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Broad Alumni Spotlight: Mary Elizabeth Davis (TBA 2014-16)

We sat down with Mary Elizabeth to hear her perspectives on leadership, incorporating student voice into key decision-making, and the work she’s most excited about in her new role.

MED headshot

What is your current organization and role?

I currently serve as Superintendent and CEO for Cherokee County School District in Georgia. The district serves approximately 42,000 students across 40 schools. I’m fairly new to the role – currently on day 41! Previously, I served as superintendent in Henry County Schools in McDonough, Georgia for almost seven years.

How do you think about leading your team to achieve exceptional outcomes for all of the students and communities your district serves?

I start by focusing on the culture of the governance structure – in Georgia, those are publicly elected boards of education. I frequently say that a high performing district begins with a high performing board of education. What’s more, a high performing board is clear about their governance framework, they have articulated beliefs that are aligned to the superintendent’s performance evaluation, they are robust in their policy work that creates the conditions for all kids to succeed, and they have a strategic direction with clear goals. So I start with the responsibility to nurture strong governance that creates the conditions for success for every kid, in every classroom, in every corner of our community.

I also have the responsibility for building a horizontal team of leaders, the most senior members of the organization. The entire strength, stability, clarity and coordination of a school district is dependent on division heads realizing their first team is each other, along with the superintendent. And their number one job is to have organizational awareness and vision, so they are seeing beyond their specific, division-oriented work.

With tight coordination at the executive level that is aligned to that governance structure at the board level, we can get clarity of work, clarity of measures, clarity of results across the whole organization.

How have you involved students in the strategic work that you lead as superintendent?

I’ve involved students in a couple of ways. First, I’ve always had a student advisory board. In fact when I was in Henry County, I maintained the same student advisory board from when they were fifth grade members all the way through. You find deeper levels of insight because you’ve built this strong camaraderie with a singular group over time.

Second, I’ve built out both informal and formal insight-gathering environments in schools. For example, when there is an incident at a school, I’ve carved out time to be present in the school to listen to core voices and perspectives. I see those experiences and perspectives as symptoms of systems – that do or do not exist, or that are outdated or not working for everyone.

One example of this was that after a difficult incident, I met with a group of students numerous times to hear their perspectives. And what I heard were questions: why some students get picked for advanced courses and honors track, how you can figure out who the valedictorian will be in sixth grade. We coupled those student experiences with an external evaluation of transcripts – and it underscored their lived experiences. It revealed that students would start in a specific course sequence in 9th grade and never have an exit, even if they were ready to accelerate. We turned that same study districtwide K-12 and found a similar story. And that resulted in new policies in the organization – a new graduation policy, a new instructional time policy. The board members got involved to ensure that we had policies in place that worked to prepare all kids, but that was extrapolated from listening to student voices.

As a superintendent, what has been your approach to collaborate with and engage with your board?

I believe there are two types of superintendents: the superintendent who thinks the board just needs to trust her and let her do her job, and the superintendent who is nurturing the governance structure so that there’s sustainable long-lasting work that results.

In Cherokee County, I’m working with my board to establish norms and protocols about how we communicate with one another; I’m eager to engage with my board members in authentic and meaningful goal-setting and policymaking. Too few superintendents engage in focused, rich, robust work with their board of education in this manner.

What is some of the work you were most proud of in Henry County?

Of course, the changed outcomes for kids – but more importantly, I’m proud of that because the entire community felt their fingerprints were a part of those outcomes. Our board changed the way they worked, embracing governance responsibility, eventually being awarded governance team of the year. The community leaned in and gave us their perspectives, and they were valued and incorporated. The entire community joined our “Celebrate Learning Across Henry Day.” Everyone wore purple. All of the kids got bracelets. We had buttons that said Ask Me About 11 – the 11 point gains we achieved on the state accountability metric. We were celebrating together because everybody had a part, and did their part, and everyone felt a part of our success for kids.

What is one thing that excites you in your new role in Cherokee County?

I’m excited to prove what’s possible in public education. There’s incredible talent, and incredible effort that Cherokee County teachers and professionals are pouring into serving our students. Next, I want to look at our systems and see where we can get even better for even more students. I want to ensure that all students, including the nearly 30% of students who don’t speak English as their primary language, are accessing a successful outcome.

In the immediate term, I’m excited to listen. This is a unique moment for a community, where a leader comes in without any preconceived notions and is able to listen to all perspectives and perceptions equally, with no judgment. It can be difficult not to share your ideas, but I always coach new superintendents on this: don’t take away the gift of listening.