When the Urban Superintendents Program (USP) first started accepting applicants in 1990, 5% of all superintendents in the United States were female, and just 1% were people of color. Under the leadership of Professor Emeritus Robert Peterkin — himself a former superintendent in Milwaukee and Cambridge — USP helped to change that narrative, contributing to the dramatic increase of women and people of color in leadership roles at the state and district level, and helping to diversify district leadership ranks at more junior levels as well.
The Urban Superintendents Program nurtured generations of courageous school leaders who expected nothing but success.
With a focus on excellence and equity for all students, the program prepared candidates for superintendent and leadership roles by innovatively weaving together coursework in managerial, political, and education research. Unlike other leadership programs, it envisioned instructional practices as a key lever and focused on finding ways to define and scale quality instructional practices within districts — something Peterkin has said was a key part of the program’s impact.
Under Peterkin, the program nurtured courageous leaders who refused to accept the common myths about urban schools and failure. USP alumni include former Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and San Francisco superintendent Arlene Ackerman, HGSE faculty members Deborah Jewell-Sherman and Jennifer Cheatham, numerous deputy superintendents, education directors, principals, and state board of education members, and at least one deputy assistant secretary of education.
“The program inspired us to envision what was possible; taught us to be discerning consumers of theory, research, and best practice to inform strategy; equipped us with practical knowledge about how to lead change; and challenged us personally and professionally,” says Cheatham, now director of the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University. “Most important, the program insisted that educational leaders needed first and foremost to be instructional leaders — that excellence and equity would be elusive without a deep understanding of excellent teaching and learning.”
At USP’s 20th and final celebration, mentor and advisory board member Larry Leverett reflected on the program’s incredible community of leaders: "This is the most diverse leadership group I've ever had the privilege of being with — a community in which there are shared values around every child, every school, everywhere."
USP has since evolved into the Doctor of Educational Leadership Program, to meet the needs of a changing education sector, but its impact continues to ripple. “There is an army of ‘equity warriors’ in the field as a result of this program,” Cheatham says. “USP graduates are doing incredible work right now transforming school systems across this country to the benefit of the children and families they serve.” – Emily Boudreau