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A Tribute to Deborah Jewell-Sherman

Longtime head of HGSE’s Urban Superintendents Program and first female professor of practice retired at the end of the academic year
Deborah Jewell-Sherman participates in a forum in Askwith Hall.

A longtime leader of the HGSE community, Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Ed.M.'92, Ed.D.'95, has championed thoughtful leadership and relationship-building among educators as a teacher, administrator, and mentor.

Jewell-Sherman built her reputation as an innovator for urban school districts as superintendent of the Richmond (VA) public schools, being named Superintendent of the year for Virginia. A leader in policy and practice for superintendents around the country, she returned to HGSE in 2008 to direct HGSE’s Urban Superintendents Program and, in 2013, was named HGSE’s first female professor of practice. Throughout her career, Jewell-Sherman has also done extensive work in South Africa, serving as the principal investigator for an initiative between HGSE and the University of Johannesburg.

On the occasion of her retirement from HGSE, we present the following comments, delivered by colleagues at a career celebration in her honor.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman and Qualities that Contribute to Her Success

By Mary Grassa O’Neill

We’ve heard so much about Deborah’s awards, honors, and achievements. I’d like to mention some of her keys to success.

1. Her signature work is that Demography Isn’t Destiny AKA your zip code shouldn’t determine your achievement or the education you get.

Deborah is an outstanding Professor of Leadership Practice here at HGSE. She first came to everyone’s attention for her superb job performance as a practitioner – a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent.

For Deborah, equity and excellence are the norm. She works from a place of courage, conviction, grace, and support. As a superintendent she saw a poster that stated, “If every child had a safe harbor, then none would be at risk.” On the poster there was a photo of a lighthouse beckoning others to safety. She told her team “We’re going to be a lighthouse district leading students to a safe harbor of high achievement.”

Later visiting schools, she found that all had lighthouses on display. Despite enormous opposition from the mayor, Deborah, and her team, including the talented Yvonne Brandon, who’s here today, managed to raise the floor and ceiling of academic achievement. Deborah was selected Superintendent of the Year for leading the district with the fastest academic achievement in the entire state of Virginia.

Oftentimes we think that high achievement is limited to certain groups. Deborah knows better. She knows the science. It shows that intelligence and other gifts, and talents are distributed equally across all races, ethnicities, and genders. When we see test scores that are unequally distributed by race, gender, or socioeconomic status we should view it as abnormal. It’s our job as leaders to normalize test scores and see that from all backgrounds and geographies learn and achieve at high levels.

2. Building Strong Relationships is one of her great strengths.

Wow! Was that in evidence Saturday night when our Urban Superintendents and Doctor of Education Leadership alumni threw a huge party to honor Deborah. About 150 students came from as far away as Colorado, Wisconsin, California, and Puerto Rico. One after another they described Deborah’s love, support, empathy, listening, encouragement, and community building. They glowingly detailed what a difference she has made in their lives and how much they value her commitment to them. I wish you’d heard their heartwarming and inspiring stories. They would bring a tear to your eye as they did to ours.

What powerful relationships she’s forged! Deborah herself has been, is now and always will be a lighthouse at HGSE.

3. Appreciation and Mission Focus

Just as our students showed their appreciation last night. Deborah shows her appreciation too. She’s been known to sponsor a breakfast for bus drivers, custodians, and facilities’ workers to show her appreciation and to tell them how important they are to achieving the mission. This quality reminds me of a mission story that has stayed with me.   

During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man, and said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?"

"Well, Mr. President," the janitor responded, "I'm helping put a man on the moon." To most people, this janitor was just cleaning the building. But in the more mythic, larger story unfolding around him, he was helping to make history.

Here's the point: No matter how large or small our role, we are contributing to the larger story unfolding within our lives, and our organizations. When our entire team embraces that attitude and belief, incredible things happen. Just as incredible things happen for teachers and kids when DJS is leading or teaching. These stories focus on those who work behind the scenes. At a special reception at HGSE later this week Deborah will demonstrate that she sees, knows and is recognizing these colleagues for their contributions to our mission of leading to change the world.

4. As leaders we are ultimate role models and people are always watching us. What we do has much more impact than what we say. So our Actions, not our words, have the biggest impact on people and role modeling is one of the best ways to teach and learn.

Here are some of Deborah’s guiding principles that make her an outstanding role model:

Take the high road to success. It’s the one paved with humility and far less traveled.

Make lemonade out of lemons. In life everyone is handed lemons. Sometimes it’s a huge lemon and sometimes just a slice. The leader’s job is to make the sweetest lemonade we can out of what it is we get.

Leadership isn’t just telling people what to do.

Deborah learned that when she taught first grade for the very first time. She arrived mid-year. The bell rang for the class to go to music. She went to the front door and told students to line up. Not one student moved. She couldn’t understand why. She directed them to line up again and every single student stayed seated. These little 5- and 6-year-olds wouldn’t even do what she told them to do.

A little boy in the first row named Adam whispered to her, “You have to call each row!”   
So she called “Row 1…Row 2… Row 3…” Then each row filed to the door. Adam gave her a big wink and a smile.

Adam, that little boy in the front row, became her teacher! She learned that those you’re directing need to understand what they’re being told to do and collaboration, context and knowing the rules help.

5. Find ways to inject fun into your work and life

Deborah is joyful, loves to have fun and has spirit, energy, enthusiasm, a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak. One fun thing she did as a principal was asking teachers to write on a big gold star something that another person at the school did well. She pasted the stars on the front windows of the school. Focusing on all the positives like this provided life and job enhancing positive feedback. Everyone began to feel really good about all the successes and positive school culture soared.

6. Family comes first.

I am blessed in all ways and in no better way than with my family. Many of you know Deborah is my sister by another mother, and I love, respect, and admire her as though she were one of my biological sisters. I also love her amazing brother Curtis and outstanding sister Donna. And already feel related to her wonderful daughter Nicole and her friends Deborah and Yvonne who traveled from VA to celebrate with us.

Deborah’s family has expanded beautifully these last 3 years as she’s welcomed her beloved partner the accomplished and talented Dr. David Horner, President of the American College of Greece. And she has welcomed his family to her own. My family is Deborah’s family too. The loves of my life are here this afternoon to honor Deborah, my magnificent husband Thom and our marvelous and treasured sons, Thomas and Joseph.

Deborah’s is a brilliant mentor to me and to many in and outside this room. She teaches content and also how to live life. Celebrations like this one where we’re honoring our treasured colleague Deborah are so important and fun too. Let’s all thank Bridget and her team for this very special party.

Deborah is now role modeling how to move to a new chapter. She knows that retirement from HGSE is not the end of the road. It’s the beginning of the open highway. For this magnificent educator it seems appropriate to end with a quote from children’s author Dr Seuss.

“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! You still have mountains to climb, So, get on your way!”  
— Dr. Seuss

Please join me in saluting and thanking the incomparable Deborah Jewell-Sherman!

Excerpts from a Tribute to Deborah Jewell-Sherman

By Monica Higgins

My name is Monica Higgins, and I am honored to celebrate our amazing Deborah Jewell-Sherman (DJS). I have come to know Deborah as a teacher, colleague, and friend. I’d love to talk with you about each of these ways I know her by drawing on about 11 years of emails, which were super fun to look through as I prepared these remarks. Yes, I am a pack rat when it comes to emails.

So, teacher, colleague, friend. First, as a teacher, Deborah has been a star on our faculty. She earned the Morningstar Family Award and the LGBTQIA+ Students’ Faculty Award in 2018. Why? Deborah has always held every student – no matter who they are, what they look like, or where they come from – to the highest standards. In an email she wrote to our EdLD faculty steering committee regarding a struggling student, “I believe that Equity calls for us to provide students with supports to reach the desired benchmark, which is a doctoral degree from HGSE.  However, we do no one a service if we fail to hold our students to the standard of excellence.” Deborah has also been willing and able to stand up for these high standards – as she’d tell us, “don’t make me bring out ‘lil Debbie from the Bronx!”

At the same time, Deborah, the teacher, has taught us the importance of grace. When NYU honored her last year with the Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award, Deborah said, “NYU taught [me] what it means to see beyond someone’s faults and give people grace when they need it.” Personally, I know that the work of Deborah’s “cherubs” (her students) is of exceptional quality and filled with grace. And this grace spills over into our community. Just last week, I was in the audience during our Schools’ Double Take event which is when selected students tell their personal “stories” to a full audience. I watched as a masters student got a bit hung up on their words. But instead of silence, the room started to fill with low rumblings of support. A gentle hum of “um hum” sounds and fingers snapping began and was coming from our Ed.L.D. students seated in a clump together in the hall. They were offering their love, grace, and support. Deborah, you taught us how to create a community filled with both grace and high expectations.

Deborah as a colleague. Starting in 2008, Deborah has been a core architect and faculty member of the EdLD program and has led the program as well. She and I have sat on many committees together, and I’ve gotten to know her well as a colleague. Deborah is exceptionally skilled at bringing us into her fold and leading for change. I was looking back at one email she wrote to the EdLD core faculty and our dean at the time, Kathy McCartney, about a new way of teaching and learning; instead of only having courses, we began offering modules, projects, and experiences, which definitely threw our schedule for a loop. Deborah had engineered one such experience, a negotiation project. Students were tasked with using a 7-step negotiation model to work through major challenges — to settle BPS’ redistricting dilemma as well as a 13-year Buffalo Teachers Union debacle. Deborah sent an email around, reporting back on the students’ enthusiasm for this innovation: "We totally 'geeked' out on this project!" "We met 22 times to reach resolution!" "I didn't fully appreciate how messy and difficult this work was." And "This was fun!" And Deborah gave all the faculty credit, saying “With all the heavy lifting and hard work each of you has done to get EDLD to this point, I just want to thank you by acknowledging your handprint on the students' work yesterday.” She lifted us all up to our dean, writing, “We are demonstrating impact, Kathy, and becoming the change we want to see in the world.” Deborah, it’s fitting that your email signature carries the quote from Proverbs 27:17: “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” You have definitely sharped us all and have helped us work better together.


1995: Earned Ed.D. in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from HGSE

2002–2008: Served as superintendent of Richmond Public Schools

2008: Named senior lecturer and director of HGSE’s Urban Superintendent Program

2009: Named Virginia Superintendent of the Year

2013: Named Professor of Practice and helped launch HGSE's Doctorate of Education Leadership Program, 

2013: Won Dr. Effie Jones Humanitarian Award from the School Superintendents Association

2015: Received Morningstar Family Teaching Award

2017: Named Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership

2022: Named New York University Dorothy Height Alumna of the Year

HGSE Coverage 

Exploring the Dynamics of Gender and Leadership  
Leading for What’s Possible  
Harvard EdCast: School Leadership During Crisis  
The Experiences of Teachers of Color  
Jewell-Sherman Named to Anrig Chair  
On My Bookshelf: Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman  
“Your Values Must Be Crystal Clear”  
Jewell-Sherman Received Morningstar Family Teaching Award  
Summer Spotlight: Institute for Urban Leaders  


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