The Forum for Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents: A Reflection on 20 Years

by John P. Lozosky

In late April 2016, a group of more than 60 superintendents from across the state celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Forum for Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents (The Forum). We celebrated two decades of, in the words of Forum Director and Clinical Associate Professor Jerry Longo, “advocacy for children and youth, collaboration and collegiality among school leaders, mentoring new executive school leaders, and becoming masters of our complex profession.”  

Founded in 1996 by Richard C. Wallace, and modeled after and sponsored by the Danforth Foundation’s Forum for the American School Superintendent, The Forum was originally also sponsored by the The Grable Foundation, the Howard Heinz Endowment, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Hilda M. Willis Foundation, and supported by the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, our home since our founding. 

In our two decades together, the superintendents gathered twice a year at retreats, in the spring and fall, to “lift our heads” above the sometimes all too consuming present in order to look about and catch a glimpse of what might lie ahead, just down the road and around the next turn.  

At these retreats, The Forum met in large groups, in small groups, with teachers, with principals, with students, with parents, with business leaders, and with government officials. We heard from thoughtful authors, professors, and advocates.  We gathered around themes, including: instructional leadership; early childhood education; high school reform; the use of data; technology in schools; STEM, STEAM, and STREAM; ethics and leadership; and the issues of school safety and crisis response. And for each of these themes, the content, presenters and resources we came to know kept us current and, more often, out in front of what was yet to come.

A few memories, images, ideas, and learning experiences pop into my head as I flash through the last 20 years.

We walked the fields of Gettysburg with Len Fullencamp from the War College in Carlisle and The Forum’s own Bob Millward, and we learned to ask the key leadership questions: What is happening? What is not happening? What should I be doing about it?

We took a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of the new corporate headquarters of American Eagle and processed what the world of work might look like for our students in the years ahead.

We envisioned the classrooms of our grandchildren through the science and technology of today’s innovators, anticipating a world that was flattening, and we focused on working in it with a whole new mind.

We learned the language of outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring and supply chaining, and came to know that work, even our work, could now be done anywhere—by anyone—at anytime.

We participated in a simulated society for three days, which became for many of us, an emotional journey into a world of have nots and limited opportunity that we came to know in new and eye-opening ways.

From the earliest days of the Forum, our meeting topics have often charged us with thinking about and acting on school reform in light of the latest research, and taking these experiences back with us into our districts and schools and classrooms.

At the end of every Forum retreat, we personalize a particular takeaway, thought, or quote. And in that setting we internalized such gems as Devra Davis’s African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  

Professor Mike Guzenhauser’s “Working for equity should be a big tent effort.”

From Tom Friedman’s work, the Chinese reflection, ”When the wind changes direction there are those who build walls and there are those who build windmills.”

Department Chair John Jakicic’s, “It’s not about getting the kid on the track team to be more active but it’s about the kid who doesn’t believe he can even be on the track team to be more active.”

But it may be the Benard quote brought to us by our dear friend, Professor Mary Margaret Kerr, which captured the Forum’s essence over the years in our advocacy for children and youth: “An ethic of caring is obviously not a ‘program’ or’ strategy’ per se, but rather a way of being in the world, a way of relating to youth, their families and each other that conveys compassion, understanding, respect, and interest.”

Whether by means of tour or book, professor or practitioner, corporation or callisthenic, The Forum has a track record of keeping us future focused, ahead of the curve, and anticipating what might just be around the next bend.

In The Forum, over time and shared experiences, a community was born and brought to maturity. In this community we shared our successes and our failures in a safe, supportive, and collaborative environment with colleagues who are most often the only folks who can truly understand the journey.

JOHN P. LOZOSKY is a PhD graduate and Forum historian.