John Barry's Aurora Success Makes Case for Non-Traditional Leadership

It’s hard to argue against the idea that more fresh blood is needed in our public education system. We could do with more school and district leaders who didn’t necessarily rise through the ranks of the teachers union or education bureaucracy who can bring valuable outside skills and perspectives to the challenges faced.

Education News Colorado today highlights such a success story in the Denver metropolitan area:

Aurora Public Schools raised more than a few eyebrows two years ago when the board of education selected John Barry, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, to take over as superintendent of the state’s third-largest school district.

“We were definitely taking a chance,” says Aurora school board chairman Matt Clark. “He was clearly a non-traditional candidate, coming from the military. But we were looking for someone who understood what it took to turn an institution around.”

And turn it did. Barry began introducing changes in the way Aurora educates its 32,000 students at a breakneck pace. New curricula. New strategic plan . New coaching method for teachers. New standardized tests . New summer school programs . The launch of a new pilot school — the first of several. New emphasis on truancy prevention.

“We have transformed this school district on an order of magnitude to rival any in the country,” Barry said.

With the release this week of the latest CSAP scores Barry, a onetime jet fighter pilot, may feel like he’s again speeding skyward. Aurora and Denver, neighboring urban school districts with many of the same socioeconomic challenges, were two bright spots in an otherwise largely flat year for student achievement growth statewide.

(One small erratum: Aurora is the state’s sixth-largest school district.)

Interestingly, Denver Public Schools – the other “bright spot” school district overcoming challenges is also headed by a non-traditional superintendent, Michael Bennet. Coincidence? Maybe. But more emphasis should be put on expanding our idea of what comprises successful school leadership rather than narrowing the focus to meet the narrowly-tailored ideas of certain education interest groups.

It goes without saying that John Barry probably has made some mistakes along the way. But the results show he’s largely getting the job done. Barry’s bold leadership and the fact he is less beholden to status quo interests have to account for much of the progress. Aurora Public Schools is to be commended for some visionary steps – first, in choosing the retired Air Force general to take the helm, and second, in giving him the rein to make needed and innovative changes.

Of course, changing the leadership model isn’t the only way to fix public schools. There are limits to the sort of “top-down” approach. More “bottom-up” reform that decentralizes authority and empowers parents with school choice and accountability is essential. But there’s also something to be said for school boards working to find more leaders like John Barry.