Profile

Dennis Pope

Standing Firm on Principle But Never Still by JAY P. GOLDMAN


When Dennis Pope came on board as superintendent of School Administrative Unit 25 in south-central New Hampshire 10 years ago, he posed this question to his administrative colleagues and teaching staff: "Where is the proof of goodness in our schools?"


That might be an easy one to address in a well-to-do school district populated largely by white-collar professionals. But Pope has used the question as his rallying cry for developing the district's eight quality performance standards, a visionary technology plan and a performance pay compensation plan.

He has used it, too, to sustain the 2,500-student school district's steady course through some tumultuous challenges by vocal minorities over the last several years.

Pope, a native of Bow, N.H., who came to Bedford after spending 13 years as an administrator in Merrimack, has tried persistently to build a culture where lifelong learning is the norm. That's meant overcoming a sense of complacency. Referring to his first year as superintendent, he says: "Everyone felt good about things but (I asked), 'Where's the proof we are as good as we say we are?'"

The answers are provided to the community today largely in the form of a yearly report he personally composes called the "Dimensions of Quality." The report uses graphical illustrations to demonstrate the school district's effectiveness, but Pope always cautions his public about not relying heavily on any one statistic and to review performance data over time.

A recent report showed Bedford's 3rd-graders made the biggest improvement on the statewide assessment in language arts and math over the last four years among all of New Hampshire's medium-size and large school districts. Eighth-graders who were given the 55-item math exam from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study scored higher than every participating nation except Singapore, Pope says.

Colleagues in Bedford say the superintendent's work ethic inspires them to reach loftier goals, and they describe him as someone who doesn't fear jumping into the trenches. "He never expects anything from a staff member that he wouldn't do in triplicate," says a 22-year veteran Susan Mullen, a former president of the teachers' union.

"He doesn't hesitate to pick up the phone and ask me, 'What were your perceptions of the interactions in that last meeting?'" Mullen adds. "That breeds mutual respect and collegiality."

Charles Mitsakos, a former superintendent who now trains future teachers at nearby Rivier College, likens Pope to a coach of Olympians. "If you're doing the pole vault, he sets the bar up high for everyone... He provides the training so they can achieve those expectations."

As someone who believes in the efficacy of systems thinking, Pope finds some novel ways to offer continuous learning opportunities. For his leadership team, he hosts an ongoing book discussion forum. "When we discussed Flight of the Buffalo," he says. "I took the first four chapters to lead the dialogue, and each was responsible for developing a lesson for another chapter."

But this being New Hampshire, Pope has had his share of contentious dealings during the last five years with anti-tax forces and religious conservatives, who have had sympathizers on the five-member board of education. At board meetings that have drawn upwards of 300 people, the superintendent faced emotional attacks, most notably against a comprehensive health education curriculum, the extent to which school counselors may advise students and the decision to permit an obstetrician who performs abortions to speak to students about sexually transmitted diseases.

By all accounts, Pope was adamant in each instance about not buckling to a small vocal band that did not represent communitywide interests. At the same time, he remained respectful of all viewpoints and refused to get caught up in the heat of the moment under the glare of network TV cameras.

Daniel Sullivan, who joined the school board in the mid-'90s as a critic, believes Pope's "extraordinary composure and great moral courage" diffused community tensions on several occasions, noting, "He always subordinated his personal needs to those of the district."

Such forthrightness as the district's chief executive has served to energize his fellow educators, says Ross Lurgio, Bedford's assistant superintendent.

"The commitment on his part to see it through with us has given people a tremendous amount of confidence."

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org