Published Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:08 pm
World-Herald editorial: New academy will cultivate school leaders

The University of Nebraska at Omaha will deliver a major new service to the region this fall when the school begins its new Midlands Superintendent Academy.

The 10-month course, designed with input from current superintendents, will provide practical, real-world instruction for new school superintendents and aspiring superintendents in the Omaha area and western Iowa.

The program will cover everything from budgeting and facilities oversight to leadership skills such as working with the school board and the public. Up to 15 applicants will make up the inaugural class in September.

This new initiative is the latest in UNO's impressive series of community-oriented instructional programs, building on the top-flight training programs UNO already offers to Nebraska municipal clerks and public administrators.

It's no secret, of course, that school leaders must manage complex issues that aspiring superintendents can often find daunting.

Consider three local examples:

>> Managing student growth. Over the past five years, the Bennington school district's student population has been growing by nearly 11 percent annually. For Gretna, the figure was 6.5 percent.

In the Elkhorn district, growth is so great that school officials are pondering the possibility of a third high school just three years after opening the district's second one. With all that growth, some 41 percent of the district's staff has been hired since 2010.

>> Developing a long-range plan and implementing it. World-Herald coverage in recent months has explained the emphasis that the recently revamped Omaha school board and the new superintendent, Mark Evans, place on the strategic planning process.

>> Increased student diversity. The extraordinary diversity in OPS is well known, but the trend has been similar for the Bellevue Public Schools. Nineteen languages are now spoken in the Bellevue district, and 2 percent of students speak a first language other than English.

Steve Baker, superintendent for the Elkhorn Public Schools, tells The World-Herald that the Midlands Superintendent Academy should have great value for the region. Baker has been with the Elkhorn district for 39 years and superintendent since 2009.

Baker's years on the job have given him wide-ranging experience with all sorts of technical duties. He's at ease working with architects, bond procedures and facilities budgets. But when he started out years ago with central office duties as an assistant superintendent overseeing business operations, it was a different story. Much was new to him.

“I felt in over my head,” he says. “When I would hear the former superintendent talk about the boilers or a heat pump, I thought, 'I haven't had any graduate classes about heat pumps or getting inside a boiler.' ”

This is where the new UNO program can make a positive difference, Baker says. Textbooks have their uses, but it's also important to explain the complications and idiosyncrasies that crop up in real-world school operations.

Baker says that mentors and colleagues, including from other local districts, have been invaluable sounding boards for him over the years. It can be tremendously helpful, he notes, to have discussions with those “who have been there” — which is why it was smart of UNO to develop its curriculum with input from current administrators.

Baker highlights several duties as especially important. Capable superintendents understand the need for accountability, he says. They promote effective communication. They work constructively with school board members. They get out and meet with the public, building a connection.

And it's crucial, Baker says, that they exercise good judgment in selecting people for positions.

All of our area's school districts, regardless of size, need capable superintendents with strong leadership skills. UNO deserves a salute for this visionary new program to help meet this vital need.

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