Leadership Lessons

Paula Dawning – Following her faith in students

Paula Dawning believes in divine providence.

When her phone goes to voicemail, callers hear a scripture reading. Once she learned friends and family called just to hear her selected verses, Paula began to switch up the messages weekly.

“I always want to point people in the direction of someone who really can help them,” said Paula, who has spent time as a Sunday school teacher. “And since that isn’t me, I think the verse does that.”

The verses come to her in prayer, while on an airplane or even in the middle of the night, as her Bible sits on her nightstand. Throughout her 40-year career as an executive, a K-12 superintendent, a college lecturer and a community volunteer, Paula has followed her faith to seek new opportunities, as well as move on from them.

“My faith is a critical aspect of who I am,” said Paula, who just left her home church after 53 years. “It was not an easy decision to make, but change is good. Change is good.”

When she felt restless as the vice president of sales for AT&T, she prayed about it. “The Lord gave me a verse that let me know it was okay to leave.” She finished up a special project and left the company after 23 years of managing large teams and even larger budgets.

More verses. More prayers. On the morning of September 11, 2001, her sister phoned her at home, relieved that Paula answered. Perennially in the air, Paula was in the middle of figuring out her next career move in the comfort of her Omaha home. She turned on the television to see the tragic events of 9/11. Afterward, she began to meditate and pray. A friend’s email that had previously bounced back several times finally popped up on her computer. “This is what I’m supposed to do. So I went ahead and replied to the inquiry.” Paula’s efforts led her to join the inaugural class of what was then known as the Broad Superintendent Academy in 2002.

Throughout the sessions, Paula kept thinking about the Bible verses in Isaiah. She was hired as superintendent of the Benton Harbor Area school district in southwest Michigan even before she finished the program. “It described a place I would go to. It said it would be a twin city. Well, Benton Harbor and St. Joe are twin cities.” A river would run through it, the verse said, like the St. Joseph River ran behind her neighbors’ homes. And the flowers would blossom in the desert. She took that to mean that the improvement in outcomes under her leadership would be blossoming flowers. “The verse also said it would be my way home. It was a half-hour from where I was born in Indiana. It was providential that I would be there.”

It was her time.

“The school district was looking for someone who would be able to make decisions and stand firm on those decisions,” Paula said. “They felt they had enough people with deep academic background that curriculum would not be challenged, and that was true.”

Paula was no stranger to the world of education, though. She earned a master of education in adult and college counseling from Boston University. Along with her bachelor’s degree in foreign languages from St. Mary’s College in Indiana and her M.B.A. from the University of Michigan, Paula used a lifetime of skills to lead the low-income district of 5,000 students.

She launched her tenure with a speech and a bag of seeds.

Once a manufacturing hub, corn fields and apple farms increasingly dotted the landscape of the Benton Harbor area. “These seeds are dormant,” Paula said to the schools’ leaders. “With the right mixture of teaching, and curriculum and support, they will turn into beautiful flowers.” These were seeds of hope, she said.

She chose to improve literacy as her first initiative. The downtown library was the only one in the city. Most of the elementary schools had no libraries. Paula and her team earned a $10,000 grant from the local Rotary club. She gave half of it to the city library, doubling their budget for adolescent books. With the other half, she created incentives for students who read the most books in their class. It became a citywide project.

“It turned out that the reading program was a good early success because it was all schools, all grades and it had to be led by your building principal,” Paula said. Gift certificates were provided to winning students and their teachers.

Demand increased at the city library. “If you want to get better at reading, then you have to read,” Paula said. By the following year, she got local businesses to sponsor the program. Reading proficiency doubled for elementary and middle school students.

“I knew one of the important things in leadership is to institutionalize the changes you’re making,” Paula said. “It’s kind of like the sponge theory: A sponge, once stretched, never goes back to that little thin thing you buy at the store. I thought that was important.”

The early win helped Paula and her team build trust and support. She called every principal in for one-on-one meetings to review their data and school improvement plans for supporting both struggling and achieving students. “I couldn’t believe the number that showed up with nothing — no plan, not a notebook, not a pen. I was like, ‘What has been going on here?’”

Those first meetings were short. If principals were unprepared, they were sent away to reschedule and prepare. “These children don’t have a long time. We have to make every day count,” Paula said. “Social promotion? We’re not going to do social promotion. Do you want to graduate students who are not going to be able to read and write?”

Ninety percent of Benton Harbor’s students qualified for free and reduced lunch. Paula said it was particularly important for the district’s educators to be respectful of parents who may be struggling. “Many of the parents in a high-poverty environment have not been successful in school, so school is not the place they’re most excited about,” Paula said.

Paula worked to move Benton Harbor Area schools to celebrate academic as well as athletic successes. She worked with community partners to offer tutoring and career pathways for students, which led to an investment from Whirlpool in the district’s middle school students and their parents. She also led efforts to pass a five-year, $1.3 million per-year tax levy for maintenance funds so the school district could fix aging facilities, replacing floors, roofs and lighting. It passed on its second try.

In 2006, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the Michigan Association of School Administrators. Within two more years, it was time to move on.

“The Lord brought me, and he took me away. One of those nights, he woke me up and said, ‘It’s time for you to go.’ I prayed and prayed. ‘No. Can I have two more years?’ A little voice said, ‘I told you to start this work. I did not tell you to finish it.’”

Paula retired to a small city north of Austin and devotes more time to her church and civic volunteer work, serving on several nonprofit boards and tending to her health. Every year Paula served in Benton Harbor, she also underwent various surgeries for health ailments related to rheumatoid arthritis. In 2011, Paula tripped and fell at Bible study. Doctors tended to her concussion, discovered an aneurism and operated immediately. “I came out with my mental capacity intact, no paralysis on any part of my body,” said Paula, who now refers to it as the best fall she ever had. In February, she underwent spinal fusion surgery.

The South Bend native understands challenges as the fifth of 16 children, 14 of whom are living. Paula’s mother left school at the age of nine to care for her own grandmother in her native state of Georgia. Her dreams of becoming a nurse never came to fruition. “That was the great sadness in her life,” Paula said. “It’s part of the motivation why she emphasized school so much for us.”

“I didn’t grow up wealthy. But I grew up in a home that emphasized education and persistence so when things did not go my way, I did not give up,” Paula said.

“The bottom line for me, when I did the work, was I was one of those children. When I looked in their faces, I could see myself. Their story was not different than mine. Someone extended a hand to me and may not have even known it,” Paula added. “What we all want is hope, opportunity — so that whatever gifts and seeds have been planted inside of us can grow to full maturity — and to contribute. I wanted to be someone who could give. If I could do anything, I would be a philanthropist, but I wasn’t blessed with tons of money. Since I can’t give money, I can give my skills. I can give my knowledge. I can give hope.”

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