About Leaders To Learn From

  • Leaders to Learn From is the only district recognition program run by a news organization.

    Nearly a decade ago Education Week began a project to spotlight some of the nation’s best K-12 district leaders—highlighting their innovative strategies, profiling their track records of success, and sharing their insights and successes with the field at large.

    From the beginning, we recognized that leadership in our nation’s districts takes many forms. Our annual profiles highlight all levels of district leadership: superintendents, food-service leaders, student services coordinators, counseling staff, budget officers, and transportation and facilities managers, among others.

    Our honorees have gone on to receive other national accolades and have become sought after experts and speakers in their respective fields. They include 2021 honorees Quincy Natay and Valerie Bridges, recently named the Superintendents of the Year in Arizona and North Carolina, respectively; Mohammed Choudhury, a member of the 2018 Leaders To Learn From class, who is now the Maryland state superintendent of schools; and Tiffany Anderson, a member of the 2015 class, who is now the Topeka, Kan., superintendent and a leading speaker on educating students experiencing poverty.

    Our 2022 Leaders spent weeks and years assembling the foundations to tackle the 2021-22 school year’s unparalleled challenges.

    Amid the conflicts at school board meetings, shifting guidelines over masking, and debates over curriculum, district leaders drew on their teams, their professional expertise, and their own wellsprings of resilience to keep learning on track.

    They kept their eyes on the prize: their students.

    In Hartford, Conn., Madeline Negrón and Leslie Torres-Rodriguez mounted a gargantuan effort to reconnect more than 2,000 students who were missing at the beginning of the school year. Those students now can get extra academic help and other supports through extended Saturday academies.

    Portland, Ore.’s Marifer Sager has transformed the district’s language-translation offerings so that parents who don’t speak English receive more timely and accessible information about their children’s education.

    In rural Arkansas, Susan Gilley’s innovative mobile classroom and library provided lessons and enrichment to far-flung families during the pandemic; her counterpart in the New York City library system, Melissa Jacobs, created a digital repository of books for the districts 1 million-plus children and guide for school librarians that were used as far away as New Zealand.

    The common thread in all of our 2022 Leaders’ work: They overcame significant personal and professional obstacles to meet the exceptional challenges of 2021.

    As we mark the 10th edition of Leaders To Learn From, we remember Emmanuel “Manny” Caulk, the superintendent of Kentucky’s Fayette County Schools and a 2018 honoree, who passed away in 2020.

    Emmanuel "Manny" Caulk.

    Caulk, 49, served as superintendent from 2015 until his death, and was honored for his efforts to improve Kentucky’s second-largest school system and expand opportunities for all students. He tapped outside partners— from business to philanthropy—to help with this work. His 100-point turnaround plan was a blueprint for how to right the ship in a district long riddled with mismanagement.

    He’s a reminder of the indelible impact that educators have on students, long after they’ve left their classrooms and schools. Decades after leaving school, Caulk still carried with him a copy of his 6th grade report card, and he recalled the handwritten note from his teacher, who saw his potential.

    “He told me basically, ‘I’m not going to lower the bar for you. I understand where you’re going, and you’re going to get there. If you keep applying yourself, keep making those great choices, you’re going to get there,’” he told EdWeek Leaders To Learn From.

    — The Editors, Stephen Sawchuk & Denisa R. Superville

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