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In May, Superintendent Cindy Marten pledged to foster a “broad-based conversation” about how to evaluate the San Diego Unified School District’s success under her leadership. But we still don’t know how the district plans to measure the four key goals Marten said she’d focus on this year:

• A broad and challenging curriculum

• Professional development for all staff

• Quality teaching

• Quality leadership

The district hasn’t yet set a release date yet for the criteria to gauge its progress toward the goals, according to a spokesperson.

Still, we hope Marten and school board President John Lee Evans use the State of the District Address on Oct. 29 to clarify what the district’s broad goals mean in straightforward terms.

They could start by providing some specifics about the district’s long-term vision.

While we wait for details from the district, here’s a look at the perspective offered this week by four former California superintendents who literally wrote the book on what superintendents do.

These thoughts were offered at Pathways to Leadership, a panel discussion at this week’s Women in School Leadership Forum in Coronado, which Marten did not attend.

The comments were not made for the purpose of grading Marten’s performance, but they provide us a lens for examining quality leadership.

Here’s what the experts said it takes to lead a school district:

Peggy Lynch, former superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District

Lynch drove home the importance of leaders building relationships with district employees and the community at large.

“If you don’t build those relationships and sustain them over time, that can come back to hurt you,” she said.

Being superintendent is “the loneliest job in education,” Lynch said, and some of the most important relationships for superintendents to form are with other superintendents.

Lynch also urged leaders to:

• Keep learning new skills.

• Learn how to navigate the politics and culture of the district.

• Make decisions with long-term consequences in mind.

• Be passionate and find a good work-life balance.

• Master current positions before looking toward the next.

Rene Townsend, former superintendent of the Coronado Unified School District

Townsend emphasized the importance of clear communication, especially with journalists.

“Don’t finesse,” she said. “When you’re working with the media, be straightforward and honest.”

Townsend’s other key takeaways:

• Make sure the district’s mission and its priorities are aligned.

• “Know what great leadership looks like” by finding mentors.

• Respect every member of the education community.

• Be a good listener.

• Seek out people who will tell you the truth about how the district is functioning.

Gwen Gross, former superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District

Gross called on leaders to view their districts with an “abundance mentality” and to focus on building on what their districts are already doing well. She also urged the audience to think about how employees view them in their leadership roles.

“You may not like being the boss, but other people look at you that way,” she said.

Gross also said to:

• Make allies in the community, including pastors, parents and business owners.

• Listen to the public’s concerns thoughtfully.

• Be humble and accessible.

• Maintain integrity and trustworthiness.

• Put rules and expectations in place that the leaders would want to follow themselves.

Gloria Johnston, former superintendent of the West Contra Costa Unified School District

Johnston advised accepting “risk as an opportunity” and projecting calm and confidence.

She noted that women comprise 75 percent of the public education workforce, but they account for about a quarter of the leadership positions.

Johnston’s other main points:

• Immerse yourself in the day-to-day operations, but take time to see the big picture.

• Be true to your principles, even when they’re unpopular.

• Dress appropriately for the position you hold because — like it or not — appearances matter.

• Accept the unique challenges that exist for women in the workplace.

• Shake hands firmly and “never run” because “people are always watching.”

Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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