Behind the Scenes: Yvonne Caamal Canul

Since 2012, Yvonne Caamal Canul, 64, has been Superintendent of the Lansing School District, the region’s largest, with a $150 million annual budget, 30 facilities and 1,800 employees serving 11,400 students. She has worked as a teacher, an administrator with the Michigan Department of Education, as a consultant and with private business enterprises.

YOU HAVE MANAGED TO ADVANCE THE LANSING SCHOOL DISTRICT’S AGENDA IN WAYS THAT ELUDED YOUR PREDECESSORS. HOW DID YOU SUCCEED IN THIS?

One of the reasons might be that I was in the district for 27 years, so I’m part of that Lansing School District family. People knew me already and where I stood on things. Being an insider that came from the outside develops the confidence that people need to believe in the directions that I plot.

The second reason is that we made some really bold decisions right at the beginning. We saved the three high schools which took that off the debate agenda and got to the business of educating kids instead of worrying about whether we were going to close a school or not.

IN THE PAST “BOLD” HASN’T PLAYED ALL THAT WELL IN THE LANSING SCHOOL DISTRICT. WHY WAS YOUR OUTCOME DIFFERENT?

If I look at my trajectory in leadership positions, 99 percent of the time I’ve been in jobs that play to my leadership style – putting order to chaos. I’m not really energized by maintenance. I prefer putting order to things that are spinning out of control.

Also, the district was in a holding pattern. It didn’t have a lot of pride points and there were lots of pain points, most of them as basic as, “somebody just make a decision” about school closings or about instructional curriculum.

The other thing is, I retired twice already, once in 2001 and again in 2007. I think there is a certain amount of confidence and fearlessness that goes with not having to create a career for yourself. The fact that I didn’t need to do this job, that I wasn’t dependent on being the superintendent to build my resume gives you courage to go ahead and make some tough decisions.

YOU NAVIGATED THE POLITICS PRETTY WELL. WHAT ABOUT THE CLASSROOM?

One of the hallmarks of my career journey is a focus on the instruction vision. That might have been what was truly lacking in Lansing. We were tribal, each deciding on their own what they wanted to do. The research is pretty clear on a district turnaround. To succeed, you’ve got to have some central nexus of coherence about where you want to go. It’s really important for us to focus on our process. How are we doing in the classroom? How much time are we spending in whole group instruction versus small group instruction.

YOUR BACKGROUND AS A SUPERINTENDENT IS PRETTY ECLECTIC, WHICH SEEMS TO HELP YOU. DO YOU THINK IT DOES?

I had the good fortune of working in a variety of other environments before coming back to Lansing: The Department of Education, the corporate world and Michigan State University. And I’d been exposed to a wide variety of other ways of doing things.

WHAT ABOUT BUILDING A TEAM TO MAKE ALL OF THESE CHANGES?

Every organization goes through some sort of evolution in its development. There had been a dozen or so years of outsiders that kept bringing in outsiders. Few people from the inside felt that they were of any worth. It was absolutely essential that insiders became part of the management team. Because I’d been here, I knew who I had, their level of political capital, intellectual capital and trust. That’s how I put the team together.

The next piece for us is to bring in some people who have some fresh ideas, who can communicate with the group and who I know already and trust.

HOW DO YOU FIND AND RETAIN THE RIGHT TALENT IN AN INDUSTRY THAT IS ESSENTIALLY DECLINING?

It’s a question that superintendents throughout the state struggle with.
Recruiting talent is one of the challenges, but retaining talent in a financial market that certainly doesn’t pay professionals for what they are worth is extremely difficult. And it’s getting boards to understand the market value of a deputy superintendent or a superintendent as CEOs of a major corporation. Think about the companies that are $150 million businesses with 2,000 employees? People look at it and say “Yeah, but you’re an educator.” It’s hard to convince those who hold the purse strings that talented educators are worth more than what they think they are.

When we first started this Lansing transformation, I sent around 27 names to the board for non-renewals of current administrators. We were restructuring and we needed to clean house. I got almost no internal applicants for administrative jobs. The atmosphere was uncertain. Here we are four years later and we’ve got a couple of positions that were open for principals and we have pages of applicants. People now perceive the district to be more stable financially, academically and culturally.

DOES IT ALSO HELP THAT YOU ARE TAKING INNOVATIVE STEPS IN A CULTURE THAT ISN’T ALWAYS INNOVATIVE?

We are really trying to put ourselves out there and it doesn’t hurt to have that wonderful Promise Scholarship event, to have the partnership with Ervin [Magic Johnson] and his foundation. You have to get your house in order before people want to come and be with you. That’s number one.

Number two, when I look for talent – I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to – I look for sanity. How much baggage are you bringing? How much work do I have to do to get you to be an adult? You went to school, you got your degree, and you’ve got your certificate. Now what’s your EQ? I look for that balance between EQ and IQ.

AS SUPERINTENDENT, YOU ARE SURROUNDED BY CONSTITUENCIES: THE BOARD, EMPLOYEES, TEACHERS, STUDENTS AND TAXPAYERS. HOW DO YOU BALANCE THESE INTERESTS?

You have voices on all sides and there is also that other voice, the one that’s on the inside.

I have a voice on the inside that is my moral compass, and though it’s a cliché, it’s about the kids. We are here for students. I feel I’m connected to what benefits our students. And our teacher voices mean an awful lot to me. Having been one I know how tough it is to be in our classrooms six or seven hours a day.

As for the board. They’re my bosses. But they have a lane and I have a lane. The struggle is to make sure that we’re both mindful of each other’s lanes.

YOU’VE BEEN LUCKY AND ACQUIRED A BETTER BOARD THAN SAY, SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS AGO. SOME OF THE CRAZINESS HAS SORT OF DISSIPATED.

You’re right about the board. They are great. We’ve had a couple of rough months during the first four years, but the majority of them have been extremely supportive of the direction and extremely supportive of me and where I believe we need to go. We have a good personal and working relationship; I bake cakes for them on their birthdays. But in the end we are all just delivering pizzas. You know, nobody is all that important. We’re just trying to do the work that we’re here to do. I take my ideas seriously, but I don’t want to take me seriously.

This conversation with Yvonne Caamal Canul has been edited for space and clarity.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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