “A lot of times what I find is that superintendents would do more if they have the courage… In order to do the hard work, you have to push adults to come out of their comfort zone and that is not always going to be popular… So, I would encourage you to make sure you’re looking for someone who is courageous and will do the right work for children. And I mean across the board, all children…. and that just doesn’t always look like what it’s always looked like in districts.”

Aspiration and Inspiration

“One of the most important roles for a superintendent I think for a community is to define where we could go,” said Studer Education Leader Coach, Melissa Matarazzo. “… doing a lot of listening to understand where our community wants to go… often I think the superintendent’s role is to communicate and create a path to somewhere you’ve never been. I think that’s highly aspirational.”

Nannette Johnston, retired Kentucky superintendent and current Leader Coach for Studer Education, added that along with aspiration comes inspiration and transparency. “You have to have a leader that can inspire people to go towards those aspirations and to work hard to do so.”

Students First for Student Success

School Board President, Faith VandorHorst, said that in her district they look for superintendents that put students first. “Everything has a lens through the students. Our students do drive our curriculum, especially as we get to the older ages. As you all know, there are employment shortages throughout the country in certain areas, so we have instituted academies that touch on things like STEM. And we want a superintendent that has vision for what workforce is going to be in the future, not just today but the future.”

Dr. Natalie Harder, Chancellor of South Louisiana Community College, works with eight superintendents in Louisiana as part of her role. Dr. Harder advises that the school board should “want to see a demonstrated pursuit of relentless culture, building towards student success.”

Listen to Problem Solve

Education leaders on the panel not only highlighted what it takes to be a great superintendent, but also shared their input on what the school board needs to consider when searching for the next superintendent. The biggest advice our partners gave to the school board was to listen.

Listen to what your community shares in terms of what’s important to them,” said Birmingham City Schools Superintendent, Lisa Herring. “We listen as it relates to relationship building and we listen when it occurs that there are items that we may not agree upon. And that’s okay. Disagreement comes with the process of conversation and work. But when individuals feel heard, there’s a different level of reception that occurs that allows us to problem solve.

Bonita Coleman shared that it is equally important to listen to the students within the community. “The older I am in this seat, the more student voice matters to me, because they truly are my consumers. So to listen to them …now I see where students are making those very strong, instructional-based decisions for us and really pushing us as adults to do more, to be different and to step outside what has been comforting…”


“And with listening as well, I totally agree,” added Nannette Johnston, “The companionate to listening is transparency of communication where you’re building that credibility of trust. You can trust that person in front of you that they’re gonna come to you with the brutal facts, sometimes when it’s not pretty, and set the tone and set the pace of what you need to do about it. You don’t problem admire, you problem solve, and you do that together!

Watch the CivicCon Superintendent Panel

The panel was moderated by Dr. Janet Pilcher, Studer Education Managing Director and Executive Leader and included:

  • Bonita Coleman, Superintendent of the Ocean Springs School District in Mississippi
  • Lisa Herring, Superintendent of the Birmingham City Schools in Alabama
  • Nannette Johnston, Retired Superintendent of the Hardin County School District in Kentucky and Studer Education Leader Coach
  • Melissa Matarazzo, Studer Education Leader Coach with executive experience in Charleston County School District in South Carolina
  • Faith Vanderhorst, Board President of the School District of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin
  • Dan Woestman, Superintendent of the Belvidere School District in Illinois
  • Natalie Harder, Chancellor of South Louisiana Community College

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