Eleanor F. Smalley

Rising to the Challenge Beyond Expectations by Jay P. Goldman

With only 2,062 students in K-12, Clarke County Public Schools is dwarfed in size by Fairfax and Loudoun counties, its burgeoning neighbors in northern Virginia. But Clarke County's school system more than holds its own on the academic front, rapidly becoming one of the state's pacesetters and a model for others.

As superintendent for the last five years and assistant superintendent for five years previous, Eleanor Smalley is the dynamic force behind the district's guiding philosophy that reads: "All children will learn at high levels of achievement." Smalley sees to it that this high-minded ideal serves as the mandate and marching order for every decision made by board members and professional staff.

Smalley is a visionary leader with a dash of entrepreneur and someone who adheres faithfully to effective schools research and W. Edwards Deming's ideas on organizational management. "I think I've learned how to create a culture where all children are treated with respect," she says. "If you build a culture where everyone is focused on vision and it's owned by the people in the organization, then wondrous things begin to happen."

This year, more than half of the district's 153 high school seniors enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course, and nearly two-thirds of the 9th graders signed up for Honors English, a rigorous course that requires summer reading assignments and curriculum expectations that go well beyond the Virginia Standards of Learning.

By fall 2002, Smalley expects 100 percent of the juniors and seniors to be enrolled in at least one honors-level course. The International Baccalaureate program, which she started three years ago, is open to any student, including those in neighboring counties who can afford the $3,200 in non-resident tuition. (Six students came from outside this year.) When Smalley came to the district, only a couple of dozen students were taking AP courses.

Clarke County rates high on the Challenge Index, a measurement created by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post to gauge how well high schools nationwide push their students to take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Smalley has eliminated the lowest level of course offerings, meaning students must choose the general track or the honors route. On the elementary level, a pilot multi-aged classroom that she authorized seven years ago now has spread owing to parent demand to three schools, including one that operates solely with multi-age classes.

Smalley's unassuming but charismatic style generates unusual loyalty-to the extent that some teachers turn down offers to work in the better-paying neighboring school systems to stay with an organization where they can see their contributions are recognized and where even young teachers can share in the leadership.

The superintendent regularly attends school faculty meetings, which has the effect of keeping spirits high when the district may be enmeshed publicly in difficult negotiations over county funding. As veteran teacher Clark Hansbarger says: "I watched her turn a group of tired teachers back into a team. She has a gift for sharing her vision in such a way that people believe teaching any and every kid is absolutely possible."

He adds: "She has my loyalty if for no other reason than she has the integrity to stick to her ideals about education."

Others admire the way Smalley fights effectively for the needs of the education community. "When she presents to the county board, people stand up and support funding for public schools," says Alfred Butler, who directs the state's network of superintendents. "She's not a typical politician, but in a very quiet way, she knows how to get what's needed."

Smalley, a Virginia native, probably was destined for the superintendency. Her father, the late Frank Flora, was one of the state's best-known district superintendents in the 1960s and early '70s who later became executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and a professor at University of Virginia, where an endowed scholarship was created in his name four years ago. Smalley's brother, Bill, oversees elementary education in Loudoun County.

Though she claims she was too young to fully absorb the way her father conducted his affairs, Smalley clearly inherited the personal skills so essential to success in such a public forum today. Frank Barham, who directs the Virginia School Boards Association and was a colleague of her father, put it this way: "Her forte is an ability to conceptualize what is and what ought to be and set out to get it done."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:

Eleanor Smalley

superintendent, Clarke County Public Schools, Berryville, Va.

assistant superintendent, Clarke County, Va.


Greatest Influence on Career:
Frank E. Flora, my father.

Best Professional Day:
Listening to our middle school principal give his orientation speech. It was a powerful moment watching a vision that all children will learn at high expectations become part of someone's belief system.

Books at Bedside:
The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, Work as a Spiritual Practice by Lewis Richmond, On Caring by Milton Mayeroff and Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope by Jonathan Kozol

Biggest Blooper:
Referring to the Board of Supervisors appropriation as a "pittance" in the press.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
I find the association to be most informative and helpful with professional development.