Philly region a welcoming place for female school superintendents

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Ridley Township Superintendent Lee Ann Weitzel (center) with students Kim Holdredge (left) and Sarah Messina.

On Bridget O’Connell’s first day as superintendent of the Palisades School District in upper Bucks County, she got a lot of questions about the kids – not the 1,700 students she would be overseeing as the top administrator, but the four children at home who know her as Mom.

“’Wow, you’re a superintendent and you have four kids?’” O’Connell recalled well-wishers asking. She added wearily, “That always seems to be the question: How do you do it?"

Retro moments aside, the Philadelphia region has moved faster than Pennsylvania -- and indeed the nation -- in growing the roster of female school superintendents. Of the 61 districts in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties, 21 – or 34.4 percent – are run by women. The statewide percentage is 28.8.

Across the river, in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties, they're in charge in 36 percent of the 113 districts, compared with 31.4 percent for all of New Jersey.

Nationwide, women head 22.4 percent of districts, according to AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Large urban school systems favor male leaders, the data show, but Philadelphia has had two female superintendents in recent history: Constance Clayton and Arlene Ackerman.

The region's higher percentages may reflect more progressive attitudes than in other parts of the state or country, say a number of female superintendents. The area’s newest arrival, Emilie Lonardi, who takes over the Downingtown Area School District this summer, has headed the West York Area School District for the last 19 years.

“I think I knew one other woman superintendent when I was hired,” she said.

Pennsylvania’s highest-paid superintendent is a woman: Abington’s Amy Sichel makes more than $300,000 annually. A recent national salary survey by AASA did not find a significant gender pay gap when district size was taken into account. But Michelle Saylor, the Bellefonte Area superintendent who heads a women’s initiative for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, argues that salary disparities are real, saying that female superintendents earn on average $15,000 a year less than their male counterparts.

Many of the women say holdover attitudes about balancing a high-pressure job with motherhood is one reason there are so few of them in top school posts. They also confront stereotypes about “softer” leadership styles.

“We’re on the cusp of change, but there’s a little bit of sexism in some places,” said Saylor, who will lead a conference for aspiring female school leaders in Hershey starting Sunday. She still bristles at the memory of interviewing for the superintendent post in a different district, while a school board member tried to look down her shirt.

“I do have stories of colleagues who were more authoritarian in their style and because of their style, they were labeled as a witch,” Saylor said, “whereas the male would have been patted on the back: ‘Good move, very decisive!’  ”

Annette Castiglione, who has led the Bellmawr schools for 10 years, has experienced that firsthand. “I’m certain that I have been referred to in a negative way often. … I’m not quiet; I’m not a wallflower,” she said. Strong men are seen as “bold, working from a position of strength. That’s still prevalent.”

The increase in the number of female superintendents locally, some educators say, may also reflect a growing emphasis on improving school curricula in an era of high-stakes testing —an area where the pool of experienced women candidates is particularly strong.

“I do think leadership has changed over several decades, where it’s not just being an organizational manager,” said Jill Takacs, superintendent in Montgomery County’s Jenkintown district, who was hired this year from a New Jersey district. A superintendent “needs to be an instructional leader who can move the district forward on the curriculum side.”

When she was interviewing for superintendent jobs, Takacs said, she was sometimes told that the board was looking for a man.

Joe O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, conducts superintendent searches throughout the region. Gender can be a big factor – consciously or subconsciously – in school boards' final choices, he said. He also noted that psychology plays an outsized role: When a male superintendent leaves a successful district, he frequently is replaced by another man, but when the schools are struggling, boards will turn to a woman.

O’Brien agreed that the issue of child-rearing looms large, and that many bright, ambitious female educators were forced to slow their climb up the ladder to juggle responsibilities at home – an obstacle not typically faced by men.

“People want to raise a family before moving up into central office position,” said Ridley Township Superintendent Lee Ann Weitzel, 53, who has worked in the Delaware County district for 27 years, the last seven as its chief.

Lonardi, taking over soon in Downingtown, said that the work/life balance can be tricky in a job with around-the-clock demands. “There’s some traditional mind-sets [in which] a lot of women will say, ‘I want to do it, but I’ll wait till the kids are grown,’ ” Lonardi observed. “Men will just say, ‘I want to do it.’ ”

Upper Perkiomen Superintendent Alexis McGloin has two children, in fourth and sixth grades, as well as a spouse with a flexible job schedule. "Nobody would say [to a father], ‘How do you do that job with two young children at home?’ ” she said. Yet “I’ve gotten that question so many times in my career.”

But there apparently is a flip side. Haverford school board president Denis Gray said motherhood was a plus in hiring Maureen Reusche as superintendent last year. “I think she understands what’s going on in our community very well, having been a working mother, having raised children, being active in the PTO,” he said.

Any increase in their ranks may strengthen the support network for the region's female superintendents, but it won't necessarily make the job easier.

"I crash hard, too," said O'Connell, of Palisades, who packs a lot into a day. "People say, 'What keeps you up at night?' Really, not much."