Profile

Making the Most of His Opportunities

by PAUL RIEDE

Marcus Newsome’s childhood was filled with lessons about educational opportunity. As his family moved from base to base to follow his father’s Army career, he bounced from school to school.

In upstate New York and in Germany, he was one of the few black children in his classes. In his native North Carolina, where his family returned after his father retired, the opposite was true. He attended all-black schools until his senior year of high school, when forced integration sent him and his classmates to an all-white school.

Marcus NewsomeMarcus Newsome



Newsome, now superintendent of the 59,000-student Chesterfield County school system in central Virginia, says his experiences taught him a lot about people — “that there were wonderful people of all races and not-so-nice people of all races.” But they also taught him about opportunity.

“We talk about achievement gaps,” he says, “but I’m also concerned with opportunity gaps.”

He has been seeking new ways to fill those gaps for most of his career. When he arrived in largely suburban Chesterfield County in 2006 after three years as superintendent in Newport News, Va., only 5 percent of the district’s low-income students were taking algebra prior to high school. Now more than 80 percent are enrolled, and test scores are rising.

In the elementary schools, he has introduced Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and other languages to begin preparing children for a global society. For high school students with increasingly complicated lives, he has pushed online courses, which can be taken on a flexible schedule.

Newsome says the notion that schools must adapt in a changing world really sank in when he watched videos taken by 10 students assigned to make documentaries about their lives. “It was a real eye-opener. Almost every student worked. A few kids worked the midnight shift. There were one or two students who had children.”

To meet the needs of such students, he is working to establish a 21st Century Academy. The new high school, which he hopes to phase in over the next few years, will enable students to take any class required for graduation online. It also will offer evening technical classes, courses with dual community college enrollment and internships with local businesses.

Newsome has embraced the latest personal technology as well. He says Chesterfield County has more friends on Facebook than any other school district in Virginia.

But the superintendent, an elder in his church who has taught religious education for two decades, also puts a premium on getting to know kids the old-fashioned way. He has challenged all administrators to mentor students, and he and 10 other men in the central office go once a month to an alternative middle school and spend a few hours with the boys there.

Like almost every other school leader in the country, he has had to put some plans on hold while dealing with the perilous economy. Stella Edwards, president of the Chesterfield County Council of PTAs, says he has faced the crisis in his typical collaborative style, holding public engagement work sessions to hear ideas from all stakeholders.

School board Chairman David Wyman says Newsome has grown in the process, impressively guiding the district through a difficult time without compromising the focus on continuous improvement. “Leadership isn’t tested until you’ve had the kind of year we’ve had,” Wyman says.

The district has cut 10 percent of its workforce over the last two years and reduced salaries across the board. While teachers’ salaries were cut 2 percent and central administrators took a 3 percent cut, Newsome slashed his own pay by 7 percent.

“I knew this was going to be painful,” he says. “I would not ask the workforce to endure sacrifices without making a sacrifice myself.”

That symbolic act was important, Edwards says: “I don’t know if I was his spouse I would be too happy with him, but it was very significant.”

Paul Riede is a staff writer at the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com

BIO STATS: MARCUS NEWSOME

Currently: superintendent, Chesterfield County, Va.

Previously: superintendent, Newport News, Va.

Age: 57

Greatest influence: My eldest brother, Edward Newsome Jr., a career educator and central-office administrator in Montgomery County, Md. We have endless conversations about education.

Best professional day: The day I handed a high school diploma to a student who had won a Gates Millennium Scholarship (all expenses paid to college of his choice through doctorate). This student had been homeless for his four years of high school.

Books at bedside: Bible; Hope for the Autism Spectrum: A Mother and Son Journey of Insight and Biomedical Intervention by Sally Kirk; Y-Size Your Business: How Gen Y Employees Can Save You Money and Grow Your Business by Jason Dorsey; and Resilient Leadership for Turbulent Times by Jerry Patterson, George Goens and Diane Reed

Biggest blooper: I let our office secretaries talk me into wearing a hula skirt at a dinner celebration. But it was the coconut bra that sent everyone over the top.

Why I’m an AASA member: I appreciate the manner in which AASA advocates for educators and children alike and synthesizes news and research that provides me with timely and helpful information. AASA also offers a platform for collaboration and networking with other superintendents and educators throughout the country.