Wentzville school district leader wins National Superintendent of the Year award
Updated Feb. 17 with Cain winning national award
Wentzville Superintendent Curtis Cain is the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year. The School Superintendents Association chose Cain from among four finalists at a conference in Nashville on Thursday.
He is the first superintendent from Missouri to receive the award.
In an interview earlier this month, Cain said he is humbled by the recognition.
“I have a heart and passion for what we're doing for kids, and I think that it is a noble profession that we engage in every single day,” Cain said. “I do think that people recognize the challenges that growth and leadership in this case definitely present right now.”
Original story from Feb. 8:
After months without a permanent leader, the Rockwood School District has selected its next superintendent.
As superintendent of the Wentzville School District, Curtis Cain oversaw massive growth and cut ribbons on two new high schools. Beginning July 1, Cain will move to the Rockwood School District.
An award-winning administrator, Cain is the 2022 Missouri Association of School Administrators Superintendent of the Year and is currently one of four finalists for the national honor.
The Rockwood School District has faced pushback from parents over its COVID-19 protocols during the pandemic, along with contentious debates over race and equity in recent years. The last superintendent retired after two years with the district, and Rockwood has had an interim superintendent since last summer.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Kate Grumke spoke with Cain about the political tension facing school administrators and how he hopes to move forward in Rockwood.
Kate Grumke: You've been superintendent of the Wentzville School District for almost a decade. What are you most proud of from your time there?
Curtis Cain: I'm proud of the fact that we've done it as a team. In my time in this district, we will have added close to 1.2 million square feet of instructional space. Those are crazy numbers. But I have honestly learned that as important as the construction is and as much time and resources that you dedicate toward it, it is still the flesh and blood. It's people that make the difference. These are some of the finest professionals I've ever encountered.
Grumke: The Wentzville School Board recently did not take your recommendation to implement a COVID-19 case threshold to require masks. How has your working relationship with the board changed during the pandemic?
Cain: I think the pandemic has forced everyone to revisit and reconsider what relationships look like. It's been trying on everyone, and I respect the fact that it's been trying on everyone. I said at the start of the school year that my goal was to keep our school doors open five days a week. So the intent behind the threshold was just to provide a backstop that would align with that primary objective of keeping our school doors open on a daily basis.
I think the key is you lean into points and places of disagreement, not that you allow them to cause deeper divisions between groups or individuals. And so we keep going to work.
Grumke: The Wentzville School Board recently voted to remove "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison from libraries. What did you think about that decision?
Cain: We have a district policy in place in terms of book reviews. So the committee formed and did its work and ultimately came up with a recommendation, and we provided that recommendation to the Board of Education. ... The board ultimately opted to remove the book. I think there's been a lot of feedback in terms of that particular decision, but ultimately that is the governance call that the board has the right and the authority to make.
Grumke: Did these school board decisions factor into your choice to leave?
Cain: The process with Rockwood did not start at the same time this particular decision was ultimately rendered. I know that people read into or are attempting to read into certain things and are looking for tea leaves that provide alignment. That just isn't the case. I don't make any decision of this significance lightly — not by any stretch of the imagination. It may appear to be the case. But logistically speaking, that's just not true.
Grumke: The Rockwood School District has had very public tension over its pandemic response and also how the district teaches students about diversity, history and racial inequality. The previous superintendent and the director of educational equity and diversity even left their positions at the end of last school year. What are you keeping in mind as you move to a district that has become a national example of the political tension in education that we're seeing across the country?
Cain: It's not a secret, right, in terms of these points of differences that are morphing into points of division. It's not just about Rockwood, we are seeing this dialogue across our society. There's an old saying that schools reflect society. I think we honestly need to pause, cool and calm some waters and ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean?’ I don't think it's a short-term question; I think it is a longer-term, philosophical question that we really must reflect upon in the private recesses of our own minds. Ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean, and why is it so tense? Why is it so divisive at this particular point in time?’
I am not riding in on a white horse. I am not flying in with a super-powered cape. I'm a man that's going to be driving and becoming a part of not only a district, but ultimately a community. We are going to band together and figure it out and move forward together.
Grumke: It seems like you're someone who is walking headfirst into these tense and kind of political situations in education. Is this something that you feel particularly called to address?
Cain: I think it's something that educators have to be willing to address. It's not a question of if; it's a question of you must. There's going to be feedback that's provided that you don't want to hear or you might not like to hear. But when you're able to scan that feedback, are there kernels that I need to take away? Are there pieces that I need to reflect upon and say, you know, maybe there is some truth there? I don't necessarily appreciate how that's being expressed right now. But that doesn't mean that at least a portion of that isn't true. It is not a super hero complex or savior complex. The calling is to meet the needs of kids and to work with adults in order to do so. That's what it's about for me.
Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate Grumke