As a superintendent, I face many responsibilities and challenges every day. I must balance the needs and expectations of the board, the community, the students, the parents, and the staff, and ensure that our schools are safe, clean, and conducive to learning. And I must deal with various issues and complaints that arise from time to time. With so many things on my plate, it is hard to concentrate on anything fully and delegate tasks effectively.


When I became the superintendent of Indiana’s South Bend Community Schools Corporation in 2019, I inherited a district facing multiple problems. I was expected to pass a referendum, comply with a consent decree, counter declining enrollment, improve graduation rates and literacy scores, and garner the support of the business community and the parents of our schools who expected improved academic outcomes. It was overwhelming and daunting; I needed guidance and direction to determine where to start to tackle these challenges.


My coach suggested that I stop trying to be all things to all people and focus on the most important thing that would make the biggest difference. He recommended that I read some articles and books that emphasized the importance of focus in achieving success. Some that inspired me were The One Thing by Gary Keller; Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown; and The Hoshin North Star Process by Matthew Cross. 


The Power of Focus: The common thread that ran through the articles and books was the importance of focus. Focus means having a clear vision of what you want to achieve and aligning your actions and decisions with that vision. Focus means saying no to the things that are not essential and saying yes to the things that are. Focus means being disciplined and consistent in pursuing your goals. 


The district had a new strategic plan, and all schools had school improvement plans. However, the plans were not focused on what the community expected us to deliver and lacked coherence; they were too broad and too vague. They did not reflect the reality and the needs of our schools and students. If implemented with fidelity and adequate funding, the improvement plans would not result in any significant improvement in our performance. As a renowned Harvard Business professor said, there was nothing strategic about our strategic or school improvement plans.


How We Implemented Focus: Utilizing components from the material I read, several of my direct reports and I developed a simple framework to guide a new approach to solving our problems by focusing on one key thing, getting it right, and then moving to the next. When introduced to our central office administrators, there was some resistance and skepticism. They were used to a compliance versus service culture. Some did not like the idea of giving up control and power. They did not see the value of focus. It took some time and effort to convince them and to overcome their objections.


We started the process in the spring of 2020 by asking our departments and schools to review survey results and lagging performance indicators to determine the areas most needing improvement. From that list, they were tasked with identifying their one most important metric. This was the metric that would guide their decisions and actions for the next year. The key was that the focus of each school was determined by the staff at the school level, not by the central office supervisors. We empowered the principals and the school breakthrough teams to choose their own focus and to design their own strategies and tactics to achieve it. We focused the school improvement plans on their singular most important metric. 


How Focus Changed My Practice: Asking the schools to identify and focus on the one thing that mattered most also motivated me to reflect on my own practice and prioritize how I spent my time. I realized that I had to model the behavior that I expected from others. I had to focus on the one thing that would make the biggest impact on our district. I had to stop doing the things that were not essential and start doing the things that were.


Personally, I moved away from behaving as if everything mattered equally. A coach can help you by acting as a thought partner to help focus the priorities. Instead, I became more narrowly focused on delivering on our district’s Value Proposition— ‘Together with our community, we create equitable, inclusive, and just schools to ensure all students achieve academic and personal success.’ That meant stopping spending time on any task or activity that, if done well, would have no or little impact on the effectiveness of our schools or our district. Instead, I harnessed the power of focusing on the most important thing that leads to success. That major change flew in the face of the conventional wisdom that superintendents must be involved in everything and must please everyone.


I also changed the way I organized my time and my calendar. I scheduled important community meetings quarterly and added monthly times to meet with principals and our academic team to focus on their North Star Metric. Our team worked to reduce the workload of principals and teachers to help them focus on what mattered most in their school—and asked them what they needed to give up and supported them. We slowly moved from a compliance to a service-driven central office staff. Student groups were not just reds, yellows, and greens—they were individual students assigned interventions, and we were able to monitor those interventions in real-time, adjusting monthly.


The Results of Focus: The results of focus have been remarkable. In just three years, we have seen significant improvements in our district. We have passed the referendum, complied with the consent decree, increased enrollment, improved graduation rates to an all-time district high, seen improvement in literacy scores, and gained the support of the business community and the parents for our schools.  One lesson we learned was that when you implement strategies and tactics to solve one problem at a time, there is an interesting carry-over. Other issues also get resolved. Once a school meets its North Star Metric, it maintains that accomplishment, it begins to identify another, and the process begins anew. 


Focus is not a magic bullet or a quick fix. It is a mindset and a practice that requires clarity, discipline, and consistency. It is not easy to implement or maintain. After all, principals, central staff, and superintendents are pulled in a lot of different directions every day. It requires courage and commitment. But it is worth it. Focus is creating breakthrough performance in our district, and it can do the same thing for yours, too.


C. Todd Cummings, Ph.D. ( is superintendent of Indiana’s South Bend Community School Corporation. 


Around NSBA

A group of high school students paint on canvases during an art class.

2023 Magna Awards Grand Prize Winners

School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.