After less than two months on the job, Sean Maika already has made the North East Independent School District superintendent’s office his own, filling the shelves with personal belongings. A stuffed Mountie toy sits on a shelf next to other trinkets from Canada, Maika’s home country. Books fill a large section of shelves, and antlers and license plates from the year he was born are hung on the wall.
The personal items scattered throughout his office show more of the new superintendent’s personality than one would gather from a typical school board meeting, where for the past several years Maika has sat just off the dais as a member of the central office leadership team.
Up until now, he’s been a quiet and contemplative presence in district meetings, describing himself as a “strong observer” who likes to sit quietly and think before making an assumption or comment.
“I think there is so much that we can learn, and I believe wholeheartedly in listening to understand before I need to respond,” Maika said.
The new NEISD chief said district officials must listen now more than ever in order to respond to the district’s No. 1 challenge: competition from charter schools. In 2018-19, about 7,600 students zoned to attend NEISD schools enrolled elsewhere; most chose to attend IDEA Public Schools, Basis Texas, and Great Hearts Texas.
To address the growing array of educational choices families have, Maika told the Rivard Report that NEISD must do a better job of explaining what options NEISD can offer and showing parents the benefits of existing options. It isn’t about adding a menu of new programs, but about focusing on the ones that are already working well for district families, he said.
“Being relevant and being nimble in a competitive environment, not just for us but for most districts, is going to be something that we all have to take on,” Maika said.
Although he holds an interim title, the permanent job is likely to be his, and NEISD trustees can choose to make Maika’s title permanent in December.
A vision for NEISD’s future
Maika prioritizes recognizing individuals and using his abilities and resources to solve problems. This emphasis comes from his experience as an administrator at elementary and middle schools and at the central office level.
“I’ve never forgotten where I came from,” said Maika, who has spent close to a quarter-century working in education. “I never forgot what it is like to be a teacher. We are here to support the 68 schools in NEISD. Because that’s my background, I understand to some extent and can connect with our campuses and the people and the struggles that they deal with.”
After spending 11 years in the district, Maika thinks he has a good idea of the district’s current standing and where it needs to go.
While districts like South San, Edgewood, and San Antonio ISDs look to add more innovative programs or schools to keep competition at bay, Maika emphasizes that NEISD has well-established educational choices for students who don’t want to attend the neighborhood school.
With acclaimed programs like International School of the Americas and North East School of the Arts that opened years before many open-enrollment charter schools came to San Antonio, NEISD offers what Maika calls “the original school choice.” With the proliferation of charter schools, he wants to make sure families understand the options available within the district.
NEISD offers year-round elementary at Castle Hills Elementary, will open a pre-K academy at the former West Avenue Elementary campus this fall, and provides a range of magnet programs in areas including agriscience, design and technology, engineering, and aviation mechanics.
“We’ve done business a certain way for a long time, but [the question is] is it working?” Maika said. “Is it reaching the people in the manner that we need it to? We are in the business of dealing with people from 4 years old to 100 years old, and they all want their information in different ways.”
This is one of the priorities Maika plans to address in his new role.
It’s all about telling the story of NEISD, district spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor added. Programs like ISA and NESA have been around for many years, but sometimes district officials take it for granted that community members are aware of all the programs and initiatives, she said.
Maika, who has been described as more technologically savvy than his predecessor, wants to try new things to try to reach different audiences. Several weeks ago, he held a virtual town hall on Facebook Live, taking questions and comments from community members. He weighed in on clear backpacks, problems specific to individual campuses, and social-emotional learning, another priority area of his.
For Maika, another part of remaining competitive is ensuring his district hires and retains the best staff. The Texas Legislature’s new $11.6 billion school finance bill, which includes a requirement that districts use a portion of new funds toward compensation increases, may make that task easier.
However, at NEISD’s most recent budget workshop, Maika relied on his experience from close to two-and-a-half decades in education to caution trustees against spending all the additional revenue being sent to school districts as part of the legislation. Referencing previous instances in which the State has told districts to lower property tax rates and then failed to kick in additional revenue to sustain district operations, Maika urged trustees to pay close attention to the future sustainability of increased school funding.
Going forward, Maika said the district should be watchful for future state action to protect the interests of NEISD students.
“This job for me is not just professional, it is very personal,” Maika said. “I have kids in our schools, so when I am making these decisions, I’m making it in the best interest of the 65,000 students, but also my two. I want the best for all of them.”
A leader who ‘walks the walk’
Becoming a district superintendent was always Maika’s goal. The day he stepped through the doors of Lakeland Elementary in Lewisville ISD for his first day of teaching, he knew he would one day want to lead a district. He soon became an elementary assistant principal, and later a principal before moving to the middle school level.
Donna Newman, NEISD’s associate superintendent for instruction and campus administration, remembers Maika when he was an NEISD teacher in the early 2000s. Then the principal of El Dorado Elementary, Newman recalls an ambitious young educator, already eager to take on more responsibilities.
“He has always been just a natural-born leader and he likes to be able to influence what is happening with the kids,” Newman said. “He has very, very high expectations of himself and others and he is very collaborative.”
Recent NEISD graduate Megan Pursley said she witnessed first-hand Maika’s personal investment in students when she encountered bullying at Harris Middle School, where Maika was the principal.
When some students decided to copy the animated TV series South Park and have a “Kick a Ginger Day,” Maika got wind of the plan and stood in the hallway, making his presence known, so red-headed students like Pursley felt safe.
“He was fast on it and would not put up with anyone’s crap,” Pursley said. “He took immediate action, and he was always like that, just getting involved right away.”
Churchill High School Principal Todd Bloomer benefited from Maika’s hands-on approach to leadership. When Bloomer was starting his first year as principal at Bradley Middle School, he was matched with Maika for a mentorship.
The two forged a close bond that would impact Bloomer’s future with the district, Bloomer said. Describing Maika as a can-do leader with no task beneath him, Bloomer tells stories about Maika jumping in on problems without hesitation to find a solution.
On one occasion, Bloomer said Maika asked him who he couldn’t live without at Churchill. Bloomer immediately thought of his secretary, who makes sure he has lunch, arrives at appointments on time, and communicates with everyone who needs a response.
“He went back to his office and wrote a thank-you note to my secretary with all the things I said about her,” Bloomer said. “He really walks the walk.”