RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — Richland 2 superintendent Debbie Hamm is now fully in charge of the district, the “interim” title removed and her place at the head of the 26,000-student assured through June 2015 and perhaps beyond.
In the five months since she took over as interim superintendent, not a whole lot has surprised her, she said, and she plans to press ahead with her “Four Square” focus on learning, character, community and joy.
“I’ve taken on a bit of a longer-term perspective,” said Hamm, who has been with Richland 2 for more than three decades in a variety of top administrative positions.
She acknowledged that one of the larger challenges is ongoing implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and for Mathematics, which were adopted by South Carolina in July 2010.
In the three years since, there has been major pushback across the state and nationwide to standards Hamm views as not only more academically challenging but also more reflective of what education should be about in the 21st century.
Last week, about 100 parents held a protest at the state Department of Education and some families kept their children out of school. A Facebook page “Stop Common Core in South Carolina” has 2,104 likes as of Monday.
“It will take some complex thinking on the part of the students,” said Hamm, who believes the controversy will lose steam once families see Common Core in action.
Because Common Core will take students beyond memorization and “fill in the bubble” standardized tests, Hamm believes the curriculum that accompanies the standards will challenge students to be more deeply engaged.
She expects scores will not be pretty early on, an outcome anticipated by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who earlier this month became mired in controversy over an inflammatory statement on “white suburban mom” reaction to Common Core.
Duncan spoke to a group of school superintendents in Richmond, Va., and said he is fascinated by the origins of some Common Core opposition.
“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”
Hamm said the district has not heard from many parents upset with the new standards.
Hamm was endorsed by six of the seven school board members for the permanent position during a school board meeting Nov. 12. One member, Monica Elkins-Johnson voted no, saying she would have preferred initiating a national search for a new top leader.
Hamm was appointed interim superintendent in June after the abrupt resignation of Katie Brochu, an administrator who was viewed by critics to be dismantling the Richland 2 culture through a series of broad initiatives, including a new professional development track, administrative reassignments and layoffs of working retirees.
During her three year tenure, Brochu was involved in a bruising redistricting of high school students and was accused of tepid support for the district’s magnet programs.
Fred McDaniel, the district’s chief planning officer, said Hamm remains incredibly popular with district personnel, earning a standing ovation at a meeting of a key leaders shortly after she was named full-time superintendent.
Hamm said she will continue to focus on some of the district’s most pressing problems, including the issue of how best to educate transient students, who move in and out of the district or between schools because of family situations.
“What do we do to foster their success?” Hamm said. She said some families of transient students also may be dealing with issues of homelessness and teachers need to have concrete strategies to aid the children. She has implemented a task force to come up with concrete proposals to aid transient students.