SAM I am

District 186 employees toil at the beach

Nearly 30 Springfield School District 186 employees celebrated Groundhog Day Eve at a beachside resort on Marco Island in Florida.

They were among hundreds of educators from around the nation who flocked to the 13th Annual National SAMs Conference to listen to motivational speakers, consultants and book authors talk about leadership and management. Past conferences have included someone who spoke from a unicycle and presenters who gave talks entitled "Deepening Your Listening Skills," "How To Lead Like A Pirate!" and "I Hate Conflict!" This year, speeches included such names as "The Day I Went To Prison...Your School Culture Will Never Be The Same!"

There is a lot to learn, and so the conference began last Thursday, taking a dozen principals, two teachers, two literacy coaches, four central administrators (including Superintendent Jennifer Gill) and nine assistants and secretaries out of buildings while students studied. They returned on Sunday and stayed at a Marriott where the cheapest room I could find on the resort website costs $318 a night. The district projected $67,425 for its entourage, or $2,325 per person, including estimated $400 airfare. The money is coming from the federal government, as opposed to local taxes.

In addition to six hours of speeches and workshops and the like, the agenda, each day, included dinner and a dance with a live band, along with hosted bars lasting three hours. "We work hard, but we play just as hard," says Ken Williams, a former principal who became an author, speaker and consultant, on a promotional video posted by the National SAM Innovation Project, event organizer, that includes footage of attendees dancing, laughing, playing some sort of whack-a-mole electronic arcade game and wearing virtual reality hoods while engaging in activities uncertain.

Warm climes in winter are favored. Going back to 2012, the SAM conference has been in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Marco Island and Phoenix, with repeat trips to some places. Next year's confab will be at a resort in Tucson, Arizona, where a photo posted on the National SAM Innovation Project's website features a putting green with picturesque desert scenery in the background. Rooms start at $294 a night, according to the hotel's website.

The National SAM Innovation Project is a Kentucky-based nonprofit dedicated to maximizing the use of valuable time by teaching principals how to delegate duties so they can spend more time in classrooms overseeing teachers and crafting curriculum. SAM stands for "school administration manager," which means an administrative assistant, teacher, social worker or other employee assigned to handle stuff without interrupting principals. It involves tracking, in five-minute intervals, what a principal does for five days, then figuring out how to cut back on such things as parent meetings and paperwork on the theory that principals have better things to do. "First Responder" includes a trademark logo on NSIP literature.

I didn't know a SAM from a Sam until last week, when Aaron Graves, president of the teachers union, alerted me to the Marco Island conference. While the union has no position on whether SAMs are good, Graves isn't sold. "We've got all these programs, and where's the evidence to show they work?" he asks. "I don't see it. I guess my concern is, what are we getting back for our tax dollars?"

The SAM idea works. Ask the National SAM Innovation Project, which posts on its website a 2011 study by independent researchers that says so. According to the  independent study paid for by the Wallace Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the SAM concept, the longer folks participate, the better it gets. By the end of the third year, a principal assigned a SAM spends 55 fewer days each year on stuff outside classrooms, leaving more time to observe teachers and help them improve, according to the research. The National SAM Innovation Project charges districts $12,900 per year for the program.

The school district has been SAM'ing for a decade, says school board president Mike Zimmers, who considers it money well spent. Too often, he explains, principals get interrupted to do things that can be accomplished by others. "It's just been a valuable tool for keeping administrators on track for doing things they're doing and keeping them organized," he says. "This, like a lot of other things, is research-based."

Without being asked, district spokeswoman Bree Hankins emailed a defense of the conference when I asked her to confirm the cost and number of participants. "This conference helps participants grow and sharpen their focus on instructional leadership," Hankins wrote. "Attendees put in full days of learning each day of the conference and dedicate a weekend away from their families."

They, also, are spending two days away from students, who are, presumably, discouraged from missing school. Couldn't the conference be held in the summer, when offseason resort rates might be lower? Zimmers says that's out of the district's hands.

"If we could get SAMs to do that," he said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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