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Atlanta school superintendent pick preps for pandemic challenge

Lisa Herring, the current superintendent of Birmingham City School District, is the Atlanta school board’s sole finalist to be the next Atlanta Public Schools superintendent. Submitted photo.
Lisa Herring, the current superintendent of Birmingham City School District, is the Atlanta school board’s sole finalist to be the next Atlanta Public Schools superintendent. Submitted photo.

If hired as Atlanta Public Schools next superintendent, Lisa Herring will be thrust into a pandemic that has caused students to fall behind academically and gutted the district’s budget.

But then, she’s familiar with a crisis introduction.

Three years ago, a bomb threat disrupted her interview with the Birmingham, Alabama, school board for her first superintendent job. The meeting stopped. The building evacuated.

Herring returned to her seat and finished answering questions when it was deemed safe. That moment cemented Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin's view of her as a candid, authentic leader who can handle immense pressure.

"I saw a person keep her calm, keep her poise, show so much grace," said Woodfin, who served on the school board that hired her in 2017.

Those leadership skills are about to be tested again.

The Atlanta school board last month announced it had picked Herring from among 84 applicants seeking the superintendent post. The board is expected to vote to hire her during a virtual meeting at 5 p.m. Monday.

“I am incredibly sensitive to the fact that we are doing this during what is a pandemic globally,” she told a virtual town hall audience of dozens this week.

APS closed school buildings in mid-March in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Although the district switched to online learning, educators know students have fallen behind and some don’t have computers or internet access.

The difficulties are compounded by the economic downturn. District officials are bracing for cuts that could reduce the $865.5 million general fund budget by 6% for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

She has not proposed specific solutions to the academic and financial problems, saying it would be "irresponsible" to weigh in on budget details before she's officially hired. Meria Carstarphen, the district's superintendent since 2014, will remain in charge until her contract expires at the end of June.

Herring has pledged to listen, learn and address inequities amplified by the shutdown. She repeatedly notes the need for good communication and relationship building. Ask her questions for an hour, and her common refrain is: “I appreciate that question.”

During an online town hall this week, she leaned close to the camera as she spoke to parents and others interested in getting to know her.

“I’m almost trying to push into the computer because I know that there’s a distance between us that is bigger than all of us,” she said. “And it’s not the device, but it’s the pandemic.”

Georgia roots

Herring, 47, considers her move to Atlanta a homecoming.

She grew up 80 miles away in Macon, where she studied Latin for three years and served as a class leader at Southwest High School. Her principal wrote her a recommendation letter to Spelman College. Upon visiting, Herring knew that’s where she belonged.

While attending the historically black women’s college, she volunteered with the Warren Boys & Girls Club in Grant Park. She became the learning center director, helping children from low-income families. The experience made her think seriously about a career in education.

She graduated from Spelman in 1994 as an English major and spent a year teaching fourth grade and creative writing at a private school in Pittsburgh.

Herring then returned to Macon to work as a middle school teacher. She failed Georgia’s teacher certification test and continued on as a substitute teacher, according to documents obtained from the Bibb County School District through an open records request. Herring said she left the job after nearly a year because of a challenging pregnancy and then enrolled in graduate school at the University of South Carolina.

She currently holds certificates in school counseling and educational leadership, according to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

After working as a school counselor in DeKalb County, Herring rose through the ranks in districts throughout the south. She held leadership positions in DeKalb; Bibb County; Charleston, South Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky, before landing the top job in Birmingham.

The Alabama district is significantly smaller than APS. But her time there and elsewhere exposed her to a “wide range of issues that an urban district deals with that you simply don’t have in other places,” said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board.

She’ll need to rely on that experience to lead APS effectively.

“For her, the No. 1 thing that she’s going to have to do to transition is to build trust,” he said. “She’s got to be a clear communicator. She’s got to get into these communities.”

‘Rock star’

Officials and supporters in Birmingham said she excels at exactly that.

Woodfin, the Birmingham mayor and Morehouse College alumnus, calls Herring a “rock star” with a knack for connecting with people. He predicts she’ll get along with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whom he also calls a friend.

“I am more than confident knowing those two strong black women that they are going to work very well together,” he said.

APS has had a rocky relationship with the Bottoms' administration, clashing over the use of school property taxes to pay for a big development project. Herring said she's already spoken with the Atlanta mayor.

Herring is a "master at developing partnerships" with key city leaders, businesses, nonprofits and other groups, said Waymond Jackson, Ed Farm CEO. The Birmingham organization works with the school district and partners such as Apple — whose chief, Tim Cook, is from Alabama — to teach computer skills and provide teacher training.

“At the heart of who she is and what she does, she loves kids and she places children first,” he said.

When Herring formed a student advisory council three years ago, Micaiah Collins, now an 18-year-old high school senior, was quick to join. The group has provided a student perspective on issues such as gun violence, bullying and dress codes.

“A lot of times superintendents and administrators say ‘It’s for the students and for the kids.’ With Dr. Herring, I saw it through her actions,” Collins said. “We were actually her first priority and that was encouraging to me.”

The Atlanta school board has lauded her work to turn around Birmingham's low-performing schools and guide the district to full accreditation after being placed on probation.

The Birmingham board’s president, Daagye Hendricks, is quick to praise Herring’s skills though she noted some accomplishments — such as the accreditation effort — were years in the making.

The timing of her pending departure is difficult, especially because APS has yet to officially hire her.

“We were in shock,” Hendricks said. “It put us in a precarious situation.”

Herring said she became interested in the APS job before the pandemic hit, but she acknowledged that changing leadership now will require her to learn quickly.

Despite the severity of the current crisis, she’s “over-the-moon excited” about the possibility of coming to Atlanta.

“I’m optimistic, hopeful and passionate about this work,” she said.

About Lisa Herring

Age: 47

Hometown: Macon

Current job: Superintendent of Birmingham City School District in Alabama since 2017.

Key past jobs: Chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky; deputy superintendent of academics for the Charleston County School District in South Carolina; school counselor and assistant director of student support services in DeKalb County (Georgia) School District, middle school English teacher in Bibb County, Georgia.

Education: 1994 graduate of Spelman College, master’s degree from the University of South Carolina, doctorate from Georgia Southern University.

Children: One daughter, Imani, who is also a Spelman graduate.

By the numbers

Birmingham City School District

Enrollment: 22,700

Number of schools: 42

Employees: 2,700

Total budget: about $314 million

Atlanta Public Schools

Enrollment: 52,400

Number of schools: 87

Employees: more than 6,000

Total budget: $1.1 billion