Logan settles into role as new OPS superintendent

 

New Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan, 55, is the first
woman to hold the position full-time and the first African-American filling it,
period. That’s not what this East Coast native, mother of one and daughter of
a career educator mother and law enforcement father wants the community
focusing on.

“I hope when people in the district see me or visit with me they see
themselves as being able to sit in this seat. I’m as ordinary as you can be. I
did take advantage of some opportunities that allowed me to be in this chair,”
she said. “I think if you’re a person of color or a person raised by two
middle-class parents or a woman or a parent, you can identify with me.

“I think any of those things are points of common ground. I always find when I
meet people there’s a touch point. While my social identity can be very
exciting to some folks, it is something probably less remarkable when we
relate and just share our common humanity.”

More important to her then being the district’s first double-minority top leader
is that her parents met at historically black Philander Smith College and made
aspirational lives for themselves and their five children. Logan and her siblings
have all achieved highly in their respective careers.

She’s part of a three-generational lineage of educators. Her daughter Cassie
is a teacher just as Logan and her mother were before her.

“It is something that brings me great joy. It is very meaningful to me,” Logan
said of this legacy.

Her 30-year journey from high school Spanish teacher to principal to assistant
superintendent to chief academic officer – earning Washington
PostDistinguished Educational Leader Award recognition – expresses her
deep commitment to the education field.

“I just fundamentally believe in public education. It changes lives every day.
There are children who come through our doors who will change the whole
trajectory of their family based on the fact they became well educated. That’s
what happened to me.”

In a recent tweet she referred to education as “the profession that makes all
others possible.”

“Growing up in the Jim Crow South, my parents could have had a very
different outcome,” she said.

Instead, education was a pathway to career success. They raised a family in a
Maryland suburb outside Washington D.C., where they set high expectations
for their children to do well in school.

“I know that that happened for me and it happens to children every day.
Hopefully it happened to children I taught along the way. I know it’s happening
every day in Omaha and in schools around the country.”

Logan vied for superintendencies across the country. Once this job came into
view, she felt Omaha offered a desired slower pace and OPS mirrored the
diverse urban district she came from in Philadelphia.

Being a superintendent appeals to her, she said, because “you have the
opportunity to make impact across an entire community and be a role model.”

On visits here prior to starting her OPS post in July, she found a district and
community brimming with humility, generosity, forward-thinking and caring.

“The district has very smart people working here,” she said. “All up and down
the line I feel the staff’s committed. Arts are thriving, sports are thriving,
academics are thriving, career-technical education is thriving. All of those
things you think about wanting to lead are in place here.”

Budget and finance are priorities moving forward in a district that made cuts
before her arrival.

“The fiscal challenges are part of the landscape of education no matter which
district you go to,” she said.

A recently passed second bond issue secured OPS bricks and mortar needs
for the next 15 years.

She likes Omahans’ buy-in with in the district.

“The community is deeply committed to OPS. Philanthropic, faith, community
groups really believe OPS needs to thrive if Omaha’s going to thrive. I hear
this from every person that I meet – OPS must do well.”

She’s grateful for the support she’s received.

“I think part of the support I’ve been given is that people want me to do well
because they want OPS to do well. Part of it is having a well-educated
community that understands schools are really an important barometer of the
health of a city – and they support accordingly.”

A measure of people’s buy-in is the record 10,000-plus respondents to a
district survey.

“It’s incredible that many people wanted to give me their feedback to a survey
specifically designed to baseline where we are as a district. It was sent to
students,

parents, staff, community stakeholders. They were overwhelmingly very
positive about the district.”

Once the honeymoon of her hire ends, she’ll have a better gauge for how her
“business-like, firm-and-fair, hard-on-the-problem-and-not-on-the-person,
hands-on and distributive” leadership style’s going over.

“I think one of the things you have to do is delegate but not abdicate your
responsibility. You have to have some sort of continuous or regular feedback
group so that as people understand the vision or what needs to happen, you
are mostly co-creating that and folks can see that their ideas are a part of it.

“I may go into a meeting with my head going in one way and be very
convinced by a compelling argument or case that it should go in another
direction. I think there’s a certain degree of openness that’s needed.”

Her job is keeping a big picture view while ensuring kids get the education
they need.

“I do think having a bird’s eye view is helpful. You can be more objective, less
defensive about things, and give critical feedback that will help us move
forward. I’m always going to be super interested in anything curriculum or
academics related. That’s the old chief academic officer in me.

“Because I was a principal for so long time I’m always real interested in all
things about the principalship and building leadership. I know principals have
a lot of influence and ability to make schools really special for kids. You see
and feel when you walk in their schools their impact.”

An OPS value-add for her its many immigrant families.

“With deep appreciation I’ve enjoyed serving those communities knowing I
was making a difference.”

She believes her Spanish fluency “removes a barrier and allows me to
experience the world through eyes different from my own.”

“Resource deployment” can make delivering education “difficult” amid state
budget constraints and teacher shortages, she said. “I really want to position
the district well in all aspects of talent pool in ensuring we are going to have
enough teachers and those teachers can meet the needs of our students. I
hope that’s something I will have a long-term impact on. I’m deeply interested
in it.”

“This job is really a lot about policy and what we’re going to do, but when it
comes to implementation the devil is in the details. Implementation is typically
going to be done by folks who don’t have regular contact with you. I stay
connected in a lot of ways. First, by making myself accessible, open, listening
to feedback and understanding from the perspective of others how they might
be experiencing something.”

She likes the community’s-district’s sensible approach.

“There are places where people want to make policy and there are places
where people want to make sense, and I think Omaha is a place where
people want to make sense.””

Representing an entire district is new.

“This job is very different,” she said. “There’s a lot of public facing.”

She wants her constituencies to see her “urgency around the work” as well as
her “commitment, compassion, strategic-thinking and longterm vision.”

“Those are the things I hope I convey.”

Perhaps the most vital relationship she get right is with the school board.
Informed by the experience of recent district leaders coming under fire for

opaque leadership and contentious relations, her 90-day entry plan
emphasized transparency and communication.

“Our vision and mission have to be clear to everyone. Dealing with a board
elected by the voting public is a careful balance, especially for a new
superintendent. I think the board has been open. They want to understand my
leadership style. I’m trying to get into that groove but it’s something that will
take time. It is a work in progress.”

Making connections extends to students and parents. She held a town hall
meeting with them in September.

She views public education as a compact with people who expect a return on
investment.

“Just like any investment you’ve made, when people send their children to the
school district, they’re making an investment. It’s property taxes, it’s time, it’s
devotion and support for the school. At the end of the child’s K-12 experience
they ought to be able to point to exactly the things they got as a result of that
experience. If every one of them can fully articulate something that really
prepared them for the next chapter or phase of their life, then we will have
done a really good job.”

In another tweet, she revealed a philosophy for getting the most out of kids:
“Positive relationships with students will yield amazing outcomes that intellect,
technical skill and positional authority cannot.”

In addition to mentoring educators on the job, she’s taught graduate level
courses to aspiring ed leaders.

The end of September marked the end of her first 90 days on the job.

“It’s actually been a smooth first 90 days. There’s been some bumps and
hiccups and I’ve gotten a couple of surprises – and I do not like surprises.”

As she learns the nuances of leading a district in a new community and
culture, she knows there will be missteps, and that’s hard for this perfectionist.

“I can be really hard on myself, I can internalize things. One of my friends
used to say, ‘Okay, Cheryl, you’re in analysis paralysis.’ I also know I’m fallible.
There are mistakes I’m going to make. I’m the first person who will admit if I’ve
made a mistake and move on from there.”

As the face of the district, she said, “I am also somewhat hyper-aware I’m
modeling behavior for others. Sometimes at board meetings I watch people
looking at me because they see how I’m going to react in a stressful situation
and it’s an opportunity for me to teach because I think a lot of this job is
temperament.

“I do not like to go up and down. If I can be a steadying force, it helps my
team. I’m like, we’re going to stay right here in the middle.”

For Logan, “the best days are when I know I made a difference.”

“My final school-based assignment was at Parkdale High School. It’s where I
began and ended my career. I was a student teacher there and 23 years later
I became its principal. It was so meaningful to start and end my career in that
building in a community I grew up in. That was the most difficult job I have
had, bar none, because the school needed to be turned around. But it was
awesome serving those kids.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.

“Kids are delightful and delicious wherever you go, and they are here.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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