Deborah Jewell-Sherman's 17th floor office in downtown Richmond, Va., overlooks the state capitol. The high-rise is a fitting emblem for the steady performance increase of the city's 25,000 public school students-90 percent of whom are black and 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch-during her five-year tenure as superintendent.
Jewell-Sherman came to Richmond in 1995 as the associate superintendent for public engagement. She got her shot at the district's top job in 2002, but with a catch: She had to raise the number of schools meeting state accreditation benchmarks from 10 to 20 in her first year if she wanted to keep the post.
But the first-time superintendent did the school board three better, as 23 of the city's 51 schools (the district has since closed one) met Virginia's standards of Learning (SOL). Coming into the 2007-2008 academic year, more than 85 percent of all the district's schools had met the standard. Richmond's successes even prompted an invitation for Jewell-Sherman to testify in 2005 before a U.S. House Committee reviewing the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The walls of Jewell-Sherman's office are adorned with her doctoral diploma from the Harvard School of Education and pictures of triumphant moments from her superintendency. But she directs particular attention to a brown, lacquered box on her desk and five smooth stones inside it-a replica of the exact arsenal with which David defeated Goliath. She spoke with District Administration contributing writer Ron Schachter about her experiences as superintendent and goals for the district.
How do David and Goliath figure into the district's story?
The task we have before us is monumental, especially with the misconceptions about public education. It's a real fight for what is best for children and what is their birthright and what is integral to the success of our democracy. And it's an uphill fight, so I am emboldened when I remember that David slew Goliath with five smooth stones. I keep them on my desk to remind me that probability is not destiny.
I surround myself with positive things to keep me grounded. As a leader, you have to believe what no one else believes to inspire others to keep going.
How do Richmond's schools compare to other urban districts, in terms of problems and challenges?
We are a large school district-certainly ot as large as Philadelphia, Miami, or New York-but with every urban issue facing any other school district. In some neighborhoods students have to walk past dead bodies on their way to school. If there's a killing in their community at night, they come to school affected by that, and we have to call out crisis teams.
I think that one thing that sets us apart in many ways is that we have a "failure is not an option" attitude. We accept the brutal facts we have to deal with, but we've come up with numerous strategies to accelerate student learning in spite of those facts, and the results have been impressive. There are people who have criticized us because our per-pupil expenditure is above the state average, and my response is, "What is average about Richmond city? What is average about the students that we serve?"
Anyone looking at them can see that they have a lot of challenges that we try to balance to make the playing field fair. I look at our kids as starting way back behind the starting line, and yet at the end of the day, they are expected to reach the end with everyone else. If we're going to do that, then we have to provide them with all kinds of support.
How did the first-year requirement of 20 school accreditations make it into your contract?
It was a performance-based contract, which was certainly less common at the time. There are far more of those contracts now. I think there was great dissatisfaction here with the pace of improvement. There were some who believed that the job required somebody who could rapidly accelerate student achievement. They were saying, "You either get it done, or we'll get someone else." But they set out such a "stretch goal" that most people in the community said, "I wouldn't have signed that contract for anything."
I signed because I knew the work had to be done and I was the woman for the job, even though they didn't know I was the woman for the job. If the goal hadn't been that aggressive and it didn't look impossible-and we had only made modest improvement-people would have said, "Well, they're still just chugging along."
Another thing that was helpful to me was that I had been here long enough to know the teachers, and for teachers to know me. I said to them, "The reason I accepted the contract is that they're not only doubting I can do this, but they're doubting we can get the job done, and they're doubting our children. We have got to demonstrate what we know our young people are capable of doing."
What drew you to become superintendent?
You don't start out as a child wanting to be a superintendent. Not if you're smart! [Laughs] I had always known that I wanted to teach. Even in preschool I had phenomenal teachers, and I wanted to be like them. So my journey has led me from teaching very young children to highschool-age students to adults.
Becoming a principal enabled me to see that you really can make a tremendous difference in a community. But I also wanted to determine how you can change an entire district. It's not enough to have what I call "boutique schools," or individual schools of excellence. That's what led me to go to Harvard to understand the policy implications, the challenges administratively, the best practices educationally, and the political realities.
And how did you start making changes?
As the associate superintendent, I had been working on curriculum development-aligning our curriculum to the state standards-and increasing professional development. There were some foundational pieces, but they were not linked. We weren't acting strategically, and we weren't doing it systemically. When I came in, it became a systemic effort.
I also asked the Council of the Great City Schools to do a review. What we heard back was blistering. It was tough love. They told us that we shouldn't have multiple reading series, especially with our mobility rate in the city. They had recommendations on how to look at our data, what kind of reporting schedule would be optimal, and how to align our curriculum, especially towards literacy in reading and mathematics from prekindergarten through third grade. They recommended that we make a clearer articulation between elementary, middle and high schools, and that we don't just focus on SOLs but also look at SAT scores.
There were over 100 recommendations, and some people viewed it as, "Look how bad they are!" But you've got to be pretty darned good to say, "Tell me what I'm not doing perfectly." We could have just responded defensively.
So what steps did you take from there?
We became very, very disciplined and scientific in how we approached student learning. Everyone understood that our primary function was student achievement. No matter what area in the organization you worked, you still understood your primary role as either providing direct instruction or supporting those who do.
But most importantly, we weren't going to "teach, test and hope for the best" any longer. So we analyzed data down to the individual classroom and down to the individual student and worked with schools on identifying what students already knew. We were going to teach, and we were going to assess the outcomes when children weren't meeting targets.
We purchased a system where teachers could develop tests from an item bank, and the questions mirrored what students were going to face on the state assessments. So students got practice taking the tests, and the teachers were able to get almost immediate feedback on how a student learned. If an intervention was necessary, we could target that student then and there.
Why has standardizing the curriculum become so central to your school improvement plan?
It gives us a baseline of objectives for our students to meet. We have an instructional model, and we insist that it be used in every classroom, every day. We have a lesson plan for every objective that we are teaching and assessments that teachers can give immediately.
Central office teams are out in schools every single day. We have a process called "Charting the Course," whereby the school lays out all of its data-on achievement, student and staff attendance, and other school resources. The principal and teachers look to see where there areachievement gaps and then strategize how they are going to use their human and fiscal resources to address those needs. The Charting the Course document serves as the roadmap. It's voluminous and very concrete, and we've worked with the state, so this document suffices for any state or federal improvement plan. It is a bible.
In the past, like many urban school districts, we used to place students in Title I supplemental programs, and a child would start in September and was there until June. We stopped doing that. Instead, we target those services to the gaps we find. If five children in a class don't get something, that Title I teacher sits in the back of the room and remediates that skill deficit, because we have real-time data. And that group of kids can change depending on their difficulties.
We've also partnered with a group that hires college students and retirees, and we put them in classes as coaches. So if a child is struggling, there's a period during the day when he or she could be pulled aside and helped.
There are people who are saying that we're teaching the SOL test and that we've taken the creativity out of education. And to some degree the pendulum has swung really far in the direction of standards. Teaching is an art and a science, and I think in the years to come, we'll make sure we're addressing the developmental needs of students and the growth of students, as well as setting these rather high targets for our students to reach.
Not all your special programs are remedial. Why have you embraced the International Baccalaureate program?
It focuses on academics, on the humanities, on foreign languages. It's a broad curriculum that really provides a stellar and rigorous course of study for any student in high school. And it's not just for gifted students. It's for students with potential that are willing to work hard, and we think that attitude determines your altitude more often than just innate abilities.
The International Baccalaureate program is also something that parents gravitate to. And we saw in Richmond that when we placed it in one of our middle schools, parents who historically might not have chosen to stay in the public schools formed a waiting list. We are looking at starting another site.
We have other special programs that are stellar. We have an open high school-where kids take courses at our local community college-but I strongly believe that we can't just have models of excellence. I have to make this an excellent school district, so that if you choose the International Baccalaureate program, that's wonderful. But if you choose to go to your comprehensive high school, that has to be an excellent learning environment as well, and my goal is to have a university academy in there.
My vision would be to have a university academy of business and law at John Marshall High School, and there would be rigorous courses including algebra, algebra II, geometry, physics and foreign language. And there would be a pre-law class in freshman year, a law and ethics or everyday law class in sophomore year, and a business or tort law class in junior year. Seniors would have a capstone experience, when we could bring in attorneys from the John Marshall Society.
How have you involved the larger Richmond community so far?
We've partnered in rather dramatic ways with our communities of faith, not-forprofit and corporate sectors. An example is a program that started at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. It is a white, affluent Episcopal community that made a determination a number of years back that they wanted to make a serious difference.
There are retired CEOs who work as instructional assistants to make sure that the teacher can focus on the larger group while they tutor smaller groups. And with that many hands on deck, and a schoolbased volunteer coordinator which they help to pay for, it's aligned with not only what the students need socially but, more importantly, what they need academically.It's a phenomenal partnership.
What are some lessons you've learned?
You can never get too far out in front of your board. You have to communicate at all levels, share your successes and celebrate the results along the way.
How has your congressional testimony provided a larger platform for your ideas about school improvement?
In some ways it's a bully pulpit, but it's grounded in our success in Richmond. We're moving from good to great. We are not great, but if we hadn't demonstrated some of the forward steps, I wouldn't say, "This work is worthy. This work must be done. And we can do it."
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer.