School & District Management

Historic First

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 20, 2006 2 min read
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Challenging the Status Quo

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Into the Fray

Position: Superintendent, Montgomery County, Ala., public schools, since December 2004

Previous job: Associate superintendent, Cumberland County, N.C., schools

Montgomery, Ala.: Carlinda Purcell, the first woman and first African-American to oversee the Montgomery County, Ala., school district, negotiated an agreement that will help build sorely needed new schools.
—Photos by Kevin Glackmeyer for Education Week

Montgomery, Ala.: Carlinda Purcell, the first woman and first African-American to oversee the Montgomery County, Ala., school district, negotiated an agreement that will help build sorely needed new schools.

Broad Superintendents Academy, 2004

Carlinda Purcell was the first woman and first African-American to be appointed schools superintendent in Montgomery County, Ala., an important historical and symbolic move in the once-segregated birthplace of the modern civil rights movement.

“Back home in North Carolina, this wouldn’t be a big deal,” Ms. Purcell said in a telephone interview. “But it has been a moment of celebration for many of the people in this city, and I have been in awe of people’s response. … [A]t the end of the day, though, I hope it’s all about leadership and what happens to our children.”

Ms. Purcell, 56, arrived in the Montgomery County district, which includes the city of Montgomery, after a unanimous school board vote to hire her. She had just finished the 10-month Broad Superintendents Academy program and won the job over Paul Hankins, a retired Air Force officer who was her Broad classmate and a Montgomery resident.

The job marks a return to the superintendency for Ms. Purcell. A former elementary and special education teacher, she was the superintendent for seven years in the rural, impoverished Warren County, N.C. district. From there, she moved on to serve as the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the 57,000-student Cumberland County district in Fayetteville, N.C.

One of her first major initiatives in the 33,000-student Montgomery County district—tackling the problem of aging, crumbling schools—involved a contact she made at the Broad Academy. At Ms. Purcell’s urging, the board hired William DeJong, who owns an educational-facilities planning company, to study the condition of the district’s buildings.

Learning that the district needed to spend $300 million to renovate, repair, and construct schools, Ms. Purcell last month negotiated a financing agreement under which the district, the city of Montgomery, the county government, and local businesses will pay for the first $100 milllion in projects. Four new schools will be built, and seven others will undergo major renovations.

“I’m told this is the first time that the entire community really rallied around its public schools,” she said.

But other pursuits have been more difficult. Her decision last year to hold all high school graduation ceremonies in the same location sparked ferocious opposition from the school board and the public, forcing Ms. Purcell to abandon the idea, which had been intended to save money.

Plans for raising student achievement have been stalled by disagreements with the board, although Ms. Purcell said the Broad Academy has helped relieve tensions with the board by bringing in consultants.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Historic First


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