Sitting in the large office on the central office building's second floor, Olwen Herron has comfortably settled in.
Although superintendent is a new title for her, Herron has been a leader in Williamsburg-James City County Schools for years.
Herron rose from within, she was deputy to the last superintendent, Steve Constantino, who resigned last summer. Then she served as interim chief during the search to replace him.
Born in Northern Ireland, Herron spent years teaching there before hopping on a plane bound for Tulsa, Okla., where she spent one year with the Fulbright teacher exchange program.
She's now settled in Williamsburg, and one month into her new role, the Gazette sat down with Herron Thursday to talk about where she plans to lead the division.
For you, what is the top issue in the classroom?
The biggest priority for me is to make sure that every single student is engaged in learning in the classroom, and that comes through our excellent teachers.
I guess I would like to consider myself a student achievement superintendent — the one that's most concerned about the success, the academic success of all students. It's particularly close to my heart because I've come through the instructional ranks. I taught for 18 years. I was a teacher of the year. I value the classroom first and foremost beyond everything because that's where we really make an impact on students and create an environment for their success.
So what does equity look like to you?
One of the images used to explain equity, it's like a rising tide lifts all boats.
For me, every student needs to get what they need. So if you have a student that's very high achieving, who has a lot of support at home, that's fabulous, but that student should be stretched even further to reach their full potential. Every single student should be stretched and be given the opportunities to achieve everything that they can possibly achieve. So really it's not just about groups of students who are underachieving, it's about all students.
What is your response to some of the things being said in Washington, D.C. — statements that could be particularly alarming to immigrant or transgender students?
A superintendent takes a very neutral stance when it comes to politics because you're serving the whole community, and I think we've got to see what actually emerges — there's a lot of rhetoric right now, and some of it's not very positive so I think we've got to see what actually emerges.
One of our strengths as an organization is our growing diversity and we serve a lot of students who weren't born here — I wasn't born here obviously, I'm an immigrant as well, so I appreciate diversity. It's one of the strengths of an organization. And our job is to give every student who walks through the door a quality education. We value them all equally.
We don't want any student discriminated against regardless of where they come from or any other reason for discrimination.
Redistricting is a balancing act between equity — usually in the racial and socio-economic makeup of the schools — and trying to balance that with keeping kids close to home. What do you think?
I think the first priority should be distance from the home to the school. It makes sense economically, it's efficient. Then ideally you would have a pattern of feeder schools that make sense, I think I've never known it to be done any other way. Geographic location should drive the conversation.
So how would you suggest increasing diversity within the schools?
I think there's diversity across our whole geographic area so there's always going to be some diversity in every school. I think geographically we will end up with more diverse schools than others, but I think then you look at the resources that you have and you allocate resources based on the needs of the students, so you still create an environment for success.
There's talk of reducing or getting rid of standardized tests. Where do you stand on that?
Internally, we're looking at the amount of testing we're doing to monitor students' progress and we're going to try to find a way to assess and monitor progress, but give time back to instruction. Within the big picture, I do think you need some form of standardized test, but I don't think that you need it to the extent that we have it. But you've got to have some way to compare yourself to others, so yes, I believe in accountability, but not testing to the extent that we have it.
From various sources and the climate survey, I've gotten the sense that morale within the division's employees hasn't been stellar over the last few years, how are you going to improve that?
I'm going to create focus groups to actually talk to people and dialogue and to talk about the future direction of W-JCC and ask about any current concerns they may have or things that we could do differently to make it a very positive place to be.
I think a lot depends on how you interact with people on a daily basis and whether you're approachable. I guess my parents always told me that you treat everyone with respect, it has nothing to do with their position, it has nothing to do with the role that they play, that everyone should be valued and respected and really appreciated for what they bring to work every day and to life every day and that's how I live, and that's who I am, I think what you see is what you get.
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.
Grew up in Kilkeel, Ireland with three sisters, one brother.
Her mother was a nurse, her father owned an Irish pub and restaurant.
Lives in Williamsburg with her Wire Fox Terrier named Petey.
Taught in Ireland for 13 years before coming to U.S. in early 1990s.
Taught and worked in administration at schools in Oklahoma, Virginia Beach and Texas before coming to W-JCC in 2012.