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Leadership in lean times: A conversation with Leroy Nunery

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Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery says the challenge for today’s school leaders is to manage the District’s many mandates while harnessing the power of its communities – and do it all on a shoestring budget. To Nunery, growing competition and rising expectations mean that school leaders, like business leaders, need to set clear priorities and rely on flexibility, creativity, team-building, and constant communication.

Nunery became acting superintendent in August after spending 16 months at the District, most of it as Arlene Ackerman’s second-in-command. He has expressed interest in getting the permanent appointment. Here are the highlights of an hour-long interview in which Nunery shared his views on leadership.

Notebook: Dr. Nunery, this seems to be a tough time to be a principal and a tough time to manage a team of principals.

Nunery: The question we’re wrestling with is, “How do you change the culture of an organization that’s been through a lot?” A perfect example is the School Advisory Councils. You want bottom-up [leadership], but you also have to have some control. There are some principals that really understand SACs. Others are like, “Ugh, keep those folks away!” The better ones understand that they are a very powerful asset.

Notebook: What does it take to lead a school in 2011?

Nunery: The hardest thing we have to do right now is to find people who are able to take on that challenge. Not everybody who’s been certified has the cultural competence or the emotional intelligence.

You’ve got to give them autonomy to do what they know how to do. And they’ve got to communicate. I look at people like Ed Penn [principal of Roberto Clemente], Sheldon Pavel [Central], Carol Domb [McCall], or Cindy Farlino [Meredith], and part of what I see is a willingness to engage the people around them. Some principals aren’t as interactive as they should be. If they shut down inside a building, they’re going to shut down with parents and communities.

Ed Penn is a great example. As we’re walking around the building, he’s allowing his senior folks to talk to me. He wasn’t trying to block the view. He uses the tools that are at his disposal: access to people, a willingness to negotiate with the communities around him, listening. He has a school security officer who also participates in his culinary arts program, teaching the kids how to make cherries jubilee. Suddenly that officer has a whole other dimension. Good leaders use those dimensions.

Notebook: Can you tell if a school has effective leadership without actually going into the building?

Nunery: No – I think that’s hard. The numbers can look great. But how happy is your family? And how honest an exchange is there about what’s going on? Walk into a building, and you can tell if it’s working.

Notebook: What resources do you have to develop these skills? Do you have a leadership budget?

Nunery: No, not really. We set up an ”Aspiring Leaders” program – we had a whole auditorium full, maybe three, four hundred people who want to take that step. But you can only do so much by running them through simulations.

Notebook: How much are today’s principals constrained by NCLB and testing?

Nunery: In order to solve the problem of proficiency, we’ve legislated away some creativity. But there’s room to create solutions for your building. What we have to do as [central office] administrators is listen carefully to what [principals] say works and get them talking to each other. That’s what I want to do. As long as everybody understands there’s not tons of money to do it with.

Notebook: Encouraging and facilitating communication among leaders is one thing you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money, right?

Nunery: That’s what I’m getting at! We’re constrained, and I don’t know that it’s going to get any better.

Notebook: You’ve worked in banking, contracting, education, the NBA – how do you uncover creative energy here at the central office?

Nunery: Walking the halls. I talk to everybody. Security guards. People who are cleaning. Everybody! Folks will stand at the door and I say, come on in – there’s no force field. This is really important work. Testing integrity, financial management, all of it matters. But you also have to say it’s okay if you make mistakes – as long as they’re honest mistakes, not careless ones.

Notebook: If you stay in this position, how would you facilitate the kind of creative collaboration you’re talking about?

Nunery: Whosoever fills this job should look for deep collaboration with the business and nonprofit communities. The second thing is to do a thorough job of performance assessment and goal-setting, so I can sit down with someone and say, your job has this impact on somebody else’s. And the third thing is working with the SRC and the mayor’s office and the state.

We’ve been through a lot, and I feel it maybe more than anybody. But we can’t keep wringing our hands. We’ve got to get up off the floor. We’ve got to be resilient. All the things we tell kids they have to be – we’ve got to be.

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