As another school year begins under the uneasy cloud of COVID-19, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Miear is drawing on the lessons he learned and the network of peers he developed at the School Leaders Institute.

Run by Virginia Tech’s Center for Organizational and Technological Advancement (COTA), the institute teaches administrators like Miear how to lead during change. The faculty members — four COTA Fellows who are all former school administrators — share hard-earned wisdom that comes from decades of experience. The institute comprises the Aspiring Superintendents and Recently Appointed Administrators programs.

“There are a set of predictable challenges that every new administrator is going to face,” said E. Wayne Harris, a COTA Fellow and former superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools. “By sharing some of our experiences, we help people avoid the same potholes.”

That practical approach, Miear said, provides a perspective that most courses do not offer.

Interactive in-person sessions held at The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center cover a wide range of topics, from everyday administrative burdens such as budgeting to trickier real-world dilemmas like working with a school board or communicating effectively with the community on contentious subjects.

“Administrators will need to be people who can communicate with their constituents about difficult topics,” said COTA Fellow Sharon Richardson, a former Roanoke City Public Schools administrator. “From policing in the schools, teaching of history, renaming of school buildings, and the wearing of face masks — every one of those issues is a point of contention that today’s school leaders encounter.”

To ensure the institute addresses those contemporary issues as well as perennial challenges, guest presentations from current superintendents, administrators, and teachers offer a view from inside the schools.

“We’re in the age of rapid change,” said Lois Graham,  a former deputy superintendent and principal at Montgomery County Public Schools. “COVID and the way it affected schools — I don’t think education will ever be the same. There’s going to be a lot of catch-up.”

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Darnell Carter, a school administrator for 15 years who participated in this year’s Aspiring Superintendents Program, echoed the many complex challenges school leaders face. “As we deal with the quickly changing scenarios related to COVID, I have been able to call on my experience with the institute to examine the situation from different perspectives.”

Part of Outreach and International Affairs, COTA develops and hosts educational conferences and programs at The Hotel Roanoke.

Richardson said that by leaving their school buildings and staying for several days at the hotel with the other participants, administrators are able to concentrate on learning and building relationships.

“These programs offer professional development in an unfettered time when they can sit back, have time to breathe, reflect, and think about the issues that are going on in the public schools,” she said.

Harris added that by holding the sessions on-site during the week, the schools are also indicating that the training is a necessary part of an administrator’s job.

In fact, about 70 percent of Virginia’s public school divisions have sent administrators to the institute’s two programs since they began in 2005. More than 500 participants have taken part in the Recently Appointed Administrators Program, and nearly 200 more have attended the Aspiring Superintendents Program.

Miear said his school division has sent several administrators to the institute. “Their participation not only benefits them when they become superintendents, but it benefits them in their current roles and helps them understand the superintendent’s role better on a daily basis.”

Lois Berlin, who spent eight years as a superintendent in Falls Church City and Alexandria City Public Schools, helps lead the Aspiring Superintendents Program. She said participants get a preview of what the role entails, helping them go into it with their eyes wide open. “They learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of the position.”

Almost 50 of the institute’s alumni have risen to become superintendent, with about 30 still actively serving in Virginia. Many more alumni have been promoted to other high-level roles in schools’ central offices, including Carter. He moved from middle school principal to director of operations for Brunswick County Public Schools soon after attending the institute.

“My new position requires that I work closely with my superintendent,” Carter said. “Because of the School Leaders Institute, I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the challenges that role faces.”

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh 

A man speaks at the front of a lecture hall with a large presentation slide projected on a screen behind him.
Steve Staples, former Virginia superintendent of public instruction, was one of several guest presenters during the Recently Appointed Administrators Program at The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center.
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