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March 11, 2009 > Kevin Harrigan, a paradigm shift

Kevin Harrigan, a paradigm shift

School superintendents routinely face extreme challenges but these are times when even the most experienced educators are asked to deal with factors that defy logic and solutions. Add to this conundrum, a transition to new leadership and as can be said of crisis situations, leadership will shape commitment, determination and problem-solving techniques, key ingredients to survival and character of the result.

The Newark School District has faced many challenges in its past, but the current economic situation is especially difficult. Superintendent Kevin Harrigan is no stranger to the district which he has served since 2003. He assumed the role as superintendent on July 1, 2008 in an atmosphere of significant change and relied on the intrinsic strength and character of those within the district to shape a new teaching and learning model. TCV spoke with Superintendent Harrington about his management style and his role at NUSD.


TCV: How has your background prepared you for the severe challenges of today's economic climate?

Harrigan: From a historical perspective, this is my life's work, my professional vocation. I believe I have been 'called' to use my talents, training and perceptions to facilitate teaching and learning. From the moment I crossed the threshold of the classroom as a learner, I studied the process to understand it and facilitate that experience for others.

My vocation in teaching and learning has been an intuitive response. I was raised in a home where we were taught to value our gifts and talents with the understanding that those could appear in a wide variety of ways. In the exploration and inquiry of these talents we learned more about ourselves which helped to further refine that interest or lead to another direction. This is the culture which defines how we interact with each other in my family. From that comes a core understanding of decision making, conversation and problem solving as a collaborative, shared effort that can respond successfully. Openness to learning can reveal strategies that are not initially apparent.

My education from kindergarten through graduate school has been based with teachers and educational professionals who fostered a willingness to inquire and formulate essential questions, learn from others experiences and have personal experiences without fear. My high school, undergraduate and graduate education has been primarily through use of the Socratic model.


TCV: What management challenges did you face when you assumed the role of superintendent?

Harrigan: Prior to becoming superintendent, I filled three different positions in the district. I entered Newark Unified School District after 16 years in Mt. Diablo Unified School District - a large district - and prior years in large districts. I came to Newark as a principal of Lincoln Elementary and saw my role as a facilitator of shared leadership using the empowerment of others to help them achieve their potential. At that time we were a BASRC (Bay Area School Reform Collaborative) school and I had the opportunity to work with a cohort of Schilling Elementary and Snow Elementary in that program eventually expanding to others.

Opportunities at the district level in Educational Services were, in effect, an invitation to work in concert with the existing structure using my well-rounded expertise and abilities to be of service to the district. I had an opportunity to mold and shape the Educational Services Department using the same techniques of inquiry and discovery from my past which I use today. I am the same person.


TCV: What is the essence of your role as superintendent?

Harrigan: My responsibility is to build upon the excellence of Newark's history. Of course there are things that need to be fine-tuned, implemented and new innovations that can be revealed though facilitation and dialogue. This does not negate the excellence that has gone before. I lead by bringing forward capacity of leaders in the district that may previously not been actualized.


TCV: How did you determine the direction for the district?

Harrigan: I needed to build upon the existing vision and mission of our best practice and district goals articulated by the board of education. There was also a need to examine the goals of the district that had not yet been actualized. This gave me information about the direction to proceed. As I became superintendent, my position needed to be filled and other positions were vacant as well. With many administration positions to fill, I used to joke that my problem solving meetings were very efficient and effective because I was talking to myself. The practical piece of this was to be very careful when hiring new personnel since, in essence, with so many openings a new culture would be created through distributive management, shared leadership and a paradigm shift of methodology.


TCV: How will Newark Unified School District cope with the current economic crisis?

Harrigan: There tends to be some response in these times that the crisis is due to a deficiency in how we are doing things. The thought is that if we can find and fix that technical aspect, everything will be okay. I am technically competent as well as facilitative, but simply searching for an overlooked fiscal efficiency is not the complete answer. We have never been in this depth of crisis before and do not have a repertoire of response. Our economy is so interdependent on an international scale that this type of situation has never been faced and therefore answers cannot be found in a textbook or prior experience.

We need to go back to the values of our district and examine how our decisions affect these and our district goals. At the core of our work every action supports teaching and learning resulting in the success of our students. If we hold that as our focus and share with each constituent group how all contribute to that end, there is a better understanding of the importance of each other. There is also a need to look at the current needs of our students and use this opportunity to re-craft our practices. Can we be resilient and responsive accepting the possibility that some of the ways we have done business may not be as effective as they could be? Maybe we can reshape some of our models, delivery systems and personnel structures to more effective to reach the outcome of successful learning by our children.


TCV: What happens when you reach the threshold of resources that doesn't allow practical applications of learning?

Harrigan: Before we had a state budget, some of the projections were "doom and gloom" showing a $26 million deficit. At this point, you have to be realistic and admit that if that comes to pass, you just have to close your doors. I finished graduate school in 1979 just as Proposition 13 hit and we were in a severe recession. Education can only continue to be responsive to a budget crisis to a certain point. Part of our problem is that we in education are so good at responding to these problems. The dichotomy and contradiction of our profession is that we have continued to respond and re-craft ourselves for the past 30 years. We have to be objective and ask ourselves at what point can we not provide the service we are being asked to provide.


TCV: How has the district responded to your leadership?

Harrigan: We were going through the superintendent search process this time last year so it has been almost a year of my tenure even though I was formally installed July 1st. I heard many people asking for a culture of collaboration and began to define the attributes of such a culture. This is fostered and developed by understanding change and the change process, establishing trust at all levels (i.e. learning, children, teaching practices, community, values, fiscal) and recognizing the value and diversity of our membership - social, ethnic, religious, sexual, family structure, etc. I come to the leadership position by being very clear that I do not have all the answers and the way to reach good answers is through a reciprocal arrangement.


TCV: How are you reaching out to the community?

Harrigan: In many cases, I am meeting with groups in the community and instead of speaking at people, my concept is to facilitate with them. For my State of the Schools address, I used an interactive leadership model that is a much different approach. I believe that the way others will be informed is to take part in the process. I have to be open to invitations from the community and 'walk the talk.' Although much of this may sound overly philosophical, it really isn't since when interacting with others I am honest and direct rather than positional. I am willing to take part in community activities and be a participant and learn with others.

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