Her Jamaican Seeds Sprout Gloriously in Atlanta

by Jay P. Goldman

AJamaican immigrant as comfortable hobnobbing with the corporate elite as she is visiting families at their kitchen table in low-income housing projects, Beverly Hall has forged the Atlanta Public Schools into arguably the nation’s model system of urban schooling.

While she’s cajoled executives from General Electric and the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, among others, to funnel more than $156 million into initiatives to turn around schools serving 50,000 students, Hall has tended to the grassroots. She created what staff call “living room chats” where she visits with families in their homes to listen to their concerns.

And still the superintendent considers her most rewarding time to be spent with students. Early in her career in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was reluctant to accept a series of rapid promotions because they would mean breaking relationships with children she loved.

Hall is personally driven by the notion that every child deserves the first-rate education she proudly relates about her own upbringing. That took shape in Jamaica in the West Indies, her birthplace, where she attended a competitive all-girls school. She emigrated after graduation and later earned a doctorate at Fordham University.

Colleagues say Hall is on her way to closing achievement gaps that may be unprecedented in an urban system of Atlanta’s size. Her transformation started at the primary grades. By last summer, every elementary school made adequate yearly progress. With all deliberate speed, the district now is tackling secondary schools.

“Children in the housing projects are performing just as well as those living in homes worth $500,000 to millions of dollars,” says LaChandra Butler Burks, who chairs the Atlanta Board of Education.

Hall recently was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year, co-sponsored by ARAMARK Education, ING and AASA.

Hall has benefitted from a largely controversy-free relationship with her nine-member board, but even that has been driven by her special skills at engaging external forces. (She has the longest tenure among urban superintendents, tied at 10 years with John Mackiel of Omaha, Neb.)

Corporate donors have jockeyed for spots in the superintendent’s “kitchen cabinet,” buoyed by the chance to invest princely sums in systemwide reforms they believe will pay off handsomely because of Hall’s long-term commitment.

“She speaks our language,” says John G. Rice, vice chairman of General Electric, donor of $22 million. “She understands investors have choices. She wants to deliver a return, in our language, and help us to understand the language of public education.”

Business leaders like her authenticity, while Hall contends she’s not threatened by a heavy corporate hand. “When I came to Atlanta, someone said to me that the influential CEOs were, quote, tired of being lied to. … I was glad to tell the truth, so long as it wasn’t used to beat up the school system.”

Prior to Hall’s arrival, Atlanta exhausted five superintendents in a decade. Ironically, one was J. Jerome Harris, the centerpiece of Hall’s doctoral dissertation. Her 175-page study, completed in 1990, was titled “Leadership, the Black Urban Superintendency, and School Reform in New York City.”

Harris was a respected school district superintendent in the 1980s. Hall concluded that Harris acted on the belief all children could learn and as a black superintendent inspired trust and served as a role model. She wrote: “Harris was neither controlled nor intimidated by external constituents. His relationship with his district staff and principals was demanding but, at the same time, collaborative and supportive.”

When read that excerpt, Hall conceded the depiction probably could apply to her.

Someday, a perceptive doctoral student will decide Hall’s masterful touch as Atlanta’s superintendent is worthy of formal study. When that happens, Hall almost surely will dwell on her own student experiences as an exemplar for what all students should receive.

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


Currently: superintendent, Atlanta, Ga.

Previously: superintendent, Newark, N.J.

Age: 60

Greatest influence on career: Being educated in Jamaica in the West Indies through high school, there were high expectations for me to achieve at high levels. I attended an all-girls high school where the majority of students were students of color. My high school exit exams were administered by Oxford University in London.

BeverlyHall.jpgBeverly Hall

Best professional day:
When the first graduating class of the Satellite West Junior High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., crossed the stage with 88 out of 100 graduates having passed qualifying exams for some of New York City’s most prestigious high schools.

Books at bedside: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama and The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes

Biggest blooper: When a staff member planned a team-building exercise at our senior team retreat to play miniature golf at day’s end, only to find out it was actually 18 holes of regular night golf. Most of us were not golfers and were not happy with this surprise. Luckily, the golf pro offered “Golf Tutorial 101.”

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I can remain connected to other school administrators from across the country and receive information and research on promising educational programs and policies and current issues.