On Sunday, The Washington Post highlighted a great public school superintendent, someone I want everyone to know. I can’t take credit for anything Jack Dale of Fairfax County, VA has done, but I’m sure glad he’s a Harwood Public Innovators Lab Alum. Here’s what I mean. Fairfax County is one of the biggest school districts in all of America – with 164,000 students, 187 schools, and a $2.1 billion annual budget, according to The Post. It’s a humdinger of a district: it’s huge, very diverse, with lots of vocal parents and competing interest groups. No move by the superintendent goes unnoticed.
So, consider those daunting numbers and politics for just a moment. Then consider the pictureThe Post ran with the article about Jack. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then all you need to see is this one.
Upon first glancing at the picture, which is of people in a classroom, I couldn’t really tell who the article was about. First my eye wandered to a gentleman sitting on a table at the back of the classroom. Then I saw Jack. Was that him? Get this: he was sitting among the students, in the middle of the classroom. But what was he doing? He was listening.
Jack’s predecessor was known for his blustery and highly politicized ways. He was a larger than life figure.
When you meet Jack, you know right away, in a kind of uncanny way, that he is a man who is unusually centered and focused. “I’m trying to make substantive change in the way we do business,” the Post quoted Jack as saying. “What I’m trying to create is the reason all of us went into education: a place to have kids explore their minds and the unknown and the future.”
Oftentimes with public leaders we’re not sure what they mean when they’re quoted. But Jack gives us an important window into his focus and centeredness in this single quote.
• Jack is a public innovator who seeks systems change – “change in the way we do business” – and not just change at the edges. Read the article and you will hear about some of those changes that target year-round teaching and closing the achievement gap. • Jack taps into people’s aspirations, not their demands. That’s why he continually focuses on “the reason all of us went into education.” Notice, he said, “all of us” not just himself. When you read the article, you will see that Jack includes teachers, administrators, parents, the community and others. He believes that people share aspirations, and that it is possible to discover and build off of that common ground. • Jack wants to create a “place” for kids, not just a new curriculum that sits in a binder or is pushed by teachers. He believes deeply that the role of schools and communities is to create safe and vibrant environments in which kids can learn and grow. • Jack talks about kids exploring their “own minds” and the “unknown.” If you know Jack, then it wouldn’t surprise you that he used these words and in public! While he knows that kids must learn certain things, he also knows that learning and growing is about exploring your own thoughts and moving into the unknown. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Some people in The Post article criticize Jack because he’s too laid back or he doesn’t move through the county imposing his views on everyone. I suppose there might come a time when he will kick-in other elements of his leadership style and step forward in ways people have yet to see.
But the essence of who he is will remain true, as it has throughout his career. He is about kids. He is about bringing people together. He is about tapping into people’s aspirations. He is about vigilantly aligning his programs with funding and capacity. He is about finding the best in people.
And he is doing all this as the leader of one of the biggest school districts in the US. My hat is off to Jack. Now, my next goal is to have him come back to help teach the Lab.