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Mary Elizabeth Davis from Henry County Schools Named Superintendent of the Year
Seven years ago, when Georgia’s Henry County Schools was in search of a new superintendent, school board member Pam Nutt witnessed a display of kindness at a science conference that, she says, perfectly captures the character of Mary Elizabeth Davis. Davis, who at the time was the chief academic officer of the nearby Cobb County School District, was seen helping another staff member cross the campus in the rain, holding the umbrella for them. This act of thoughtfulness demonstrated Davis’ class and character.
Henry County Schools, under Davis’ leadership, has achieved remarkable success over the past six years. The district, composed of 52 schools and 43,000 students, has seen an 11-point improvement in state accountability measures. All of the previously “F” rated schools have been removed from the governor’s failing schools list. Despite the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including disruptions to learning, the district has witnessed continued growth in student performance, with an 8% increase in Algebra I performance and improved reading proficiency.
This impressive progress can be attributed not only to Davis’ engagement of all levels of the school community but also to the groundwork laid by the school board. Working together, Davis and the board have created a stable foundation for excellence in teaching and learning.
Improving school board dynamics and collaboration
Henry County, located on the southeastern side of Atlanta, experienced rapid demographic changes, with the county shifting from being predominantly red to blue. The Black and brown population also saw a significant increase, with student demographics now at 63% Black and 12% Hispanic. This demographic transformation led to high-energy and emotionally charged school board meetings.
Prior to Davis’ arrival, the board was dysfunctional, with members representing different parts of the county often presenting conflicting directions and perspectives. Davis recognized the need for a stable foundation and worked to establish clear roles and responsibilities for board members. This involved going through the district’s policies and procedures manual, updating outdated practices, and assessing the effectiveness of each school in the district.
Davis emphasized the importance of effective governance and engaged the board members in aligning the district’s policies and budgeting priorities around three key questions:
- What do teachers teach?
- What do kids learn?
- What resources are available to support teachers and families?
Engaging all stakeholders
The success of Henry County Schools under Davis’ leadership can be attributed to the active involvement of all members of the school community. To achieve this, Davis has established advisory groups for students, parents, teachers, principals, and assistant principals. She is known for her transparency and consistently seeks feedback from all stakeholders.
According to Kesha Jones, principal of Eagle’s Landing High School, Davis creates a space for feedback and reflection and actively reaches out to all groups. The district culture has shifted from one where decisions were imposed from the top without considering the opinions of others, to one where input and feedback are valued.
Furthermore, Davis makes herself available and approachable to parents, staff, and students. Nutt describes her as an energetic leader who maintains a positive attitude and consistently fosters connections with all members of the school community. Davis believes that public education is crucial for strengthening and stabilizing communities, and her dedication and engagement have fostered a level of trust among stakeholders.
“She’s a little ray of sunshine,” says Glennis Grimwood, a parent in the district. “We love the fact that she is very receptive to feedback. She always seeks to understand. She’s a listener — you can always tell that she’s taking in everything that the person is saying. She’s very intentional.”
Overall, Davis’ commitment and positive approach have contributed to the success of Henry County Schools. Her focus on effective governance and engagement with all stakeholders has transformed the district and created an environment where excellence in teaching and learning can flourish.