October 20, 2014
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Profile: “You Can Feel the Change” from Nancy Graham

The new superintendent of Lee County’s school system, brings fresh ideas for educating the students—and the policymakers who set the standards.

Lee County Superintendent Nancy Graham.

Lee County Superintendent Nancy Graham.

Alex Stafford

 

As a principal, Nancy Graham always thought of what the superintendent must feel like on the first day of school as news reports come in telling of the sheer volume of bodies set to walk through the scores of schools in a district.

“I remember last year hearing something on the news in the morning as I was getting ready,” she says. “It was about how the 700 buses were heading off to pick up students. I spent time pondering of the hugeness and I thought about (former Lee County Superintendent Joseph Burke).

“This year, I was doing the same thing. Then I remembered it was me.”

As the school year was beginning, Graham—the newly appointed superintendent of Lee County’s school system—took time to think about her career and where she planned on taking education in Southwest Florida.

With 85,000 students, the district is the eighth largest in the state—more than double the size of its neighbor to the south. It’s the county’s largest employer, with a $1.3 billion budget, and has students and employees at more than 100 locations.

“I like to think of it as leading a very large school,” she says. “It might be simplistic, but you can’t get hung up in the size. Otherwise it would be overwhelming.”

Overwhelming could be an understatement. There might not be a more trying time to be the leader of a Florida school district. You are a politician who doesn’t run for office. Your platforms are dictated to you by a local governing board, the state legislature and the federal government. You are accountable for the wrongdoings of every employee, volunteer and anyone else who steps foot on any of your sprawling campuses. You are doing all this in the age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

And to top it off, you have to replace one aging and disliked student achievement metric—the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test—with something new and potentially much more rigorous, called Common

Core, all the while adapting to the largest technological shifts in education’s history.

Even the people who are tasked with hiring the superintendent are often taken aback by the magnitude of the responsibility.

“It’s a high-demand position,” says Lee County School Board Chairwoman Mary Fischer. “You have to be able to put things in perspective, prioritize and delegate the education for 85,000 students.”

All of this led me to ask Graham, 56, what seemed to be the most reasonable question: Why on Earth would anyone want to be a superintendent?

“I never aspired to be an administrator,” she says, then reconsiders. “Well, maybe an assistant principal for curriculum. But it’s natural to try to broaden your influence. Now I can talk to a much broader audience.”

Susan McManus, head of the Education Foundation of Collier County, says giving Graham a bigger platform is good not just for students in Lee County, but also for the state as a whole.

“Nancy will speak up,” she says. “Yes, she’ll be respectful of what they have to achieve (in regards to school grading), but she will work at the state level to make sure there is feedback.”

Initially, Graham was hired on a not-quite-interim, not-quite-permanent one-year contract, which was a compromise among board members who favored the former Naples High School principal and those who felt it was their responsibility to do a nationwide search. That situation ended less than a week into the school year, when four of the five board members agreed to cancel the search.

But even without a longer-term guarantee, Graham set out to remake the district as if she were going to still be there in a while. She weeded out some holdovers from the previous administration and dramatically shifted the organizational structure of the district office.

Although she acknowledges this is at least the third reorganization the district has gone through in the past 10 years, she says it’s the only way she could see to make sure that as much attention as possible went to the chief focus—graduating students capable of critical thought and ready to move on to the workforce or high education.

At first glance, the changes appear to be working out well.

“She’s really brought the organization together,” says Jeanne Dozier, a longtime Lee County School Board member. “You walk around the district and you can feel the change. Before, everyone was afraid of her own shadow.

“She’s been a breath of fresh air.”

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Graham has known she wanted to be a teacher since first grade, when she asked for a chalkboard for Christmas. She would play school in the garage with the kids from her neighborhood. “And it was my chalkboard, so, naturally, I was the teacher,” she says.

By the time she was in sixth grade, she was a “teacher of tomorrow,” reading Dr. Seuss books to younger elementary students.

Sure, there were brief moments when she thought about being something else: a lawyer, “’cause that seemed like something I should think about being”; and a musician because of her accomplished singing voice. But after becoming an educator for Youth for Christ, she realized she had the right idea all along.

“It’s impossible to spend a day with children without thinking you are doing something meaningful,” she says.

Still, how she ended up there was an accident. Graham decided to take a summer job at the evangelical outreach organization as a secretary because a friend, whose wedding she was going to sing in, wanted her close by.

“Someone just said one day, ‘Why aren’t you working with the kids?’” she says.

Two years later, she was at Zion Lutheran Christian School in Deerfield Beach. She worked there for two years while getting her teaching certificate. From there, it was a stint of several literature classes, teaching

Shakespeare and Dickens. Graham organized trips for her graduating seniors to go to England and see the places they had read about.

“We were at Westminster Abbey in Poet’s Corner and the kids are saying, ‘You did not make these people up,’” she says.

Graham wants her teachers to build meaningful relationships with their students. Before the year started, she issued an edict to teachers not to worry about teaching their subject areas for the first two or three days of school.

“Get to know the children,” she says. “(Teaching) will be so much easier with relationships in place.”

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When asked to reflect on the differences between her old home in the Collier County School District and her new district, the former Naples High principal is a bit vague.

“We’re twice as big, so we are going to have different issues,” she says. But she adds: “Collier County is very diverse. So are we. The difference is that we know it.”

She says she thinks most parents in Collier think of the district as segregated, with Immokalee being one of the problem areas for children who come from non-English-speaking homes.

“People will acknowledge the issue there,” she says. “But I’m not sure they know it’s widespread.”

The lack of understanding of the issues facing school districts troubles Graham. But she’s quick to put some of the blame on herself and her colleagues. As Graham sees it, the biggest problem is that educators aren’t the ones doing the policymaking, having long ago ceded that responsibility to politicians who might have more than students in mind.

“There’s a lot of lip service paid to what needs to be done,” she says. “But it isn’t coming from educators. Often we are without a voice, even though we have firsthand knowledge of the situation. And we allowed this to happen. We willingly took a back seat.”

One key problem for educators is that the baseline is constantly changing. If made theoretical queen of the education universe, Graham says stabilizing the expectations would be the first thing she’d do.

“Give us a set of standards and stop moving the target,” she says.

 

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