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Retired Air Force Officer Faces New Challenges as School Superintendent

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After 31 years in the Air Force, Major General John C. Fryer Jr. was inspired to enter educational administration by the superintendent of Seattle public schools, a retired Army officer. Fryer's goal now is to lead the "finest school district in America." Included: Fryer talks about how his military training helps in running a school system.

Image John C. Fryer Jr., superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, began his career in public education in 1998, after serving more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. His Air Force assignments included combat, teaching, and serving at the Pentagon. In his current role, as leader of the 16th largest school district in the country, Fryer is charged with educating more than 127,000 students.

Education World: Why did decide to become an educator?

John Fryer Jr.: Actually, I was an educator in various Air Force assignments, beginning with my first tour as an instructor pilot and academic instructor and continuing through assignments as commandant of the National War College and interim president of the National Defense University. I also commanded the Center for Air Force Doctrine, Research and Education, where I supervised a senior officer educational curriculum, managed the research arm of the Air University, and directed the Air Force's wargaming center.

EW: What led you to K-12 education?

Fryer: My motivation to become a school superintendent came from my association with John Stanford, a retired U.S. Army major general who was superintendent of Seattle's school district. I lived south of Seattle and spent considerable time with John in his school system, meeting teachers and principals and assessing the "culture" of public education. I liked what I saw and believed I had an experience base that would enable me to be an effective superintendent. I saw an opportunity to do something noble in purpose, something that would give me the sense of commitment to a higher calling that led me to my 31-year career in the Air Force.

EW: What positions did you have before becoming the Duval Public Schools superintendent?

Fryer: My operational tours in the Air Force included 161 combat missions in Southeast Asia in the F-4 Phantom and command of a B-52 bomb squadron and an F-16 tactical fighter wing. Staff and senior assignments included two tours in the Pentagon ... [including] duty in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I served as a White House Fellow in 1972-73, along with now Secretary of State Colin Powell. Later, I was military adviser to the U.S. ambassador to NATO and, as I mentioned previously, head of the National War College and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

For three years following my Air Force career, I served as vice president and general manager of a public company and built its educational technologies division. I assisted a local school district in obtaining a technology grant and served on the district's executive committee for technology.

EW: How has your military background helped you as an educator?

Fryer: In a succession of command and staff assignments, along with professional development experiences and conventional post-graduate study, I gained many of the skills that I use each day as a school superintendent. The first skill is leadership; the art of guiding others toward the achievement of objectives. Management, of course, is the complement to leadership. I had similar opportunities to hone my management skills in the supervision of increasingly larger and more complex organizations.

My senior career included a number of assignments in which strategic thinking was a requisite for success. Those experiences were invaluable in helping me focus on what is important to the success of a large school district, in spite of the almost maddening distractions that can beset superintendents. My association with, and leadership of, diverse groups of people also has been a considerable asset in leading a large urban school district.

EW: What was the biggest challenge in making the transition from the military to public school life?

Fryer: A senior officer in the armed forces lives in a political environment, but the political interactions are well defined, reasonably civilized, and rarely personal. A superintendent of a large school district is a political figure, regardless of whether he or she is appointed or elected. The political crosscurrents are strong and continuous and when opponents attack, they often make it personal. To say that a superintendent must have a thick skin to succeed is probably a gross understatement. One must learn through suffering to survive in this environment. It is a skill that is difficult to teach.

EW: What are your goals as an educator?

Fryer: I want to lead the finest school district in America. That achievement has to be based on solid and sustained academic performance of all children in the district. Reaching that goal requires establishment of a curriculum that has rigor and coherence; alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; incorporation of internationally benchmarked performance standards that are understood by students and teachers; a system of professional development; and a culture of continuous learning throughout the district. That is a tall order and one that cannot be fulfilled overnight.

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