Two years ago, Taryn Kay was appointed superintendent of the Grand County School District, which meant she took charge in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

Her first year as superintendent was spent navigating mask requirements and leading efforts to help students who had experienced learning loss get back on track after attending school online for the last few months of 2020.

Each day brought new challenges but Kay leaned on her nearly 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher, special education director and principal in the Grand County schools to guide her in the superintendency.

She clearly wanted the job, having applied for the superintendent’s position on two previous occasions.

“They hired men in both instances, both not from Moab. When I became superintendent, I actually got appointed,” she said.

A 2019 study by the national School Superintendents Association found that while 72% of K-12 educators were women, just 13% of school superintendents were women.

“I think it’s an interesting thing. I’ve always wondered about that myself when a huge percentage of teachers are women and a huge percentage of administrators are men,” Kay said.

In Utah, 14% of the state’s 41 public school districts are led by women. Kay is one of six of those superintendents, now starting her third year on the job.

Memorabilia hangs in the office of Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay in Moab on Friday, July 22, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson was appointed by the state school board in 2016 and is just the second woman to hold the top post in 55 years.

Numbers of women principals have increased in recent years but Utah lags behind national rates there, too. There is a much higher percentage of female principals in elementary schools than in middle and high schools.

Some of the highest percentages of women leaders in K-12 education in Utah are found in charter schools, in which just over 60% have female principals, and among Utah elementary school assistant superintendents, of which 71.4% are women, according to the report.

A new report by the Utah State University Utah Women & Leadership Project shows some upward trends, particularly in numbers of women leading public charter schools.

Susan Madsen, founding director of the leadership project and one of the study’s authors, said she hopes more women will fill leadership roles in K-12 education in the future.

“Having equal representation of men and women leaders in our schools is critical since both have diverse experience and skills that can complement each other,” Madsen said in a statement.

The report’s other authors, Hannah Payne and Kim Buesser, who are research associates for the Utah Women & Leadership Project, note that “Women in leadership offer more diverse pathways to better decision-making, and women in general are more committed to inclusiveness and cooperation in the workplace.”

Women’s presence in leadership positions provides female role models for staff and students, which research suggests may positively impact women’s leadership behaviors, the researchers wrote.

Kay said at different times in her career she was encouraged to seek leadership opportunities, which is something she urges women educators to do as well.

“I just let people know that they can do it and to not get discouraged if they don’t get something on the first go-round,” she said. Kay said it was her experience that interview committees tended to be more amenable to male candidates, which is also interesting considering elected local school board members in Utah are nearly evenly divided between men to women.

As the USU report, “The Status of Women Leaders in Utah Public Education (K–12): A 2022 Update” concludes, research shows “most people do not fully realize the value of having women in key leadership positions in educational institutions.”

The report notes extraordinary challenges that “continue to plague public institutions in Utah and the United States,” which include the long-term consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic, increased social unrest, gun violence, burnout among teachers and school staff and recent surges in depression and other mental health conditions among youths.

“Strong leaders with outstanding capabilities are needed more than ever,” the report states.

“To combat these challenges effectively, Utah must make timely progress with women’s leadership, especially in K–12 education,” according to the report.

Grand County is the only place in Utah with a school mask mandate. Here’s how, and why

Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said the career path of women educators typically takes them from classroom teacher, to assistant principal or principal and then perhaps a role in district administration.

“Unless you have a really good mentor, that’s just not something that you think about,” Cunningham said of women in a superintendency role. She herself has been a superintendent in Arizona and, most recently, the Salt Lake City School District.

“You just don’t have a lot of role models that look like you and I think representation matters.”

The six women who lead Utah school districts, with Gina Butters of Weber School District the most recent hire, are “phenomenal leaders,” Cunningham said. “They are respected within their districts. They’re respected by their peers. They’re doing just amazing things, as are all of our superintendents.”

The state superintendents association is a relatively small organization but the superintendents are collegial and help one another succeed, she said.

“They’re the only 41 people in the state who know how hard their jobs are,” Cunningham said.

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“When you’re new and a superintendent comes up and introduces themselves and says ‘You call me anytime,’ they mean it. You can call them anytime. And they will — they’ll do anything they can to help.”

Kay said she’s “felt really welcomed” by her male counterparts. “If I have a question, they’re quick to help or answer or guide me in a direction, and vice versa, right? If they call me, same thing goes,” she said.

Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay poses for a photo at the district’s offices in Moab on Friday, July 22, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Kay said she hopes the coming school year will be more education-centric and less about dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.

“For this coming year, I’m super hopeful that we can get back to focusing on the business of educating kids rather than becoming health care professionals, mask police and you know, all those crazy things that came with COVID. I hope they can take a backseat to what we really should be doing, and that’s focusing on kids.”

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