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Joseph Peel

Dirty Hands But a Sterling Record by JAY GOLDMAN

Joe Peel has acquired a reputation as a hands-on school leader. Still, architect Jim Rains was stunned to discover the superintendent after a long day in his work clothes, vacuuming, sweeping, and hauling debris from the site of a renovated school scheduled to open the next day.

Peel, superintendent of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Schools in North Carolina, says it was only logical for him to lend a hand to his district’s maintenance staff to ensure the rebuilt elementary school was safe and clean for teachers and students. Inclement weather last summer had caused the construction delays.

Rains, who has worked on school architectural projects for 12 years, remains wide-eyed about the gesture, saying the school system is "lucky to have a leader who is not only wise but who leads by example."

Peel has headed the 6,200-student district in the state’s northeastern corner since 1992 following a four-year stint as an area superintendent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools. His can-do spirit and entrepreneurial attitude toward school reform have sparked dramatic improvement in student outcomes wherever he’s worked.

In Elizabeth City-Pasquotank, students in grades 3-8 last spring posted the district’s highest increase ever in the number performing at or above grade level in reading and math. Test scores exceeded state goals in the two subjects in every grade level but one, and 9 of 10 schools qualified for exemplary status under the state’s recognition program. The dropout rate fell to 2.15 percent. The statewide average is 3.43 percent.

The gains were somewhat remarkable in light of the district’s racial diversity and its ranking in the bottom quarter in the state on wealth measures. The performance clearly exceeded the expectations of the state education agency, but not the superintendent’s. "This wasn’t something that happened overnight," he says.

Too often, Peel notes, school boards and community members have unrealistic expectations for an immediate turnaround when a new superintendent takes over a school district. Significant change in "3-4 years would be real fast. Sometimes it’s going to be 5-6 depending on the situation you’re in. It has to be a team effort, with the board a very important part of the team. The superintendent can’t do it alone," he says.

Under Peel, reform in Elizabeth City-Pasquotank began with new accountability measures that hold schools responsible for student performance and central-office personnel responsible for supporting site-based efforts. "We’re trying to get people to understand it’s a team effort, as in football, where the backs can’t run very far if the line doesn’t block," he says.

Decision making has been opened to teachers, who now regularly have final say on staff development and technology issues at the site level. At one school, staff members opted to give up a teaching position to bring more technology into the building.

Former school board chair Marion Harris Jr. credits the superintendent for sharing decisions in meaningful ways. "He feels the closer to the action, the better. He doesn’t need to make all the decisions."

Peel encourages calculated risk taking and aggressively pursues external grants. During his tenure, the district has received more than $2.1 million in competitive funds in support of such wide-ranging ventures as outcome-based education, wellness centers, and technology applications in middle schools. Most recently, the North Carolina School of Science and Math picked Elizabeth City-Pasquotank as one of seven cybercampus sites, a commitment of nearly $600,000 over the next five years.

Such bold leadership was recognized last year with the Governor’s Most Entrepreneurial Award. It marked the first time a school district had received the award but not Peel’s latest honor in the line of duty. In December, he was picked by the North Carolina School Boards Association as superintendent of the year. He also recently was appointed to AASA’s Suburban Schools Advisory Committee.

As a principal in Charlotte-Mecklenburg for the most of the 1980s, Peel was a state finalist for principal of the year and he was principal of Harding High School when the Ford Foundation selected it as one of the top 50 urban secondary schools in the nation.

Harris, who left the school board in December after 12 years, says while others in Elizabeth City-Pasquotank also should receive credit for the recent improvements, the superintendent deserves every accolade coming his way. "I for one say he’s been instrumental ... in knowing what will work."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org