Wichita superintendent search: Who will lead? (2009)

06/18/2012 7:57 AM

06/18/2012 8:38 AM

(Editor's note: This was first published Feb. 28, 2009)

He is a suburban school superintendent with Kansas ties. She is a local administrator whose years leading North High were the stuff of legend. One will be Wichita's next superintendent.

The Wichita school board Friday named John Allison, head of the Mount Lebanon school district near Pittsburgh, and Denise Wren, Wichita's assistant superintendent for high schools, as the two finalists vying to lead the district.

Asked what characteristic both finalists possess, board president Lynn Rogers said, "Passion for kids comes out as No. 1.

"They've continued to make gains," he said. "Their academic credentials are very strong."

The candidates will be introduced today to the community and to district employees in public forums at North High School.

Board members said they could decide on a superintendent as early as tonight, but they have given themselves until mid-March to make the final choice.

Rogers said the board was considering one other candidate, who was hired by another district before Wichita's finalists were named.

The person chosen as superintendent will lead the state's largest district, with almost 50,000 students and a $605 million budget.

The most immediate issue the new superintendent will face is deep cuts in state aid expected for next school year.

The new superintendent will also have to lead the district as it strives to maintain diversity in schools after this year's end of the district's 1971 integration-busing plan.

And the new superintendent will step in as the district implements the $370 million bond issue voters approved in November.

The school board agreed this winter on about a dozen qualities the next superintendent should have, including: excellent communication and listening skills, involvement in the community and experience with urban school district s.

John Allison

Officials in Mount Lebanon, Pa., an affluent suburban district of about 5,400 students outside Pittsburgh, did not have much to say about news that Allison was a finalist in Wichita. "He let us know" he was looking for jobs elsewhere, said Alan Silhol, president of the Mount Lebanon school board. "He's done a marvelous job."

Allison was hired in June 2007 by a unanimous vote of the Mount Lebanon school board, which awarded him a four-year contract and a starting salary of $150,000.

According to media reports, however, politics on the Mount Lebanon board have shifted since Allison was hired.

Officials are considering building a new high school or drastically remodeling one, which could cost $110 million and would prompt the district's highest tax increase in three years. Critics of the project, including some board members, suggested cutting school staff, a move Allison has resisted.

Mount Lebanon board member Susan Rose, who was on the board that hired Allison, expressed disappointment Friday.

"I don't know what's going on, and we'll have to figure that out," she said.

Allison is a native of Kansas City and his mother graduated from North High in Wichita, Rogers said.

Allison started his career as a teacher in the Shawnee Mission school district and worked his way up to associate superintendent for education services.

At the Kansas City-area district, Allison earned a reputation as an educator with insight and a good personality that allowed him to seek middle ground in conflicts, said Shawnee Mission superintendent Gene Johnson, who worked with Allison as an administrator.

"He's just got attributes that would really benefit Wichita," Johnson said.

From 2002 to 2007 Allison served as deputy superintendent of the Grapevin e-Colleyville Independent school district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Allison's urban school district experience comes from the Kansas and Texas districts that had significant increases in minority populations while he worked there, Rogers said.

Texas Education Agency statistics show that, from 2003-04 to 2006-07, the Grapevine district's nonwhite enrollment grew from 20 percent to 25.5 percent.

By comparison, Kansas Department of Education statistics show that Wichita' s nonwhite enrollment grew from 52.5 percent to 57.5 percent over the same period.

Allison, 45, has a bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas and a master's from Emporia State University.

He and his wife, Ramie, a physical education teacher, have two children - a sixth-grade daughter, Cooper, and a 10th-grade son, Cade.

Denise Wren

As an assistant superintendent and principal in the Wichita district, Denise Wren is considered a force for high school reform.

Wren, 48, has worked all 26 years of her education career in Wichita public schools.

She declined to comment on her candidacy Friday night.

During her three years as principal at North High School, she "made a big difference" by calming the halls that had been chaotic with gang violence, said Dave Dennis, a North High employee and member of the state school board.

The graduation rate at North increased from 48 percent to more than 80 percent while she was there, Dennis said.

Also at North, Wren helped implement a fledgling program for at-risk students, called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID. The program has since expanded into all of the district's seven comprehensive high schools and several middle schools.

"She's up with the finest leaders I've worked for," said Dennis, who spent 29 years in the military before starting his education career.

Paul Babich, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said he sees Wren as someone the teachers union could work well with.

"The nice thing about Denise is she's a straight shooter, and you know where she stands," he said.

One of her strengths and a reason for her popularity among teachers and students is the time she spends in schools, walking hallways and getting into classrooms, said Matt Creasman, chairman of the English department and an administrative intern at Northeast Magnet High School. "She still considers herself a teacher," Creasman said. "She's out there interacting with kids. I think if she's a superintendent we'll still see her face out in the schools."

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