RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — Richland 2 interim superintendent Debra “Debbie” Hamm spends her time these days talking about continuity, change and joy, but it is the continuity piece, leavened by a certain unleashed happiness, that has earned her standing ovations.
Hamm, who has spent nearly four decades with the Midlands’ largest school district, was named interim superintendent June 13 at a hastily assembled school board meeting, where members accepted the surprise resignation of Katie Brochu. Brochu’s sometimes rocky three-year tenure was marked by significant and often unwelcome change: unease about the future of the district’s magnet programs; administrative reassignments; a new professional development track; forced retirements of working retirees.
Now Hamm, who colleagues describe as smart, calm, deliberative and a believer in a team approach to problem-solving, must chart a course that both reassures and realigns a district that had seemed, to many, to have veered slightly off course.
“Certainly, she has an understanding of who we are and what we are and where we want to go,” school board member Susan Brill said last week. “Having been a key, important player in all of our progress, she really has a sense of Richland 2.”
So far, Hamm, 62, has struck the right notes, her colleagues say.
At a meeting of key leaders in the district shortly after her appointment, Hamm outlined her goals for this interim period. When she concluded, those gathered in the Richland 2 conference center stood in unison and erupted in enthusiastic applause.
It was an ovation that has reverberated around the district and beyond.
Monday night, Hamm detailed her priorities for the coming year to the seven-member school board, explaining a “four square” approach that focuses on learning, character, community and, yes, joy.
By joy, Hamm said she does not mean simply “smiley-face” contentment, but an enriched development of good will in working together and building on the past academic and professional success of the district. Some things, she said, the district has taken for granted, such as winning, for the 26th year in a row, the Association of School Business Officials Award for Excellence in Financial Reporting, an award for best business practices.
“We say ‘ho-hum, another year,’ but we need to savor that as joy,” she said. In an interview last week, Hamm, who began her career as a teacher in Sumter County, said she understands teachers view their profession as a true calling, and that sense of mission needs to be recognized as an integral part of enhanced academic progress.
“She has made it very clear that she wants to enhance the joy of teaching,” said Forest Lake Elementary principal Kappy Steck. “When there is great job satisfaction for teachers that is translated to success for students. And she has made that very clear in her very first meeting with administrators.”
Board chairman Bill Flemming said “sometimes it seems a little corny” to talk about joy, but he and other board members were more than enthusiastic in embracing Hamm’s initiatives and a restoration of what has been long touted as the “Richland 2 family.”
Board members Barbara Specter and Calvin “Chip” Jackson said they had been recipients of that renewed family feeling as they dealt with recent family deaths. Specter lost her 86-year-old mother last month and Jackson grieved the loss of an 84-year-old uncle, a patriarch of his family.
Hamm describes herself as a “data geek” and has distinguished herself as the go-to person when it comes to analysis of student academic performance. She guided the district’s technology program, including the 1-TWO-1 technology program which has placed computers in the hands of students.
Hamm said her immediate and most pressing focus will be instituting the Common Core standards, which aims to institute college and career standards across all the states in K-12. That includes implementation of the Smarter Balance standardized testing in 2014-15, which replaces the current PASS tests.
“That is really a huge change,” Hamm said last week. “Not only does it change what students are supposed to learn but it also has practices that need to be put into place: how kids learn and then there is an assessment piece that is different.”
Hamm believes the Common Core will also institute more rigorous critical thinking in education, and while there has been some political pushback from conservatives, “even the people who are critical of the political process or the politics in it, for the most part aren’t critical of the standards themselves,” she said.
“I think the standards are great, I really do,” she said. “They’ll challenge kids. they require some higher level thinking that I think is important. I like that there are performance tasks that assess what kids can do in addition to just multiple choice kinds of question.”
As the district deals with more poverty and transience among students, Hamm said she also wants to prepare teachers to assist the under-achieving student to make sure they perform well academically.
Hamm is also a believer in putting the “public” back in public schools. That is, preparing students not only for college and careers but also for taking their place in society.
“Let’s not forget the part that we play in creating citizens for this democracy we are proud to be a part of,” she said.
Hamm, who recently became a grandmother to twin girls (she now has four grandchildren), said she was stunned when Flemming asked if she would step into the role as interim superintendent, less than an hour before Brochu announced her resignation.
Flemming said board members discussed a few candidates but quickly settled on Hamm. “We just thought she had the right stuff for this particular situation,” he said.