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Public Gets First Look at School Superintendent Candidates

By Matt Sepic, KWMU

St. Louis, MO – Deborah Jewell-Sherman is superintendent of the Richmond, VA. public schools. She says maintaining a positive attitude about district-wide improvement is vital.

"The belief system that I hold and that I believe is necessary in order to make the kinds of changes in student achievement that need to take place here, is almost a religious belief that it can be done," Jewell-Sherman said. "If you don't believe that students can achieve at high level, the you are defeated at the start."

Paula Dawning has an extensive business background. She heads the Benton Harbor public schools in Michigan.

Dawning says running a large city school district often means having to make tough business decisions.

"Often when you come up in a district, you have relatives and deep relationships, and it's very, very hard to make the call when it's going to go against someone that you know and love," Dawning said. "You have to be able to do that, and the business discipline teaches you how to do that."

Former Pittsburgh superintendent John Thompson was the most colorful of the four candidates.

He acknowledged the rift between many in the community and the school board after the hiring of a private management firm nearly two years ago...and he chided the St. Louis schools for low levels of student achievement.

"Are we getting the best for $11,000 in this school district, with test scores the way they are now, with the graduation rate the way it is now, with the dropout rate the way it is now?" Thompson said, adding: "I don't think so!"

Creg Williams is the only candidate who does not have experience as a superintendent...but he has held a high-level position with the Philadelphia public schools since 2002.

Williams says students in St. Louis often change schools many times, and because of that it's important to maintain a consistent curriculum.

"As they transfer from school to school to school to school, does the curriculum align itself," Williams asked. "Is the curriculum consistent? Or when I go from School A to B to School C, will English 1 be the same, or will it be different? That's why we need structured curriculum."

The St. Louis school board will hold a final round of interviews with the candidates today.

A final decision could come as early as this afternoon.