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Award-Winning Norfolk, Va., District Faces Leadership Turnover

Norfolk, Va., honored six years ago as one of the best urban school districts in the country, is struggling to graduate students on time and to meet state accreditation standards. Last week, Richard Bentley, who took over the superintendent's job for the 31,000-student district 16 months ago, was dismissed.

This year, 10 of Norfolk's 45 schools did not meet state accreditation, which is based on statewide tests called the Standards of Learning. According to the state records, only 68 percent of the district's high school students receive a standard or advanced studies diploma in four years. Bentley, whose resignation was accepted Nov 14, will receive a contract buyout of about $236,000. (See my recent story on superintendent buyout packages here.)

The school board chairman, Kirk T. Houston Sr., and interim superintendent Michael Spencer—formerly the associate superintendent for operations—said in a district-sponsored video that Norfolk will start a superintendent search soon and hopes to have a new leader in place by July. Houston acknowledged that the community has a right to be anxious about the dismissal of a superintendent in the middle of a school year.

"We recognize the extraordinary nature of this transition and the untimeliness," he said. "The school board is passionately, and urgently committed to providing solid stable leadership through this transition."

Norfolk was nominated three years in a row for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, and won the coveted honor in 2005. At that time, the district was lauded for its improved test scores and instructional program. The district was also profiled in Heather Zavadsky's book Bringing School Reform to Scale: Five Award-Winning Urban Districts. Zavadsky recently wrote a commentary for Education Week about the role of philanthropies in spurring school reform.

But John O. Simpson, the superintendent of the district during those years, left the school system in 2004. After a stint with the Stupski Foundation, which works on education initiatives around the country, he is now superintendent-in-residence for The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems in Los Angeles, which trains school leaders.

Simpson was succeeded by Stephen Jones, but under his tenure the school system faced a budget shortfall and a cheating scandal when an investigation determined students were shown answers to a state test on an overhead projector. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper broke the story when it received a leaked copy of the investigation. Jones retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Bentley.

A few weeks after this year's Broad Prize was awarded to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district, I wrote an article that focused on the relatively small number of urban districts that become finalists. Norfolk's current problems could be an illustration of why so few districts are able to meet the standards of the Broad prize: sustained improvement is fragile.

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