Kevin McGowan of Brighton Central Schools in New York has been named 2023 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. The organization made the announcement at its National Conference on Education. The Brighton district has 3,800 students, and McGowan has been in the role since 2009. The other finalists were PJ Caposey of Meridian Community Unit School District #223, Stillman Valley, Ill.; Matthew Hillmann of Northfield Public Schools, ISD 659, Northfield, Minn.; and Trent North of Douglas County School System, Douglasville, Ga.
SmartBrief recently chatted with McGowan about the importance of building connections with education and community organizations, recruiting staff that reflect their students and community, and making success accessible for all learners
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
Connections that matter
SmartBrief: You work with an extensive list of organizations, including superintendent councils and other education groups to community groups. How do you find time to interact with all those folks, and what do you find it adds to your district that you wouldn’t have otherwise?
McGowan: The work with outside groups and other professional partners is entirely a value-add for our organization. These connections have enhanced my understanding of the challenges at hand and built my leadership skill set simply by working with colleagues and partners who are great thinkers and who may be facing similar challenges. We are able to help shape decision-making through these interactions. But, most importantly, we learn with and from others.
Redesigning hiring practices
SmartBrief: You teach education at the University of Rochester. Talk about your vision for recruiting and retaining teachers and other personnel. How are you encouraging folks to enter — and stay — in this field? How are you recruiting more educators from underrepresented populations?
McGowan: We should always be striving to have a staff that better reflects the students and families that we serve. We see value in all children learning from a variety of voices, perspectives, backgrounds and experiences. To that end, we have been pioneers in redesigning our hiring practices to recruit a more diverse staff, hire a more diverse staff and retain a more diverse staff. We have reduced bias in our process and developed systems of support for all staff.
We have also worked in partnership with St. John Fisher University to develop both a high-school and college-level program to identify and then promote more diverse candidates. We’re already seeing success in this model and looking forward to all of the ways that this will impact our students, staff and school community.
Work versus intent
SmartBrief: With a daughter in elementary school and two sons in high school, what have you learned about their on-the-ground experiences (or yours as a parent) that has given you a different insight?
McGowan: Everything! I have learned what it is like for them and for us as parents to experience nearly every facet of the services we provide to families. It has been a gift to consider the impact of our work versus the intent. I love seeing situations through their lens and considering how we can improve our practices for all students, or how we can grow and further advance the work that makes the biggest impact.
SmartBrief: What achievement are you most proud of, and what one important achievement do you hope to be able to add to your list of accomplishments five years from now?
McGowan: I am most proud of our work to close the gaps between all students in their graduation rates. Years ago our graduation rate was 89%. There were gaps between the “all student” rate and some underrepresented groups, of up to 35 percentage points. This was unacceptable. We owned it, confronted it, learned more about it and attacked it.
Ninety-eight percent of our students graduated last year, and the gap between all groups was plus or minus an average of only 2%. In other words, we have made success accessible for all students, not just some. We hope to continue that work until all students are graduating and, very importantly, graduating at higher levels with even more advanced coursework under their belt. We’re making great, great strides.
No child is a number
SmartBrief: What’s your superintendent secret sauce? What do you do that other superintendents around the country might not, but that they might benefit from doing themselves?
McGowan: We focus on individuals and their needs each day. No child is a number, and no problem is insignificant. We think of solutions in terms of what we would want for our own children and how we can find a way to make that happen. We use systems to hold ourselves accountable and to ensure that the work gets done, is measured and is improved upon all the time. We follow our strategic planning with fidelity and are transparent in our wins and our losses.
We don’t just say it, but we try each day to live it: every child, every day, every way.
Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.
Article updated Feb. 17, 2023