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Fall 2010

Goodbye and All That Jazz: Professor Emeritus Bob Peterkin

bob_peterkin.jpgWhen Bob Peterkin took over the Urban Superintendents Program (USP) in 1991, a year after it began, he knew the program had a lot of work to do. At the time, only about 5 percent of the nation's superintendents were female, and even fewer -- just 1 percent -- were people of color. A former superintendent himself, Peterkin wanted to change that. "My old joke was, 'There's nothing wrong with the old boys' network. We just weren't in it,'" he says. And the program did help. Within 15 years, the percentage of female superintendents shot to 21; the percentage of people of color jumped to six. But Peterkin wasn't content with just boosting numbers: He wanted to ensure that every student coming out of the program was as prepared as possible to make a difference. Now, with the program officially ending as the school's new doctor of education leadership degree (Ed.L.D.) begins, Peterkin says goodbye -- mostly -- to the school he has called home for nearly two decades. In April, he spoke to Ed. magazine about what they accomplished, signs of a good superintendent, and how an ever-growing record collection will make easing into retirement less difficult.

Do you think the Urban Superintendents Program did what it set out to do? One of our missions was to increase the pool of women and people of color. These stats, while modest, are staggering for a school of our size, especially if you count the number of kids in the school districts where we've had superintendents. We wanted to radiate out the influence for underserved kids. We did that. I feel good about it.

Cohorts seem really integral to the program. Why? Just to get through this program, you can't do it alone, and there's no reason to do it alone. Plus, you need that network, that connection, once you leave here. If one of our students goes off to become the chancellor of New York City or superintendent of Baltimore or Philadelphia, his or her cohort-mates will be there for a phone call or, increasingly, to fly in and help.

It seems like USP graduates jump into top leadership jobs really quickly. One of the reasons our graduates are in such high positions so early is that the superintendents who hire them know they have a certain skill set. Plus we are quality control. We never sent anyone out there who couldn't hack it.

You've had almost two decades to think about this: What makes a good superintendent? First, someone has to commit to a vision of equitable education for all. And I mean a real commitment, like I'm willing to get fired over this. The second is theory of change. It's not enough to talk a good game and inspire a community. You have to have the wherewithal to get it done. Both of these take the third.

Which is? Courage.

You haven't mentioned charisma. Isn't that critical for leadership? In America, being a charismatic leader only gets you so far. But I can name lots of leaders who are not necessarily charismatic but have led amazing change.

How would you have benefited from a program like this? I was in Boston for 10 years. I went from principal to area superintendent to budget director to three types of deputy superintendent, so I was up close to the superintendency, but I never got training in how to communicate a vision. I had a strong vision, but it was hard for me to articulate it to the community and convince them that they should follow. The internship would also have been invaluable. With an internship, when you make a mistake, it's okay. As a deputy or superintendent, it's not okay.

Are you really retiring? From the school. It's time. It's been a good long run, but the program has evolved into the Ed.L.D. degree. And it's time for me to do the ad hoc things that I've always wanted to do. I'll be working closely with 15 superintendents in New Jersey and on a Harvard project in Soweto, South Africa. I'm going to mentor principals in Boston, including at English High School, where I was once the principal. And I'm part of a team that is finishing a book of case studies on leadership that we hope practitioners will use. Our goal is to be number one on Amazon for a day.

And your USP students? My students are becoming superintendents all over the country and they want me to help them. This is the next level. It's like the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon character says: The mentor should want the protégée to be more. That would make me very happy.

What will you miss? I'll seriously miss my students who have become my colleagues and friends. A lot of organizations claim this, but we really were -- are -- a family. And the faculty cares what happens to USP students. At the celebration party in April, you should have seen the hugging. I'll miss that on a daily basis. But I have a huge CD collection of jazz and at least 5,000 records. And there are at least 10 jazz clubs in this area. I'll be fine.

Photo: Mark Morelli