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July 14, 2013

Passing the torch: Superintendents prepare for transition

CULLMAN — Standing in a room full of her future employees — beside the woman she’ll be replacing in a few weeks — incoming Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Doreen Griffeth welcomed what many might see as a slightly awkward situation earlier this week.

Though she’s still technically in contract negotiations, Griffeth visited Cullman on Thursday and Friday to meet with staff and board members.

But, Thursday’s sit-down — her first with outgoing superintendent Dr. Jan Harris — had a very specific goal:

“I really need to pick her brain for a while,” Griffeth said with a laugh.

Dismissing to what Harris jokingly described as “their” office, she did just that.

Harris has been at the helm of the city system for almost nine years, and led it from a slightly above-average system to the upper echelon of Alabama districts in everything from test scores to technology.

But, Griffeth brings her own list of accolades to the job as she prepares to leave her role as assistant superintendent of the much larger and well-regarded Cobb County school system in Georgia. She also has a decade of experience as a principal at Shallowford Falls Elementary and Rocky Mount Elementary in Cobb County, and started her career in the classroom as a music and special education teacher.

As the chit-chat evolved past pleasantries, Harris shared her love of Twitter and social media, while Griffeth talked about her philosophies on professional development. Griffeth doesn’t have an active Twitter account yet, but said she may start one before taking over.

“I actually found Dr. Harris on Twitter, but thought it might be a little awkward to follow her,” she joked.

Though Griffeth was only kidding, there is some truth in the statement — because transitions like these can be awkward at times.

The average appointed superintendent’s tenure is just 3.6 years according to the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) — and Harris has been at the job for nearly a decade. Plus, most batons are passed after a previous superintendent has been fired or left for a different job, as opposed to a planned retirement.

Considering the uniqueness of the situation, Harris and Griffeth both say they want to make the transition as seamless as possible. The school board hopes to finalize contract negotiations soon enough to have Griffeth officially start work on August 1, despite the fact that Harris is still on contract until September 1.

By creating some overlap, Griffeth said she believes it will make the hand-off as smooth as possible while she gets comfortable in her new role.

“It makes it a lot easier when everyone isn’t anxious to get rid of the previous superintendent,” she said. “I’ll definitely take her advice, because she has done such a good job building relationships in this community.”

As for Harris, she’ll be moved out of the superintendent’s office by Griffeth’s first day — but plans to stick around in an advisory role, at Griffeth’s request.

“I’ll be out and she’ll take over with all legal authority, but I’ll still be twittering around,” she said. “We’ll definitely still have a few days together.”

When asked what advice she might give Griffeth as she prepares to take on her first full-fledged superintendent’s post, Harris said she’d recommend a focus on people — not paper.

“There are wonderful people in Cullman, and for me, if I’ve done that, then things turned out right,” she said. “I may have had a stack of paper work in front of me, but if someone came in and needed to talk I’d always try to put the paper aside. Cullman is a great place, but the people have high expectations.”

One of Griffeth’s biggest questions revolves around what to expect on a day-to-day basis in the city district.

“I’m anxious to hear about what a normal day consists of, if there really even is one,” she said. “I’m anxious to know how much she’s able to get into the schools, because I love that. I’m anxious to learn those things.”

More than anything, Griffeth said she is excited to get to work with the school board and community members that make the school system run.

“It’s really the people, because everyone has talked so highly about the teachers and the students,” she said. “When you walk the halls, the principals and the teachers are all smiling and all engaged in learning. You have great teachers, great principals and a board that’s all unified. You keep the politics out of it and really focus on what’s best for the kids. They just get it.”

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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