Modeling Service for Good Results


Valerie Truesdale defines the school district she leads in South Carolina as “one of deep contradictions.” It’s a district with thick pockets of poverty and more than 50 coastal islands (including Hilton Head) of considerable affluence, an area historically split along racial and socioeconomic lines where the gap in parental expectations plays out hugely in academic measures.

The contradictions extend to Truesdale’s life, as well. She didn’t intend to follow her mother into teaching during the five years she spent in management training with JC Penney and during the pursuit of an M.B.A. But the addition of two young children redirected her professional life toward education, where 25 years later her unsurpassed passion for improving learning outcomes for students has established her as one the finest instructional leaders in the superintendent ranks.

TruesdaleValerie Truesdale

As the superintendent of the 19,600-student Beaufort County School District since 2007 and the Oconee County, S.C., district for four years prior, Truesdale has modeled service above self, someone whom a superintendent colleague, Jim Ray, calls “the prototype of an engaged community leader.” She has thrown her all into the life of the classroom, providing teachers with tangible support, including laptops for all, accompanied by training. She is their ardent, frontline ally in nurturing every youngster’s learning.

In the district’s persistently underperforming schools, some of which carry the stigma of poverty rates exceeding 90 percent, Truesdale has applied a brand of problem solving that’s contagious among her staff. She introduced an accelerated learning model, extended the school year to 200 days, recruited a master teacher for each grade level and set an annual goal of 18 months of academic growth for each student.

“When I sit with her at a meeting, her brain is going a mile a minute,” says Colleen Wynn, a 1st-grade teacher for 26 years. “She doesn’t wait. She does.”
Wynn says it’s not uncommon for her and other teachers to trade e-mails with the superintendent over exciting instructional practices they’ve discovered at workshops and professional conferences.

Truesdale, honored as South Carolina superintendent of the year in 2009, regularly takes calculated risks that seem likely to pay off in better academics. She was among the first education leaders in the state to endorse a legislative proposal that turns around schools through wholesale personnel changes and asked the state superintendent of education to include one of Beaufort’s schools among the earliest pilots. She recently encouraged the League of Women Voters to conduct an aggressive voter registration drive among the school district’s teachers, staff and students.

Truesdale has guided the construction of a controversial new high school in Beaufort County that opens this fall for 420 students in the impoverished northern end of her 650-square-mile district. The Whale Branch Early College High School, the culmination of a 10-year battle that featured divisive racial politicking on the school board, will enable students to earn an associate’s college degree at their own school in such fields as design technology, early childhood education and electronics.

Of the new school’s emergence, the current school board chair, Fred Washington Jr., says: “It would have been politically savvy for her to say, ‘A lot of the community doesn’t agree (on building a high school), let’s scuttle it.’ She found a way to turn lemons into lemonade.”

In a school system with the motto “Where Learning Leads the Way,” Truesdale is demonstrating that personal modeling carries the biggest professional rewards.

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


Currently: superintendent, Beaufort County, S.C.

Previously: superintendent, Oconee County, S.C.

Age: 55

Greatest influence on career: I have been blessed with a myriad of terrific teachers who showed me how to stretch beyond what I thought was possible and dream beyond what seemed feasible.

Best professional day: Sometimes in the superintendent’s role, there are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days, usually when we deal with elected leaders on budgets. I recharge my batteries by going to a classroom to watch magic occurring for young children. Or I stop off at a high school for lunch with some teenagers. I love meeting with the teachers of the year from all the schools.

Books at bedside: Drive by Daniel Pink; The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner; Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson; Web Literacy for Educators by Alan November; and Leading For Equity: Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools by Stacey Childress et. al.

Biggest blooper: I traveled to another state to give a keynote address at a summer conference, and the airline lost my luggage with my speech and handouts. I had to rewrite it late at night and wear my denim traveling clothes and sneakers on stage the next morning — without benefit of cosmetics or a curling iron.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I glean a great deal from reading The School Administrator and other AASA publications. I share articles constantly. I love learning how other schools/districts manage the same challenges we face. A wise colleague told me when I was interviewing for the superintendent’s position that it was the loneliest job imaginable. AASA makes me feel less alone.