Va. District Leader Meets High-Stakes Goals

By Jeff Archer — December 03, 2003 4 min read
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When Deborah Jewell-Sherman signed her contract as the superintendent of the Richmond, Va., public schools last year, it seemed to some observers as though she had just written herself a pink slip.

Under the unusual terms of the deal, she faced the possibility of being fired if she failed to bring about a dramatic increase in the number of schools achieving the highest rating in the state accountability system. And the contract gave her just one year to do so.

“I think there were those who felt there was no way in the world I would meet it, and that they would terminate me with cause,” Ms. Jewell-Sherman recalled recently, adding that colleagues in other districts advised her not to sign the agreement.

As it turns out, what seemed like a risky proposition has given a big shot in the arm to the long-struggling, 25,000-student district in Virginia’s capital city. State test results released last month showed that 23 of Richmond’s 55 schools met Virginia’s standards for being considered “fully accredited"—more than double last year’s figure.

Even amid growing interest in “performance contracts” for superintendents, Ms. Jewell-Sherman’s agreement stands out. While some districts have tied administrators’ bonuses and job evaluations to student performance, national observers were hard-pressed to think of another school system where the superintendent’s job has hinged so explicitly on a specific set of improvement targets.

“I don’t think I would sign on to that kind of a situation,” said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. “There are so many things outside the direct control of a superintendent that don’t come into play. When you don’t have a hand on all the levers that make a difference, you sort of throw your future to the winds.”

No Uncertain Terms

Ms. Jewell-Sherman’s three-year contract called for three things to happen in her first year:

  • At least 20 of the city’s schools would achieve full accreditation, meaning that 70 percent or more of their students received passing scores on state assessments—a goal Ms. Jewell-Sherman exceeded by three schools. Last year, 10 Richmond schools were fully accredited.

  • No more than 12 of the district’s schools would be “accredited with warning,” a state designation that requires poorly performing schools to draft improvement plans. The number actually dropped to nine this fall, down from 23 last year.

  • And at least 70 percent of 3rd graders in 16 elementary schools that had been low-performing would pass the state’s reading test. Although detailed breakdowns by grade level aren’t yet available, preliminary data suggest the district likely hit that mark as well.

Larry Olanrewaju, the chairman of the Richmond school board, said the superintendent would not have been automatically fired if she had fallen short of the goals. The agreement merely gave the board that option.

“It was meant to be something that sent a clear message to her, and to everyone else, that we cannot accept the way things used to be,” Mr. Olanrewaju said. “We wanted progress.”

Ms. Jewell-Sherman, 52, had her own reasons for signing the contract. The board hired her in July 2002 on a 5-3 vote, with one member absent. Although she had served as the district’s associate superintendent for instruction, and as its acting chief, she had never been a superintendent in her own right. Some board members openly questioned whether she was up to the task.

Hoping to prove herself to the board, she also wanted to signal her own confidence in the schools’ ability to improve. Richmond has grappled with high turnover among district leaders in recent years. Violent crime in the city is on the rise, and more than six in 10 students live in poverty. Two years ago, fewer than 10 percent of its schools were fully accredited.

“I felt that we had all been sold short,” Ms. Jewell-Sherman said. “There was not a belief in the system that it could do the job.”

To change that outlook, she’s put in place a strategy called “Charting the Course.” Principals now complete detailed profiles showing where their schools stand in test scores, discipline rates, student and teacher attendance, and community involvement. With the help of experts from the central office, schools then assess and reassess their strengths and weaknesses, adjusting instruction throughout the year.

Rosa S. Atkins, the district’s director of instruction, contends the approach has created a new mind-set in the schools. Educators, she says, now talk less about how students’ family backgrounds affect their performance, and more about how they can improve student learning. It’s a lesson she hopes isn’t lost amid all the attention around the superintendent’s contract.

“I think it’s important that we not focus on ‘We proved them wrong,’ ” Ms. Atkins said. “I think it’s important that we focus on the fact that we have always had the ability to achieve, and now we have found the keys to that success.”

Won Over

While Ms. Jewell-Sherman’s contract remains novel in its specificity, performance clauses are becoming more common. Twenty-nine percent of respondents to a recent Public Agenda poll of schools chiefs said student test scores figured into their reviews.

Now that Richmond’s superintendent has met the objectives spelled out for her first year, Mr. Olanrewaju said he expects the school board to draft a new set of improvement goals with which to judge her.

“Whatever happens, we cannot afford to regress from here on,” he said.

In the meantime, the superintendent has won over some of those who had questioned her leadership. School board Vice Chairman Stephen B. Johnson, who clashed with the superintendent repeatedly, said he now believes she’s the right person for the job.

“I’ve learned that you can’t always judge someone based on first impressions,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’m going to have better relations with her now that I see she can do what needs to be done to turn the system around.”

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