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Tending to Her Successors

by FRANCESCA DUFFY

“We is more powerful than I,” states Joyce Levey. It’s an insightful summation of how important she considers leadership succession as superintendent of the Tuscaloosa, Ala., City School District.

To build and sustain leadership in the 10,300-student district, Levey has created a series of professional development programs, the Administrative Academy for principals and central-office staff, the Administrative Leadership Academy for assistant principals, and the Aspiring Administrators Leadership Academy for teachers with administrative credentials. It’s her pronounced desire to someday leave the school system “in a better place than where [I] found it.”

Joyce LeveyJoyce Levey



Levey started the succession leadership programs about four years ago to support the systemic changes relating to better-prepared teachers. The superintendent told district employees that while credentials would not be offered for participation, participants would be entitled to interview for leadership positions as they became available.

Several new districtwide practices have emerged. Principals conduct classroom walk-throughs frequently to monitor student engagement and teacher perform-ance. System leaders have also collaboratively implemented best practices that are nonnegotiable for the school district.

Margaret O’Neal, an assistant superintendent, says the meetings led by Levey give her a chance to stay aware of what good teaching looks like. “She reads profusely, and so she’s very in tune with the latest research, and she shares that with us,” says O’Neal.

O’Neal also points to the mentoring and coaching she has received from Levey. “She’ll actually walk the walk with you, and it’s subtle because you don’t realize she’s been helping you until you’ve made it to where you are,” O’Neal says. “It’s because she’s been with you the whole time.”

Zachary Barnes, who moved up from a principalship in Tuscaloosa to director of graduation success and dropout prevention, believes he has grown professionally under Levey’s tutelage. She created his current post to deal comprehensively with the steady decline in the graduation rate over recent years. He still participates in the district’s administrative academy but now sees the meetings through a different lens, observing younger principals learning to be effective instructional leaders and building managers.

“[Levey’s] given me the opportunity to lead and direct, which has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me and the students,” Barnes says.

The superintendent, he adds, works in a highly systemic manner, not leaving it to chance her employees will eventually rise into new roles. “In other situations, you may get lucky and move up just because someone high up likes you,” says Barnes. “But the leaders in our district are trained from their inclination to go into leadership, until they actually assume leadership.”

Levey’s focus on cultivating key decision makers stems from her own major career jump from a support position in a physician’s office for 17 years to teaching high school biology before setting on an administrative path.

Her speedy climb to the superintendency — just 13 years after she became a teacher — contributed to her desire to prepare aspiring leaders around her. After serving as principal in Tuscaloosa for two years, Levey became the district’s director of testing in 2002. The next year, she was appointed assistant superintendent, then served briefly as interim superintendent and finally assumed the superintendency, all pretty much within one year. “Luckily, I had great peers to support me. It’s a wonderful community,” she says.

Levey, one of four finalists for the 2010 National Superintendent of the Year award, always looks toward the future. “If I hire someone as an assistant, I want them to be ready to be superintendent,” she says.

Francesca Duffy is senior editorial assistant of The School Administrator. E-mail: fduffy@aasa.org

BIO STATS: JOYCE LEVEY

Currently: superintendent, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Previously: assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Tuscaloosa

Age: 57

Greatest influence: I worked for 17 years in an ear, nose and throat clinic until the doctor I worked with had a heart condition that forced him to close his practice. I had a degree in science and math, so my sister, a special education teacher with so much passion for children and their needs, suggested I go into teaching. She thought I would love it.

Best professional day: The day we finalized school district input and took responsibility for systemic change. We ask the question, “Is this good for kids?”

Books at bedside: Teaching the Digital Generation: No More Cookie-Cutter High Schools by Frank S. Kelly, Ted McCain and Ian Jukes; Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organizations by Phillip C. Schlechty; and District Leadership That Works by Robert J. Marzano and Timothy Waters.

Biggest Blooper: As a high school principal, I offered our school as a training site for police dogs. Because of my love for animals, I instinctively talked to the police dog, Jessica, and hugged her. When a bomb threat was phoned in (a false alarm), Jessica and I saw each other again and she ran to me, and I had open arms. We had to change police dogs, and I kept the relationship professional. No more hugs!

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA empowers educators through their library of resources to facilitate 21st-century skills in classrooms, data-driven professional development, and best practices through current and credible research.