An Authentic Model for the Next Generation


During the six years she led the public schools in Richmond, Va., Deborah Jewell-Sherman worked under a one-of-a-kind perform-ance contract, endured bizarre treatment from her city’s mayor and still pulled off some extraordinary gains on the student achievement front — exactly the range of highs and lows that are becoming the norm of life in the superintendency today.

That puts her in a perfect spot, unfortunately outside of the public school ranks, preparing leaders for the workplace extremes they too will face.

Deborah Jewell-ShermanDeborah Jewell-Sherman

Jewell-Sherman is plying her well-honed professional skills these days at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She runs the Urban Superintendents Program and is contributing to the launch this fall of the school’s first new degree in 74 years, a tuition-free Doctor of Education Leadership Program. The practice-based program will enroll 25 students per year, preparing them for senior leadership roles.

In the course of planning the rollout of the new degree, which involves faculty from the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, Jewell-Sherman has been able to apply a dose of reality to the high-minded discussions. She can do so by drawing on a lifetime of transformative work in public education, including the top post in Richmond and earlier administrative roles in Fairfax County and Hampton, Va.

At the start of her superintendency, Richmond was the second lowest-performing district in Virginia. By her departure, the 25,000-student system was one of the fastest improving urban districts in the nation with the school completion rate growing by 20 percentage points during her last two years. Schools fully accredited by the state shot up to 91 percent.

Jewell-Sherman, a native of the Bronx, faced plenty of pressure-filled moments along the way, starting with her contract signing as superintendent. The unusual pact presented by her board gave her one year to improve the academic standing of the schools or face termination with cause. At an emotionally charged convocation a few weeks later, she discovered the district-wide staff rallying behind her, galvanized to meet the targets expeditiously.

“These were the people I was banking my political capital on. I think they saw some people underestimating [us],” she says. “It was a David and Goliath struggle all year.”

During her tenure, unexpected challenges came from Mayor Doug Wilder, whose disagreements with district policy and spending spilled into a personal vendetta. At one point, the mayor had Jewell-Sherman locked out of her office in an attempt to force a transfer of funds into the city coffers. He was stopped by court order.
“She brought the system a long way at a high personal price,” says David Ballard, a former chair of the Richmond school board.

Adds Billy Cannaday Jr., who was state superintendent of public instruction during much of the time: “Sometimes people think schooling is about what adults do. She saw a bigger mission, that our success is wrapped up to the degree we help all children learn, not some of them.”

The double-digit percentage gains in academic growth during her first years as superintendent “silenced the critics [and] eliminated the excuses,” Cannaday says.

Since returning to Harvard, her alma mater, in August 2008, Jewell-Sherman has demonstrated at faculty gatherings her “personal authenticity,” according to Robert Schwartz, the academic dean at the education school. “She’s made people see what a powerful person she is,” he says. “Because she comes across as a sunny, upbeat cheerleader type, it would be easy to under-estimate her toughness and inner-strength.”

Back in Richmond, her legacy endures. A local foundation named an annual scholarship to honor the former superintendent. It will support a Richmond student committed to teaching as a career.

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:


professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

superintendent, Richmond, Va.

Age: 58

Greatest influence on your professional career: My mother, Jeanne Jewell-Bryan, who through hard work and resilience achieved what others thought impossible in her career with the New York City Department of Social Services. Above all, she prized education and supported my desire to be an educator from the time I was 4. She stressed that acquiring wisdom, demonstrating compassion and acting courageously would enable me to be a great teacher.

Best professional day: Two stand out. The first came at a convocation where I stood before more than 4,000 employees and told them why I had accepted my contract as superintendent in Richmond, which stated I had to demonstrate 100 percent improvement in student achievement in a year or be fired for cause. The second was when I learned Fairfield Elementary School, which served a community with some of the most challenging demographics in Virginia, achieved full accreditation based on achievement. I cried for joy.

Books at bedside: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell; The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; and Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School by Mica Pollock

Biggest blooper: If I could change one aspect of my superintendency, it would be to use the same laser-like focus in management that I used in the instructional arena.

A key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA continuously provided information and support that was empowering and sustaining during the good and difficult times.