Part 2 of 4
April taking the oath of office from PA Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera
and her son, Cooper.
In my last post, we introduce you to Dr. April Hershey, Superintendent of the Warwick School District and learned a little bit about her, and the changes she’s experienced. In this post, we continue by looking more in depth at her leadership and how she became a leader.
Geoff: If you had to look at your “Hall of Fame,” what would you say is one of your greatest achievements of your superintendency? And how did that happen?
April: The first thing that comes to mind is that when I began as superintendent ten years ago, I came into a situation with a very fractured Board. Two members of the Board were suing one another in federal court, and the Board was very broken and individuals were very hurt because of some situations that had happened previously. It was important for me to understand everybody’s story and how we got to this place but also chart a path forward very quickly.
With the help of my coach we sat down and had a really good first Board workshop retreat where we laid out what our guiding principles were going to be, how we were going to interact with one another. We really opened the conversation for some dialogue about some of the hurts that were there. The actual workshop retreat went really well; and even at the end when there were some fireworks between two of the members, it was something that needed to happen before we could take steps forward.
Over the next four years or so, we had to wade through that mess but we continued to meet together as a team. We did team building activities, we did book studies, and we had open and honest conversation with one another building our vision together. Some decided that they didn’t want to be on the Board anymore. And the new people that we brought on really bought into our vision and walked along side of us.
Today I look at our Board and I could not be more proud of these people who are willing to do whatever it takes for kids. If that means three hours on a Saturday morning a couple times a year, if that means coming to activities and listening to people at a public forum, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. I think that’s a huge achievement, coming from where we’ve been. Boards can change every time there’s an election, and yet for ten years, we’ve been able to weather those changes because of the work that we’ve done together towards this common goal.
Geoff: Wow! What an achievement. I guess that makes everything a little bit easier when you have a Board that’s aligned with you and your leadership team.
April: Absolutely. And you never take it for granted. It is always a work in progress.
Geoff: What’s your greatest disappointment?
April: There was a time where we, as a school district, made a decision to bring a controversial speaker to the school. And I know that I didn’t do enough homework. It was a time where I trusted those around me, thinking that we had all done our homework; and we really hadn’t done our homework. We hadn’t done our homework about the speaker and how things had changed since the last time the speaker had been in the area. We didn’t really do our homework to understand what our entire community was going to think about it or how they were going to respond. So it really drew a lot of negative attention to the district, it drew a lot of negative attention to our staff and to our School Board. For several months we endured a lot of criticism from the newspaper and from different factions of the community. My disappointment in myself with that is that I hadn’t done enough homework.
Geoff: How’d you deal with that?
April: We really spent a lot of time autopsying the situation—you know, looking back and saying, “How can we do better?” While our hearts and our intent were really good to try to help students, we didn’t necessarily see the big picture. And I tend to be the kind of person that when I look at a situation, you could call this an “awfulizer”–this could happen and this could happen and this could happen. But that has served me very well. Trying to think about all the different stakeholders and how they might see or react or perceive something. I think, since that time, we have not walked into anything without really thinking hard about what the consequences might be.
Geoff: What’s one big aspiration you still have? It can be professionally, personally—it can be anything.
April: I have thoroughly enjoyed the last several years of teaching a course through the Shippensburg/Millersville doctoral program. I love it. I love telling leaders my story and sharing ideas and thoughts about what leadership looks like. My aspiration would be, when I retire from public school, to continue that and maybe be a professor at some point.
Geoff: How about a big regret you have in your leadership.
April: I think that I really try to thank people for their support and the things that they’ve done for me, but I wish early on in my career I had been more grateful to the people who gave me opportunities to do different kinds of things. I’m trying to make up for that now with people. One of my first mentors, Lisa Brown, who’s the superintendent at Palmyra, gave me my first chance as a teacher. I’ve always been super grateful to her because, even while I was teaching music, she allowed me to flex my leadership muscles. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for that.
Geoff: What would you say are the greatest challenges facing public education today and what should we be doing about them?
April: Certainly, funding for public schools is a very difficult issue and we continue to face challenges from all sorts of external factors, like there’s always talk about changing the funding system from property taxes to another way of taxing. And that could affect what schools are able to receive. There’s a lot of lobbying being done for cyber/charters and charter schools and private schools to receive school tax dollars which would take away from how school districts are funded. It’s unfortunate that the perception of public schools is molded by the media. That’s why I think it’s very important that we tell our story and share all the wonderful things that are happening in public schools and in our school districts so that people can see we’re doing great things for kids.
Geoff: A lot of people who read this blog are business people and nonprofit people and governmental people. What’s the one thing you’d say to them about public education?
April: Public education is making today’s innovators and today’s entrepreneurs. And we are looking to make more partnerships with nonprofits, with business people for our students as they get up into their final years of high school to get out and do internships and to experience all kinds of different opportunities so that they can really have a taste of what’s out there for them. Not every student needs to go to college. Not every student even needs to go to a trade school.
We’ve been able to develop these amazing partnerships with local businesses in the Lititz area where students are going out and learning jobs. In some cases, after school hours they’re earning money doing those jobs. And in some cases, the businesses are offering scholarships and full-time employment after graduation. We’d really like to have more conversations with more outside entities to open doors for our kids.
Geoff: What do you think stands in the way of that?
April: I think that there’s a perception that today’s students are lazy or that they feel like things are handed to them all the time—that everyone gets a trophy. And I’m here to tell you that’s really not the case. When I walk through the halls of our schools, I see kids who look like kids 10 years ago and 20 years ago. They even wear some of the same things that we were wearing back when I was in school. But they are hungry to learn, they are eager to work hard, they’re excited about their future, and they really want to make a difference. In today’s society there’s a lot of negativity and adversity, and I think the key to solving all of that is the students who are walking through our halls. We have a responsibility as educators but also as business leaders and nonprofit leaders to speak to students and help them see a better way.
Geoff: Let’s shift gears a little bit and let’s talk about leadership. Why are you a leader? Why do you do what you do, and why did you agree to do it?
April: When I got involved in music, particularly in high school, my high school band director saw leadership skills in me so he sent me to a camp at West Chester University for leaders in music. And I ended up eventually becoming the drum major of the marching band. Some of the things I learned in those weekly camps once every summer were just about self-discipline, about how you can make a difference for other people, and I just loved it. It was like I was bitten by some kind of a bug.
So even as I went into college—I chose Lebanon Valley College. At the time their tag line was “The Leadership College.” They offered a whole track of classes on leadership. We studied great leaders like Martin Luther King. We spent just some real time looking at leadership theory, even as an undergrad. I loved it.
I’ve sought out leadership opportunities. I think it goes way back to my childhood where I felt like my mother would always say to me, “All right. You’re the oldest so you’re responsible for your sister.” And I told myself that story forever and I feel today like, I’m still responsible for other people and other things. And I’ve been successful at being responsible.
Geoff: What do you do that makes you a leader? What do leaders do?
April: I think leaders listen. And I don’t think they just listen with their ears. I think they listen with their heart. So what’s super important to me is to hear from students first about what they need and what they see as their future and how we can get them to achieve their dreams and goals. It’s important for me to listen to the community who provides the support for us to be able to do everything we do for kids. Sometimes that’s a big public forum and that’s sometimes somebody knocking on my door and saying, “Do you have five minutes?” I believe it’s sitting down with staff and making sure they have all the tools they need to be successful. I believe it’s listening to the team and hearing them help shape the direction that we’re going as a district.
Geoff: It’s got to be a little more than listening, though. What do you do once you listen to all these things? What’s the job after listening and you hear all these different viewpoints?
April: You distill all of those things into themes, not unlike you would do if you were writing a dissertation. You develop a vision for your school district. You implement that vision through the programs that you provide, through the policies and procedures that you have in place. But it’s really about walking beside people and taking them from where they are to where they’d like to be.
Geoff: How about if people don’t want to go where you want to go?
April: Then we have to have a lot more conversation. My first response to something like that would be to come from a place of support and to help understand why it is that they don’t want to move in that direction. Maybe I’ll have something to learn from that. Maybe we’re not going in the right direction. But if I’m able to determine that we are going in the right direction, I’m going to try to help support that person to get to where we need to go. There are times when a person has to decide, “This is not the bus I need to be one. I’m going to transfer to another one.”
Geoff: Earlier you mentioned an early mentor who is now superintendent at Palmyra. Who else influenced you in your leadership development? Who did you pattern yourself after? Who was your model?
April: Lisa Brown was definitely a model for me. She was the principal at Annville-Cleona who hired me as a music teacher. She was the first female leader that I ever had the opportunity to work with and learn from. Alongside her there was a male principal who was near to the end of his career and it was clear to me that his style was very managerial and authoritative. You could almost stereotype it like the typical football coach who had become a principal. So I watched his interactions with students with discipline and his interactions with staff, and I knew that I wanted to be something more than that. I certainly had a lot to learn from him about how to deal with certain specific situations and what discipline looks like and contacting parents and all that sort of thing. But I wanted to do it with more love. So I would say both he and Lisa Brown were early mentors for me.
When I got hired at Cocalico, I was hired by Bill Worley who was the superintendent at the time. He was actually the superintendent when I went through Cocalico, so I had known of him. But only after I started working at Cocalico and spending time with him, did I realize that he was who I wanted to be when I grew up. And I still want to be him when I grow up. And I’m lucky enough to have lunch with him about once every year or so and just touch base with him. He is a leader full of integrity, a man of his word, someone who was supportive of me as a thirty-year-old woman getting ready to step into a leadership role. And in a place like Cocalico that is very conservative, I think that was a big leap of trust on his behalf. So I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
© Geoff Davis 5/10/19
Next post, we’ll explore April’s leadership philosophy, her vision for the District, and recount one of the most challenging situations any leader could experience.