Running a school, let alone an entire district, is no walk in the park. You're essentially accountable for guiding the effective preparation of your community's entire next generation for success in life, civic engagement and the workplace. It's a role that ultimately has one of the largest impacts on both the civic and economic success of your community or those your students move onto beyond high school.
While there's no shortage of district and school leaders taking on that challenge, the five represented here are tackling a spectrum of issues that are top of mind in the field — from restoring public trust in the wake of scandal to recovering from a disaster to tackling school segregation to improving climate and culture. If you're wondering who to keep an eye on in the new year, this group is a great place to start.
Lewis Ferebee — Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
Announced in December as the new superintendent for D.C. Public Schools, Lewis Ferebee has led Indianapolis Public Schools since 2013 and he began his career 16 years prior to that in Newport News, Virginia. His time in Indianapolis has been defined by school turnaround efforts centered around an "innovation network" of what Chalkbeat described as charter and charter-like schools, earning him prominence in the ed reform community while also garnering criticism due to perceptions of school privatization.
In D.C., Ferebee will take over a system that has faced a number of scandals in recent years. Among them: the manipulation of graduation rates and former chancellor Antwan Wilson's abuse of the office to bypass a lottery and transfer his daughter to a preferential school. Can Ferebee, described as "soft-spoken" and "Zen-like" by Education Week, strengthen the delicate public confidence in the D.C. school system? And, if Indianapolis is any indication, could there be school closures and charter conversions are on the horizon?
Meria Carstarphen — Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has been working to rebuild the community’s trust in the district ever since she took the position in 2014. A cheating scandal that began in 2009 and led to 11 educators in the district being found guilty of racketeering is hard to forget.
But recent gains in test scores and graduation rates will help mobilize teachers, parents and community members as Carstarphen this year leads an effort to establish a "vision for school excellence," which will seek to define what makes an excellent school and determine how to intervene when schools don't meet those expectations.
Richard Carranza — Chancellor, New York City Department of Education
The former superintendent of Houston's public schools, Richard Carranza took the reins of the nation's largest school district from former schools chancellor Carmen Fariña last spring after a selection process that saw Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho back out after initially accepting the position. Fariña's tenure centered around efforts to boost educational equity citywide, with programs focused on providing things like pre-K and computer science opportunities for all. Equity, too, is a top concern for Carranza, and school segregation has been a particular area of focus identified early on.
The coming year should see much of what Carranza hopes to accomplish hit full swing, with an ongoing focus on school segregation and adopting more equitable admissions policies for the city's more selective schools, as well as a desire to empower school communities and increase workforce development opportunities, in his game plan.
Bill Husfelt — Superintendent, Bay District Schools in Florida
With every one of the district’s schools experiencing some damage from Hurricane Michael in October, Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt is not only leading a 28,000-student school system, but also overseeing a recovery effort.
According to local news reports, over 200 portable classrooms have been ordered so students can have somewhere to go to school and many schools have temporarily doubled up onto the same campus. Meanwhile, as is often the case after a natural disaster, enrollment has dropped with families being displaced outside the district, but efforts are underway in the district to locate students who have not returned to school.
Martin Pollio — Superintendent, Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky
Covering the Louisville metro area, a growing Southern cultural center for the past few decades, Kentucky's Jefferson County Public Schools is the largest district in the state. While that comes with benefits, it has also made the district a larger target in state politics. Case in point: Earlier this year, Superintendent Martin Pollio was faced with the prospect of what Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim described as "essentially a hostile takeover" by the state, which cited significant achievement gaps — though Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis also recognized significant improvements made by the district at the same time.
Ultimately, the district and state reached an agreement where the district's board maintains most of its power with the exception of three areas identified by the state: special education, restraint and seclusion of students and early childhood education. The district has also been tasked with rethinking the plan used to assign students to schools.
Having spent his entire 21-year career in JCPS, Pollio is likely more than familiar with these challenges, how they vary across the local community, and how to go about addressing. His top concerns in the position have been improving the district's culture and climate, boosting achievement and putting deeper learning strategies in play — all of which should contribute to furthering the aforementioned progress and pulling the district out of the state's crosshairs.