The new State Education Chief of Virginia, Dr. Steven R. Staples (VA EPFP ’89-90), is an IEL Education Policy Fellowship Program alum. When we asked Dr. Staples about his EPFP experience, Staples said, “[The] EPFP experience exceeded my expectations. It allowed me to associate with folks I wouldn’t have otherwise met. It shaped my perspectives and views on the world and on education and opened my horizons on diverse issues, at both the state and national levels. It also informed my career choices to pursue the superintendency.”
Dr. Staples also shared with us how he leads across boundaries, what are some challenges he has faced during his illustrious career, and what lessons he has learned.
The key is to look for a common problem that has no simple solution, but whose responsibility is imbedded across many sectors. Think about the K-12 system and the phrase “college readiness”… Each agency defines “college readiness” in a different way. If we are to create a seamless system from K-12 to postsecondary education, we need to listen to each other and understand each other’s perspectives. This means engaging critical stakeholders with different perspectives to share their views. Creating a trusting, safe space and giving people permission to step outside their comfort zone is critical in leading across boundaries and problem solving across sectors. As education leaders, we have limited authority outside of K-12 space to use the bully pulpit. Thus, it is important to continuously initiate outreach to others.
In the era of accountability, the State Departments of Education (SEAs) are perceived as the big brother, an oversight group that is not willing to encourage real partnerships. But, that is not the case. State DOEs are working to change that culture by working with local educational agencies (LEAs) to help support underperforming districts. This year, Virginia is working with districts on final accreditation decisions. When schools do not make accreditation, we work to create a customized memorandum of understanding that will encourage close collaboration and support between SEA and LEAs.
Given the importance of reaching across systems and sectors to create positive change, networks become critical. Never stop networking! There are stakeholders who are working on similar problems and facing similar circumstances. Social issues in particular, fall into this category – they are cross system, cross sector, and complex. Creating a culture that encourages networking and incentivizes a collective reexamination of how and why we do things is critical. Such culture allows us to be flexible and adaptable.
Dr. Steven R. Staples (VA EPFP ’89-90) is the 24th Superintendent of Public Instruction for Virginia. As Superintendent, he serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Virginia Department of Education and Secretary of the Board of Education. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Staples served as the Executive Director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, was a faculty member at the College of William & Mary and completed a 33-year career in local K-12 positions, from classroom teacher to school superintendent.