Early in her career as a high school English teacher in Rockford, Illinois, Sharon Contreras knew she wanted to be a superintendent. And she wasn’t shy about sharing that goal with Ronald Epps, then superintendent of Rockford Public Schools.

Epps, who would go on to be a mentor to Contreras, laughs when he recalls the confident young teacher who said she wanted not just a career as a superintendent, but very pointedly said, “‘I want your job.’”

In Rockford, Contreras set about getting advanced degrees and making her way to principal, area superintendent, and then assistant superintendent before moving to positions in other districts in other states. In 2011, she was appointed superintendent of the Syracuse City School District in New York. In 2016 she was recruited to her current position, leading Guilford County Schools in North Carolina.

For Contreras, the desire to lead a school system is rooted in “understanding the role that education has played in creating improved life outcomes for students,” she says. “All my life I’ve been very aware that education was the road to freedom, particularly for oppressed groups of people. So, it’s been important for me to make sure that I continue the legacy to make sure that all students are educated, but especially to make sure that the most vulnerable groups have access to a quality education.”

Contreras, who is of African-American and Latino heritage, is part of a small community of not only female school superintendents, but an even smaller cadre of women of color who lead school districts.

Numbers Show Disparity

Women make up about 76 percent of K-12 teachers nationwide and 54 percent of public school principals, according to federal data. Yet, just 33 percent of superintendents are women, according to a 2018-19 survey by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. That’s up from 13 percent in 2000, according to AASA.

And the disparity is even more pronounced when it comes to race: Fully 90 percent of the superintendents who responded to the annual AASA survey identified as white, non-Hispanic. 

Among women of color, their numbers are significantly smaller, with about 5 percent of female superintendents identifying as Black or African-American; 3 percent as Hispanic or Latino; 2 percent as American Indian or Alaska Native; and less than 1 percent as Asian or Pacific Islander. (AASA notes that the small number of minority superintendent respondents to its survey “makes definitive findings for those groups difficult.”)

As striking as those numbers are, especially considering the overwhelmingly large percentage of female teachers and principals, they are in line with the disproportionality of women of color in CEO positions in business and in state and local government, says Traci Davis, superintendent of Washoe County School District in Northern Nevada since 2014.

It’s an issue that underscores the importance of continuous improvement efforts, says Davis, Washoe’s first African-American superintendent and the first African-American woman on AASA’s national executive board.

She stresses that the support and collaborative governance relationship with the Washoe Board of Trustees has been instrumental in the fast-growing district’s graduation rate improvement, development of important equity and inclusion work, and continued emphasis on social and emotional learning skills.

Diverse Lens

Mentoring and networking; initiatives to identify, develop, and connect promising candidates to district leadership opportunities; and school board support and commitment are key to advancing diversity in the superintendent’s suite and making it more reflective of the nation’s increasingly diverse schools, says Bernadine Futrell, director of leadership services at AASA.

That effort “brings value to the table at any school, even if there are no students of color,” Futrell says. It’s a point that sometimes gets misinterpreted to simply mean “we need to have black people lead schools with high black enrollment or Latino people lead schools with high Latino enrollment,” she adds. In fact, having people of diverse backgrounds and experiences in district leadership is about providing “a critical perspective and allowing the profession to grow with a critical lens.”

It’s a lens through which Mary Sieu, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District, based in Cerritos, California, is particularly attuned.

The daughter of immigrants from mainland China, Sieu spoke no English when she and her family came to the United States and lived in the back of a storage room in the Chicago laundry where they worked.

“The world was very dark because we didn’t have a home, other than the storage room,” Sieu says. Chicago Public Schools changed that. “It was that world of schools that was the most beautiful, colorful part of my life every day, and it continues to seep into everything I do here in ABC.”

About half of the students in the highly diverse school community (about 45 percent Latino; 38 percent Asian/Pacific Islander) qualify for free and reduced-price meals. “We have from homeless children to foster youth, to very low-income families,” says Sieu, who insists that “demographics do not determine destiny.”

Appointed the district’s first female and first Asian superintendent in 2012, she’s worked in the district for nearly 30 years. She was deputy superintendent when her predecessor, Gary Smuts, announced his retirement. It was Smuts who told the board there was no need to search outside the district for its next leader; that she was already there, Sieu recalls. “And I felt completely prepared for it.”

Leslie Torres-Rodriguez also has a long history in the district she now leads. Appointed superintendent of Connecticut’s Hartford Public Schools in 2017, Torres-Rodriguez was 9 years old and spoke little English when her family settled in Hartford from Puerto Rico.

Today, the district’s work is “very personal,” says Torres-Rodriguez, as Hartford focuses on reversing low-academic performance, better engaging students and families, and addressing the needs of its high-poverty community. The “urgency” of the situation “stares at me, and I stare back at it every single day,” she says. “I can think about the time throughout my own educational experience in which I was a disengaged student. I didn’t necessarily feel challenged by what was in front of me.”

Added Scrutiny 

While the position of superintendent tends to come with a high level of scrutiny and politics, it can come with added personal and professional challenges for some women.

Consider the vetting process for a potential district superintendent. It frequently “turns into a popularity contest” as candidates are shuttled between forums and meetings with various education, business, and community stakeholders, says Contreras, the first woman and first Latina superintendent to leadthe 14,000-student Guilford County School.

Being in that spotlight can present “a problem for women who don’t have those experiences of (presenting themselves) in front of large groups of people,” she says. “If you’re not prepared how to answer, how to listen to what the questions really are, what the issues really are, you’re dead on arrival.”

Women can be subjected to a greater level of public critique and criticism, agrees Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools in Kansas since 2016. “One challenge for people of color, and certainly for women of color, is the stereotype about who can and should lead,” Anderson says. She notes that even with the vast changes away from that kind of thinking, interactions sometimes occur that serve as a reminder that such biases still exist.

“Individuals may stereotype or generalize things about one race or gender because they’ve only seen one race or gender in the role,” she says. “That’s not something I can control. I have to walk into a room knowing that I belong there, knowing that I am skillful and have the advocacy that is important to have to demonstrate what effective leadership looks like.”

With implicit and explicit biases at work that people are not always ready to acknowledge, “not everybody is going to like you,” says Washoe’s Davis. “But that’s OK, because you win people over by staying focused on what’s important—and that’s the kids.”

Mykia Cadet, whose doctoral research on African-American women superintendents was featured at NSBA’s CUBE Conference in September, says that the women she interviewed identified a “double standard,” with their white male counterparts viewed as “better in the superintendency because they are direct and assertive in their professional interaction.” The women reported being “chastised for exuding those same characteristics,” she says. They were “mislabeled as aggressive, unapproachable, and I don’t even want to say the vulgarity they are often called.”

Torres-Rodriguez says she “can’t help but wonder” when she’s labeled defensive or guarded for the same type of responses and behaviors that were described as assertive and strong when displayed by a past male district leader.

Her answer, she says, is to “navigate through” those kinds of exchanges. “You reframe the exchange.”

Sieu, a 2018 National Superintendent of the Year finalist, says that instead of a “glass ceiling,” she’s sometimes felt that she’s had to contend with a “bamboo ceiling” stemming from social and cultural attitudes that some people associate with Asian women: “That they are quiet, nonconfrontational, not hardcore, not able to handle problem-solving to the extent required,” she explains.

While it may be contrary to Asian sensibilities to stand up and toot your own horn, Sieu says it’s worthwhile for everyone, no matter their ethnic or cultural background, to look at the traits within themselves “that may prohibit us from moving forward.”

Given cultural norms around parenting, concerns about balancing the professional demands of being a superintendent with family demands are sometimes of particular concern for women in the profession and for those who aspire to be, Futrell says.

“But I have seen women do it well. So, it’s not a negative, it’s just something they have to be aware of and have to make the effort to balance it.”

Promoting A Brand

The “public-facing portion of the work” is a central part of the superintendency, says Cathy Quiroz Moore, appointed superintendent of North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System in May 2018. “You’re really promoting the brand of your district,” she says.

Moore, who now leads the 15th largest school system in the nation, with more than 160,000 students, has spent nearly all of her 30-year professional career rising through the ranks in Wake County schools.

“When I began as a teacher, I don’t even think I knew what a superintendent was or did,” says Moore, the school district’s first female and first Latina leader. “I think it’s just been the opportunity in each position to exercise leadership and take advantage of opportunities, and with a really strong work ethic, to try and do the best you can where you are.”

Contreras says she’s acutely aware of the hopes and dreams that many in her community have for the success of their school district.

“I do feel the pressure from people of color everywhere I go, whether it’s at the grocery story, at church, going under the dryer at the beauty salon. People who are depending on us to improve the schools so that their children have a fair chance at life. It’s humbling. They say, ‘I believe in you. I’m praying for you. We know you are going to fix it.’”

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