The school superintendency is one of the most challenging, but also can be one of the most rewarding position in education. This school year, nearly a quarter of all North Carolina school districts will be led by a superintendent with a year or less of experience. Many of these superintendents lead communities with high percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged, students of color, or rural students with less access to technology.

While the superintendency is one of the most rewarding positions in education, recent changes in the education landscape have also made it one of the most difficult. Nationwide, the turnover for superintendents is trending upward, and North Carolina superintendent turnover mirrors the nation’s. The superintendent must balance intense and often competing pressures including an ever-changing legislative landscape, reduction in the teacher pipeline, and of course the challenges and outright perils of operating schools in a time of COVID.

Amidst these challenges, however, there is one shining star that guides education leadership in the state. Meet the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA) whose mission is to provide support to the state’s educational leaders through professional development, legislative advocacy, legal consulting, and a wealth of networking opportunities.

We at the SMT Center sat down with three representatives from this dynamic group, each with a unique perspective, to better understand NCSSA’s vision, how it supports its members, and how it has been affected by (and adapted with aplomb to) the teaching challenges presented by the pandemic.

Mr. Jack Hoke has been the NCSSA’s Executive Director for nine years after serving for 12 as the superintendent of Alexander County Schools in Taylorsville. He also served as principal for elementary, middle, and high schools in Caldwell County and other positions in school administration for 32 years. He has worked as an advisor to the State Board of Education and was appointed by Governor Perdue to serve on the Professional Teaching Standards Commission from 2006 to 2010. Now, it is his goal to inspire new and sitting superintendents and to ensure they have the tools, support, and contacts to find success and purpose in their work.

Dr. Rob Jackson is a NC native and proud graduate of its public schools. During his career, he has served in every capacity from teacher to high school principal, bus driver to Chief Communications Officer. He serves as superintendent for both the Carteret County Public School System and the Edenton-Chowan School System. While at the latter, he saw the school system’s Cohort Graduation Rate rise from 78.9% to 93% in just six years. He received the Dr. Sam Houston Leadership Award in 2017 and has been named NC High School Athletic Association Superintendent of the Year. And, as a clear indicator of his desire to see those he supports succeed, many educators in his district received leadership and teaching honors during his tenure. Dr. Jackson is also a mentor in the NCSSA Aspiring Superintendents Program.

Dr. Eisa Cox is a recent graduate of the NCSSA Aspiring Superintendents Program and the current superintendent of Ashe County Schools where she has risen to the challenge of educating during COVID by initiating some groundbreaking programs. In her very first year as superintendent, she worked to create and launch Ashe Online, a K-12 online portal that supports virtual learning, she redesigned the child nutrition program ensuring students could continue to receive healthy meals while away from school, and her team secured iCares grant funding to provide childcare during remote instruction. Dr. Cox has served as a science teacher, an assistant principal, and as Executive Director of Programs for Rowan Salisbury School System where she was awarded a $26.4 million 2020 U.S. Department of Education TSL Grant for “Accelerated Rown,” obtained over $350k in grants to support career coaching, and saw scholarships increase from $5.8 million to over $32 million in just five years.

Together, and along with their members, NCSSA supports educational leaders throughout the state in ways colleagues in their own district may not be able to do. “You can easily get caught up in the day to day,” says Dr. Cox, “but through the education and professional development we receive, we get back to the real priorities of the role: creating a vision for your district, talking through best practices, managing board/superintendent relationships, creatively using all our human resources, and of course critical teaching and learning.”

Dr. Jackson concurs. He notes that both rising professionals (in the Aspiring Superintendent Program) and sitting superintendents (in the Next Generation Program) need the support and opportunities for continuous improvement that NCSSA provides. “Novice superintendents are literally learning the job on the job! Having an executive coach, elbow to elbow, to guide and help answer questions and bounce things off is just awesome.” As a Thought Partner himself, he knows how both his experience and expertise impact the aspiring and burgeoning superintendents he mentors.

Has the group kept up with the pressures and challenges of COVID in the classroom? Yes! Even with last year’s restrictions, NCSSA was able to hold half-day leadership development programs and a full day on technical skills for the Next Generation leaders. The Aspiring Superintendents, meanwhile, completed six sessions, executive coaching sessions, weekly check-ins and both a summer and winter leadership conference. In every session, attendees (whether virtual or in person) have access to acclaimed national speakers as well as invaluable networking sessions with peers they know and thought leaders they might otherwise have no access to.

Says Dr. Jackson, “With COVID, Jack saw the need to pivot from a 60-minute Zooms where attendees were talked at. Instead, he created virtual breakout rooms that allowed people to chat in small groups and then rejoin the session. We had some outstanding conversations, and were able to bring attendees closer together from a networking and mentoring perspective.” Many attendees then took this technique back to their districts to engage both educators and administrators; this is an example of how NCSSA development programs inspire and improve real world practice — even during a pandemic!

(Editor’s Note: In our next segment, we’ll dive deep into the Aspiring Superintendent Program and how it has prepared new superintendents like Dr. Cox for one of the most challenging jobs in education today.)