Leadership

Lessons from the National Superintendent of the Year

5 Min Read
Superintendent of the Year Joe Gothard

Dr. Joe Gothard, the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year, speaks at a press conference in April introducing him as the new schools chief for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin.

Dr. Joe Gothard's career has come full circle. After nearly 20 years working in the roles of teacher, coach, principal, and assistant superintendent in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, he moved to Minnesota where he became superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, just outside of Saint Paul. Four years later, he was heading up Saint Paul's 33,000-student school district, steering it through the pandemic and earning national acclaim for his handling of recovery funds. He currently serves on the advisory board for the Center for Model Schools, and in February, he was named National Superintendent of the Year by American Association of School Administrators.  Now he's returning home to Madison to head up the district where he attended school as a youngster. 

Gothard talked with HMH about the achievement he's most proud of, the lessons he has learned from the implementation of new reading and math programs in Saint Paul, and his advice for fellow school leaders.

HMH: Why do you do this work? What keeps you going?

Joe Gothard: I love learning and growing, and I love working with others to create that same kind of feeling. As superintendent, you create a safe place to put ideas on the table, consider how we can solve problems together, or how we can do something better. That’s what really energizes me. 

HMH: You grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Soon, you'll lead the public schools there as superintendent. How did the community in Madison help you get to where you are now?

JG: Struggling in college right out of high school, I found myself right back in Madison. I was working jobs that were not fulfilling. One of my earliest mentors encouraged me to apply for an educational assistant position in Madison, and here I am returning as the superintendent 30 years later. The Madison community coaches, volunteers, teachers, community members never turned their back on me. I have not forgotten the encouragement and support I received along my journey. It brings me great joy to do the same for others.

HMH: Of all the achievements that earned you National Superintendent of the Year, what's the one that you are most proud of?

JG: Our science of reading program called WINN—short for What I Need Now—rises to the top. We began to implement the program at the very start of the pandemic. Thanks to funding from the American Rescue Plan, we were able to hire 84 teachers who went into every reading class in the district to provide extra support to students who need it most. This was all during regular class time, so students didn’t have to be pulled out of class. And if you looked in on a class, you might not even know which students were getting the extra support— it was that seamless. Students want to learn alongside their peers, and this strategy removes the stigma for those who are struggling. 

HMH: How did you come to the decision to hire support teachers?

JG: Teachers are just worn down and overwhelmed. Imagine you had a coach trying to teach you how to play every position rather than giving you the time to get really good at one position. With added support, our teachers could focus on what they do best without feeling that they have to be everything to every student. 

HMH: What results have you seen so far?

JG: We focused on the data, to make sure we were prioritizing students who demonstrated that they needed the most help, and it's been really successful. Most importantly, our students are seeing the benefits, and their families are seeing the benefits of having children who are now reading confidently.

HMH: You led the implementation of HMH’s Into Math curriculum in Saint Paul Public Schools for Grades K–5. How did you set teachers up for success?

JG: It’s critical that with such a big implementation that teachers get the support they need. We wanted to make sure the new curriculum was as user-friendly as possible. So we hired additional coordinators and five teachers on special assignment who were each responsible for a set number of schools. This allowed for professional development to take place in the moment, right when teachers needed it. Imagine you have a touch-screen menu that addresses your needs as a teacher, and you can just click for support. We wanted to replicate that model as much as possible.  

We also offered paid professional development over the summer. About 525 teachers signed up and it got us off to a good start. We were fortunate in that we were already using a lot of the HMH methodology in our own curriculum, but that wasn't as strong as the Into Math scope and sequence, which we needed for the assessment piece of it.

Students are showing improvement in mathematics after the implementation of HMH's Into Math in Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. 

 

HMH: What was it about the Into Math curriculum that made it successful for students?

JG: The pairing of Into Math with Waggle, [a program that provides personalized math and ELA practice], was key to supporting students who are struggling as well as those who are excelling and ready to move on. The programs together allowed us to meet our students where they are in a relevant way, as students had the opportunity to explore the material individually and at their own pace. They can go in and watch videos to extend their learning, and if they don’t understand something, they can go back and redo a lesson. They don’t have to wait for the teacher. The programs are also user-friendly and similar to technologies that students already use.

HMH: What were some of the benefits of Into Math for teachers?

JG: The targeted differentiation for every lesson was a great benefit for teachers. The data the programs provided helped us to understand where each student is starting from, so we could build a whole support system for navigating a deeper learning in math. It’s also a benefit for teachers when they see students who are engaged and invested in their learning.

HMH: What impact have you seen so far from the Into Math integration?

JG: We're showing a tremendous increase in the number of students who are making significant progress in their growth. Sometimes there can be an implementation dip, but we’re not seeing that. Our sense is that we're on to the right track, and we've got teachers who are trained and excited and committed to this. And we've got the necessary support in place for them. I think everybody was generally pleased with this implementation.

HMH: What advice do you have for other school leaders who are looking to integrate new curriculum?

JG: When choosing new curriculum, the lesson is simple: listen to teachers. Get their input. Teachers had a lot of say in our Into Math implementation. The administration recommended the teachers' number one choice of curriculum. We also shared the Into Math data with the school board and our community. It's just so important to work toward these really important decisions together 

Another lesson: Take it one implementation at a time. Give each the energy it deserves. It was a real benefit to us that the reading and math implementations didn’t happen at the same time. There was no competition for resources or attention. Nothing was watered down. We could focus on the goals and objectives of each, and teachers could feel the efficacy and success. 

HMH: Aside from what you've learned about curriculum integrations, what other lessons will you be taking with you to Madison?

JG: We need to keep students at the center and ensure they all have a voice in their education. Here's one example: we had a school that was really struggling. There were a lot of behavioral incidents and they were just really pleading for help. So one day I turned to the principal and I said I want to start a boys group here and I don't want you to give me only your best students. For two years, I've been meeting with many of the same students, and I've been able to participate in some larger family interventions when some of the students faced issues in the community. What I've learned is that these students display such a sense of self-efficacy and caring for others that comes out when you've put in the time to build trust.

***

Ready to accelerate growth in math for every student? Check out our Into Math curriculum for Grades K–8. 

Download Building Your School Culture: An Administrator’s Guide today!

Related Reading

WF1953215 Shaped 2024 Blog Post Benefits of Small Group Instruction2

Richard Blankman

Shaped Executive Editor

Belonging School Kentwood

Eighth graders enjoy a light moment in Alison Van Dyke's ELA class at Valleywood Middle School in Kentwood, Michigan.

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor

WF1953389 Hero

Dr. Jessica Huizenga
Associate Partner, The Center for Model Schools