In 2002, Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman made the jump from associate superintendent to superintendent at Richmond Public Schools (RPS), after working as a principal and teacher at various school districts along the way. With experience teaching all age groups, she wanted to move into a larger leadership role to expand her sphere of influence.
“When you are a classroom teacher you have an impact on those students that are in front of you,” explains Dr. Jewell-Sherman. “But you don’t dictate what happens in the school or necessarily have that degree of impact.”
Even at the young age of four years old, Dr. Jewell-Sherman says she knew she wanted to be an educator and even considers her earliest mentors to be her pre-school teachers. To begin making a difference in students’ lives, she earned her undergraduate degree from New York University as a native New Yorker. Determined to understand how to change a system so school districts could demonstrate excellence, she earned her masters and doctorate degrees from the Harvard School of Education and took part in the program that was designed to prepare mid-career professionals for superintendence. Interestingly, Dr. Jewell-Sherman now serves as the first and only woman professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Hired in 1995 as an associate superintendent of RPS, she shared responsibility for instruction, curriculum, professional development for principals, and the building of impressive educational leaders. Her primary focus for the first year was also community engagement and partnerships. Her goal was to help the district improve exponentially by collaborating with communities of faith, business partners, and entrepreneurs. At the time, RPS was outperforming only one other school district in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
A few years later, Dr. Jewell-Sherman was observing Richmond Community High School and spoke with the principal of the first school to lead the state accreditation standards, Ms. Audrey Swan. She inquired with Principal Swan about what she had done to accomplish such high academic standards. In addition to all the strategies she shared, one that she highly touted was the use of University Instructors (UI). Acknowledging Principal Swan’s recommendation, she spoke with the President of UI, Jim Popp, to glean insight into how the model operated, and emphasized that she needed a partner and not just a product.
“Mr. Popp agreed that he would hold himself and his organization responsible in the way that I was holding myself and my organization responsible,” she states. “That’s what we did and it was far more than just a business transaction. It was almost a covenant.”
RPS became UI’s first district partner in 1998. Four years later, at the beginning of her first year as superintendent, Dr. Jewell-Sherman confided in her staff that there were many underestimating the administration and the students. With a David & Goliath mentality, achieving at high levels was their overall mission, and she put her emphasis on the schools that had just missed the mark. Nevertheless, the district increased its number of accredited schools from five to twenty-three schools in her first year as superintendent. The UI partnership became a key element in strategic redesign and implementation of teaching and learning.
“The relationship represented a true partnership,” says Dr. Jewell-Sherman. “Jim worked to ensure the best instructors were available and cared about the proper curriculum.” When she left superintendency in 2008 to return to her alma mater, RPS had grown from 5% to 94% of schools meeting state accreditation requirements. With UI’s assistance, the district exceeded the state average on No Child Left Behind benchmarks.
“I am always grateful that Audrey Swan told me about Jim Popp and that he was placed in my path,” she states. “It was a partnership made in heaven. UI and Jim Popp were pivotal players in our ability to move RPS from a very poorly performing district to one that enabled me to be named Virginia Superintendent of the Year in 2009.”
She continues to say her biggest accomplishment was helping RPS believe in itself and its capacity to ensure excellence and equity for the students.
Jim and Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s relationship remains strong. Jim has presented to her Harvard students in the Doctorate of Education Leadership Program and recently partnered with them for a class project. Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s classes consist of doctorate students who are trying to become CEO’s of businesses, superintendents of schools, etc. She has 25 students every year and they do pro bono work with real companies.
(Pictured Left to Right: Mr. Jim Popp, Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman, and UI Vice President, Tamu Thomas Walker)
With five doctorate students to a group, Jim and UI partnered with one team called the “Transformers.” He collaborated with the team, treated them like professionals, took their suggestions and ran with them, and additionally suggested ideas of his own.
“He set a bar for collaboration and success that my students will use as the benchmark for choosing business partners when they are leading school districts, foundations and other networks in the education sector,” she notes.
Last year was Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s twelfth year at Harvard. Many of her students have learned from Jim what it means to be an entrepreneur and open new businesses. She expresses that it has been a wonderful opportunity to introduce him to her classes because they see a leader that is in business with a noble purpose. She claims every one of her classes knows the story of UI, Jim Popp, and the difference they were able to make together.
“Under his leadership and continued support, Jim was a partner who joined me in the crucial work of enriching students’ learning and success. He was a believer in RPS and recognized that his work was making a difference.”