After 45 years of service to the students of Jefferson County, first as a teacher, then a principal, and most recently as its superintendent, Dr. Molly Howard has announced her retirement, effective June 30.
In a letter to the board and community she called each of her positions as the answer to her life’s calling.
“The hardest thing to say is, ‘It’s time,’” Howar said. “It is time for me to let go of something that has been my life for over two-thirds of my life. It is time for me to let go of something I love.”
Nearly a half century of service
During her career she witnessed some of the most influential changes that have occurred in public education.
As a student at Wrens Highs School in the early 1970s she was a part of the racial integration of schools. She began teaching at the forefront of the deinstitutionalization movement that swept the country in the wake of Pres. Gerald Ford signing Public Law 94-142 that guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child regardless of their disabilities.
“I’ve seen education become so much more inclusive. We’ve struggled with what does that mean. That’s one reason the equity means so much to me,” she said. “I’ve seen the inequities and I was personally heartbroken over the lack of inclusion I saw as a student and while I was in college. Everybody was not offered a free appropriate public education.”
Howard began her career as a teacher of special needs children at Wrens High School where she taught for 14 years. In 1990 she was named Georgia’s State Teacher of the Year.
“There’s no doubt that the most fulfilling part of my career were the years I spent as a classroom teacher,” Howard said. “I felt like I knew the impact I was making. I got as much from the kids as I ever gave them and I could see on a day-to-day basis what was accomplished.”
In 1990 she took a job as the director of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support’s Ogeechee Psychoeducational Services in Midville. While there she started the alternative school for Jefferson and Burke counties.
“As a teacher I saw opportunities where I was not able to implement changes for kids on a wider scale outside of my class,” Howard said. “I knew that administration would allow me to be able to spread the ideas and philosophies that I thought were good for kids through to larger numbers of children.”
When Wrens and Louisville high schools were consolidated in 1995 Howard took over as the new school’s principal where she served for 15 years. In 2007 she was named Georgia’s State Principal of the Year and in 2008 the National Principal of the Year.
In 2010 she moved into the superintendent’s position and has served in it for the last 12 years.
Over that period Howard has worked to build a team of educators who embrace her own vision for inclusion and a student-first school system.
She was in a group of Jefferson County principals who coined a phrase she continues to use today: “Every child, every day.”
“Regardless of their zip code, regardless of their demographics, every child is valued and has the right and access to the highest quality opportunities and instruction,” Howard said. “What that really means is that we don’t think of them as groups of students, what this group or that group needs. We look at them as individuals. What does this child need today to maximize their opportunities and potential.”
Howard said that she is proud of the fact that with community support (through passing multiple Special Local Option Sales Taxes) the board has been able to update all of its facilities in the last few years, with plans for a replacement of all Carver Elementary classrooms in the works to begin later this year.
“We will be in a good financial place with very limited debt when I leave so that our SPLOST funds can keep our buildings maintained,” Howard said. “There is no more single building project that will take the majority of it and we have been able to do that without raising property taxes.”
Jimmy Fleming has been chairman of the county’s board of education since Howard was hired as a principal in 1996.
“We’re sure going to miss her,” Fleming said. ”Her heart is in everything she does. She cares about everybody, teachers, employees, especially the students and the course of their education....I greatly appreciate that Jefferson County has benefitted from her leadership in all of her positions. There are a lot of people out there who have benefitted from her leadership.”
What happens next
The board of education has voted to work with the Georgia School Board Association (GSBA) to conduct a statewide search for its next superintendent.
This will be the second time the board has used the GSBA to fill this role, having worked with them when Howard was hired.
“They’ve already come in and looked at our values and our desires for a replacement,” Fleming said.
GSBA has surveyed each of the current board members individually asking questions that dig into what they are looking for in a superintendent. The organization takes those qualities as well as area demographics and the school system’s current philosophies and uses this information to market the position.
The opening should be circulating by the end of January. GSBA then works with the board on developing an interview process.
Applications should close by the first of March and GSBA will then rank them into tiers as to which ones most closely match what the board members have said they are looking for in this position.
All of the applications will be presented to the board and they can choose from any tier they want.
Fleming believes interviews should begin by early April and he hopes to have a decision before the first of May.
“It’s going to be a very fair process,” Fleming said. “We’re going to look at a lot of different criteria.”
Howard’s contract expires on June 30.
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: School superintendent announces retirement