By Erich Wagner (File photo)
The number of parents who trekked to a community forum on the school district’s superintendent search Tuesday could be counted on one hand, but those who did show up stressed they wanted a leader committed to stability.
“With the abrupt departure of our previous superintendent, we need someone who is a peacemaker,” said Debbie Altenburg, whose child attends Mount Vernon Community School. “There are still some ruffled feathers.”
The forum at George Washington Middle School was one of three organized this week to get the community involved in selecting the successor to former Superintendent Morton Sherman at Alexandria City Public Schools. Sherman, a controversial figure within the community, abruptly retired just days before school began in September.
Although a few parents worried about a dearth of quality candidates given the timing of Sherman’s departure, Wayne Harris, a member of the search firm hired by the school system as well as a former superintendent for Fairfax County and Roanoke, said the timing is actually perfect.
“We’re at the primetime for this,” he said. “This is the time where sitting superintendents are looking at other opportunities, because they have to make the decision about whether to re-up with their boards.”
Residents agreed that the new superintendent would have to work hard to overcome a reputation that Alexandria students underperform compared with surrounding jurisdictions.
“It really hurts that one of our schools is one of the lowest performing in the state,” said Kristen Race, who has been a local teacher for 40 years, referring to Jefferson-Houston School. “A lot has been made of that.”
Parents insisted that they wanted an individual with a clear and consistent vision for Alexandria City Public Schools, not a maverick that would throw different approaches at a wall to improve student achievement. The slew of initiatives and programs implemented under Sherman often irked parents and teachers.
“The new superintendent would need to have a thoughtful idea of what she or he would like to do, not to go from ‘Let’s try this’ to ‘Let’s try this’ or ‘Let’s try this,’” said Heather Martin, whose children go to Mount Vernon Community School. “The plan can have some wiggle room for adjustment, but they would need to have some idea of what will be good for our unique population.”
Aside from establishing stability in the school system, she said the next superintendent must have demonstrated success in improving student achievement in a diverse community.
“They need experience in a system that has had large achievement gaps,” she said. “Between white students and minorities and with free- and reduced-lunch students, we have large gaps.”
Alexandria School Board vice chairman William Keating was disappointed in Tuesday’s turnout but remained hopeful that the search firm’s other forums, focus groups and discussions with stakeholders will produce a strong vision for the future.
“I thought there would be a lot more people,” he said. “[We] gave a lot of notice early over a lot of different channels. But people know who we are and they don’t hesitate to talk to us, so I’m already listening a lot.”
Race said that most importantly, after years of constant change in the classroom, she wants to see the school system move forward on an even course.
“We just had a change agent,” she said. “I think now we need someone to pull the system together.”