ANWSD’s JoAn Canning takes job in Kuwait
VERGENNES — Addison Northwest School District Superintendent JoAn Canning said she had no plans to leave her post before a possible retirement in the next year or two.
But that was before Canning heard in January from a recruiter who had kept her résumé after an unsuccessful job application in 2010, just before she became the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent, the post she held for four years before coming to Vergennes in 2014.
The recruiter asked, Canning said, if she would be interested in becoming the superintendent of the Universal American School of Kuwait, in Kuwait City.
She was intrigued, as she had been while reading about the job in Ed Week back in 2010. She applied unsuccessfully for that opening, which turned out to be filled, and another one in Abu Dhabi, which she didn’t get. But the recruiter did not forget her and urged her to apply for the Kuwait job again.
“He said he was really struck by my résumé, but didn’t have an opening at the time,” Canning said. “So I said at least I’ll have interviews. I’ll learn a lot through that process.”
She made the first cut after a Skype interview, and then learned she was a finalist when she met with the school’s hiring committee in Boston in February.
The committee asked her to fly to Kuwait over February vacation to meet the ownership of the school and tour the city, and there she was offered a contract.
Canning, who described herself as single with “grown children and no cats or dogs,” said the offer was too good to pass up. She gave her notice, effective at the end of this school year, in a Feb. 22 letter to the ANWSD board.
As well as being an educational challenge, the job means traveling with students to events, including one this year in Switzerland; attending administrative conferences in the Middle East and Europe; and opportunities to explore the region during long weekends and holiday breaks.
“Things like this don’t come along very easily for anyone,” Canning said. “And what an opportunity to learn a new culture, learn about the people, learn about the history. And to travel, quite frankly, all over the world.”
She will also become the first female superintendent of the school, a fact Canning said was not lost on either her or the hiring committee.
Canning said the hiring committee told her they appreciated her “collaborative nature, my willingness to tackle tough and complex problems, my willingness to listen, my patience for change, my interest in people,” among other qualities.
“Women do have, in some cases, very different personalities and ways to tackle problems as well as opportunities. And they said they really feel a woman can fit in very nicely,” she said. “They said they really enjoyed listening to my background.”
Certainly, Canning said, she didn’t make the decision because of job dissatisfaction.
“It’s bittersweet. I do love it here, and I feel so proud of how far we’ve come and the changes that we’ve made. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve embraced the opportunities and certainly hope that I’ve made some connections with students and families and staff, and I’m going to miss everyone,” Canning said.
ANWSD Board Chairwoman Sue Rakowski said Canning, in turn, would be missed. Rakowski noted the district’s dire financial problems when Canning took over in 2014: She discovered a memo from the Agency of Education that threatened to withhold $1.1 million of funding for the district because of poor accounting practices, and an audit showed a $768,000 deficit at Vergennes Union High School.
According to the most recent audit, ANWSD was about $1.6 million into the black. Meanwhile, after three earlier unsuccessful attempts at unification, voters two years ago backed district consolidation under one board.
“She’s made a great positive impact on our district, especially in terms of finances and H.R. compliance,” Rakowski said. “She really turned those things around for our district. It was a place where we really needed to make some changes, and I think she really led us through that and did a great job.”
Rakowski praised Canning for budgeting that was sensitive to the needs of schools and taxpayers, for taking steps to ensure every ANWSD teacher has been evaluated in the past three years, and for looking out for the interests of all students.
“It’s obvious JoAn really cares about our district, the students, and she has tried very hard to make decisions based on equity and opportunity for the kids,” Rakowski said.
Rakowski also said the board values Canning’s willingness to meet with students and to show up at plays and concerts.
“She’s also made a concerted effort to be in the schools and be visible, and attend a lot of the events, and we’ve appreciated that,” Rakowski said.
Canning, who has an undergraduate degree and a doctorate from the University of Vermont and worked in special education in Vergennes between 1991 and 1994, said that part of the job was important to her.
“I’ve made it a point to try and get to know some of the students as much as I can, to be at their events, to be visible at the schools, to support my principals and to support the teachers indirectly,” she said.
Canning said she is optimistic the opening will draw good candidates, in part because of the area’s and its board members’ enthusiasm for its schools.
“I’ve never seen a group of such committed community members that want to see their schools be successful,” Canning said. “There’s just something about the culture here in the five towns that they really support their schools.”
The ANWSD board is also hopeful.
“I’d like to hope that we’re a place that people would look at and like to come work for us,” Rakowski said.
The board agreed on Monday to hire Vermont School Board Association consultant Bob Stevens to coordinate a search for Canning’s replacement.
The board also decided to establish an 11-member screening committee that will include two board members (Tom Borchert and Finn Yarbrough), a central office professional, a building administrator, two teachers, two support staff members, and three ANWSD residents, each from a different town and to be selected by lottery if necessary.
Those interested in serving should submit their names, phone numbers, and address to Rakowski by March 21 at [email protected].
Rakowski said she expects final candidates to be presented to the board at its May 14 meeting.
In the meantime, she said board members support Canning’s decision.
“I wish her the best. I think it’s a great opportunity for her. And why not try something new?” Rakowski said.
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