American Association of School Administrators – Publications – Conference Daily – Beverly Hall’s Jamaican Roots Sprout Gloriously in Atlanta
The Conference Daily
Friday, February 20, 2009
Beverly Hall’s Jamaican Roots Sprout Gloriously in Atlanta
By Jay P. Goldman
A Jamaican immigrant who’s as comfortable hob-nobbing with the corporate elite in her city as she is visiting with families at their kitchen table in the low-income housing projects has been named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year.
Beverly L. Hall, 60, received the distinguished honor Feb. 20 in San Francisco at the American Association of School Administrators’ 141st National Conference on Education. The award is co-sponsored annually by ARAMARK Education, ING and AASA. Hall is the 22nd recipient.
In 10 years of leading the Atlanta Public Schools toward becoming arguably the nation’s model system of urban schooling today, Hall seems to have covered all the important corners. She’s cajoled executives from General Electric, Panasonic and the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, among others, to funnel more than $156 million into the initiatives she’s devised to turn around the city’s schools that serve 49,100 students. But she’s stayed grounded throughout.
A lifelong educator who was reluctant in her early career to accept a series of rapid promotions (she admits crying each time) in Brooklyn, N.Y., because it would mean breaking relationships with children she loved, Hall also tends to the grassroots. She created what her staff in Atlanta call “living room chats” to listen informally to concerns of families in their own homes in all quadrants of the city. And still the superintendent considers her most rewarding time to be spent with students.
Having served as a state-appointed superintendent in Newark, N.J., for four years and deputy chancellor in New York City Public Schools for a year before moving south, Hall is personally driven by the notion that every child, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, deserves the first-rate education she proudly relates about her own upbringing. That took shape in Jamaica in the West Indies, her place of birth, where she attended a private, all-girls school serving mostly students of color through high school graduation.
Calling it “the single most influential factor in my professional career,” Hall says she and her peers were held by their teachers to high expectations for achievement. In her senior year, with her father long deceased and her mother already emigrated to Brooklyn, she completed advanced coursework in botany, chemistry and zoology and passed exit exams administered by Oxford University in London, England.
“No one felt this was unusual and when I migrated to the U.S., I was exempt from all science requirements in my freshman year of college,” says Hall, who holds a doctorate from Fordham University and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brooklyn College. “That experience convinced me that all students, when they are taught well and where there are very high standards, will achieve at high levels.”
A Transformational Leader
Recent interviews with more than a dozen fellow educators, her school board president and civic leaders suggest Hall is well on her way to closing achievement gaps that may be unprecedented in an urban school system of Atlanta’s size. Her transformation plan for the district started at the primary grades; by last summer, every elementary school made adequate yearly performance under No Child Left Behind.
With all-deliberate-speed, the district now is tackling secondary schools. A model project, at Carver High School, which had been the cellar dweller of Atlanta’s secondary schools, was subdivided into four smaller theme-based schools leading to tighter student-staff relationships. Carver’s graduation rate was 23 percent in 2003, but is expected to clear 80 percent this spring. BusinessWeek magazine in January named another the best low-income high school in the state.
“Children in the housing projects are performing just as well as those living in homes worth 500,000 to millions of dollars,” says LaChandra Butler Burks, who chairs the Atlanta Board of Education, referring particularly to major strides in elementary education.
Hall has benefitted from a largely controversy-free relationship with her nine-member board, but even that has been driven by her special skills at engaging external forces to stand on the front line with her. She persuaded several outside groups, notably the Broad and Panasonic foundations, to fund high-calibre governance training in Atlanta. This has helped to attract to board service civic-minded types who fully appreciate the difference between policy development and day-to-day practices – though only one member has remained on the board throughout Hall’s 10 years.
The stability of a supportive board and community has given Hall the breathing space she needs, leading to the distinction of the longest-running tenure of an urban school superintendent in the country. (She’s tied with John Mackiel, superintendent in Omaha, Neb., who’s also about to finish his 10th year.)
Corporate donors have jockeyed for spots in the superintendent’s “kitchen cabinet,” buoyed by the chance to invest princely sums in systemwide reforms they believe will pay off handsomely because of Hall’s strategic devices and long-term commitment to the city.
“She speaks our language,” says John G. Rice, vice chairman of General Electric, which recently committed $22 million to accelerate progress in math and science, the biggest single gift ever received by the Atlanta Public Schools. “She understands investors have choices. She wants to deliver a return, in our language, and help us to understand the language of public education. … There’s not a corporate leader who doesn’t sing Bev’s praises.”
A Savvy Networker
Right from the start of her tenure, Hall smartly fashioned a working relationship with civic leaders in Atlanta, a city known for the strength of its networking connections, according to Penelope McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which has allocated $6.7 million for college readiness programs for Atlanta students in the last four years. “Connecting with the corporate community here is significantly important for a superintendent,” McPhee says. “If you’re with us, you can succeed. If you’re not, it’s an uphill climb.”
McPhee says she’s impressed by the way Hall adorns the walls of her conference room. They’re covered side to side with color-coded charts and graphs, documenting performance in five subject areas at every school, which Hall uses to monitor academics in real time rather than waiting until the end of a school year to make adjustments. She’s used the data on academic standing to change 89 percent of the city’s 93 principalships and closed 19 buildings since her arrival.
Business leaders like her authenticity, while Hall contends she’s not threatened by the heavy corporate hand in school district affairs. “When I came to Atlanta, someone said to me that the influential CEOs were, quote, tired of being lied to. … I was glad to tell the truth, so long as it wasn’t used to beat up the school system.”
Prior to Hall’s arrival, Atlanta had exhausted a series of five superintendents in 10 years. Ironically, one of those who held short appointments was J. Jerome Harris, who happened to be the centerpiece of Hall’s doctoral dissertation at Fordham. Her 175-page study, completed in 1990, was titled “Leadership, the Black Urban Superintendency, and School Reform in New York City.”
Harris was a respected superintendent in the 1980s of New York City’s admired Community School District 13, one of the first predominantly minority inner-city districts with above-average norms in student reading. In her case study, Hall wrote that Harris acted on the belief all children could learn and that as a black superintendent he inspired trust and served as a role model.
In the dissertation, she wrote: “Harris was neither controlled nor intimidated by external constituents. His relationship with his district staff and principals was demanding but, at the same time, collaborative and supportive. With parents, Harris maintained a cooperative relationship.”
When she was read that excerpt from two decades ago, Hall conceded the depiction probably could apply now to her, as well.
Quipped Harris, who had promoted Hall in quick succession through several school-based supervisory jobs early in her career in Brooklyn: “She may have learned from me what not to do. She’s a very different personality.”
Someday, a perceptive doctoral student in educational leadership will decide Hall’s masterful touch as Atlanta’s superintendent for a decade (or more) is worthy of formal study. When that happens, Hall almost surely will dwell on her own student experiences as an exemplar for what all students should receive.
Today, in spite of all the fund-raising successes and goodwill she racks up in corporate boardrooms, she contends her favorite moments are spent with the high-flying Atlanta students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who now are attending some of the nation’s most selective New England colleges, including Bowdoin, Middlebury and Amherst. (They are the first products of the 21st Century Atlanta Scholars Program that she started in 2005-06 to provide academic and social support.)
“They are driven by what I refer to as an ‘in-spite-of’ spirit to succeed above all else,” says Hall, who has two years left on her current contract.
That doctoral study that awaits in the offing might just want to make the same claim about her.
AASA press release on 2009 National Superintendent of the Year announcement
What Beverly Hall’s colleagues say about her
Mini-Sketch: Beverly Hall
Currently: superintendent, Atlanta, Ga.
Previously: superintendent, Newark, N.J.
Greatest influence on career: Being educated in Jamaica in the West Indies through high school. There were very high expectations for my peers and me to achieve at very high levels. I attended an all-girls’ high school where the majority of students were of color, and by my senior year, I was taking botany, chemistry and zoology at an advanced level. My high school exit exams were administered by Oxford University in London, England. No one felt that this was unusual and when I migrated to the U.S., I was exempt from all science requirements in my freshman year of college. That experience convinced me that all students, when they are taught well and where there are very high standards, will achieve at high levels.
Best professional day: My best professional day was when the first graduation class of the Satellite West Junior High School program in Brooklyn, NY crossed the stage with 88 out of 100 graduates having passed qualifying exams for some of New York City’s most prestigious high schools. That was my first administrative assignment, as an assistant principal in charge to develop the program from the ground up and the students were predominately minority students who, again, exceeded all expectations.
Books at bedside: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama and The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes.
Biggest blooper: When one member of my staff planned a team building exercise at our annual retreat for senior team members to engage in a game of miniature golf at the end of the work day, only to find out that it was actually 18 holes of regular night golf. Most of the team members were not golfers, I certainly wasn’t, and some had not reached their physical fitness goals. Needless to say, they were not very happy with this development. Luckily, the golf pro came to our rescue by providing carts, as well as “Golf Tutorial 101” for holes 3 through 18. To this day, the team has never let me forget it!
Why I’m an AASA member: I am an AASA member so that I can remain connected to other school administrators from across the country and receive information and research on promising educational programs policies and current issues.