Leading Lady


Demica Sanders

Demica Sanders

When Demica Sanders took over as Midfield superintendent, she turned the failing district around. 

Written by Rosalind Fournier

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

In 2008, after several years as a special education teacher and program specialist in Birmingham City Schools, Demica Sanders was tapped for her dream job: to become the head special education coordinator for an entire district, this time in Midfield.

But not long after she achieved what she considered her ultimate goal, it appeared there was another plan for her entirely. At the end of 2011, with the district in trouble financially and a high school graduation rate hovering at a dismal 46 percent, the Midfield Board of Education fired then-superintendent Nikita Williams and brought in Sanders as the interim replacement, with a promise it would only be for a month. “I said, ‘Well, I think I can do this for 30 days,’” Sanders remembers. That was two and a half very eventful years ago, with Sanders accepting the permanent position in June 2012. It seems she was made for the job—and she is firmly committed to a district that was primed for positive change.

In truth, at the time, the district really had nowhere to go but up. Just around the time Sanders’s one-month appointment was supposed to end, the state voted to intervene in the school system’s operations by helping to oversee its finances and working with school officials to get its academic problems under control. Sanders threw herself into working with state representatives, and by the time the permanent position of superintendent was posted, she felt that she could provide a level of stability that Midfield—having already gone through two superintendents in four years—desperately needed. “I didn’t want to see the school system lose more valuable time starting over with someone new,” she says. “I think I was looking at it for the good of the system. At that point, I felt responsible for seeing it through.”

One of Sanders’s early tasks would be finding her own replacement as special education coordinator. In stepped Debbie Walker, a soft-spoken veteran of special education who had years of experience but was new to the system. Along with Sanders, she is credited with helping the district get back on its feet and create a new sense of teamwork. Walker acknowledges that it can be both a difficult and unpopular job, especially in the shadow of her predecessor-turned-boss. “Of all the positions during this transitional time, Debbie’s was the hardest,” Sanders says. “With everybody else that I brought in, the predecessor was gone. But Debbie had to come in behind a person who is still here—me. So when she first arrived, I called her in and said, ‘Look, you have to run your area the way you want to run it.’” That didn’t keep other staff members from trying to bypass Walker and go to Sanders when they had disagreements, but Sanders held her ground. “People would sometimes come and say, ‘You used to do it this way,’ or ‘Debbie’s not doing this,’” she says. “My response was always, ‘OK, but she’s your special ed coordinator.’ That’s all I kept saying until finally they got that I’m letting Debbie do her job.”

Compounding the challenge is the fact that disagreements between the special education coordinator and other staff come with the territory. Walker, who is diplomatic and approachable but also thick-skinned, was prepared. “Our first goal is for our kids to learn,” Walker says. “They might learn at a slower rate and have different modalities, but they’re very capable.” She’s also aware, however, that students with special-education needs often make everyone else’s jobs harder. As their advocate, Walker takes the brunt of their frustrations. “I don’t know how to say this without being blunt,” she says. “For districts, special education is a negative. The students bring down test scores. They often have behaviors that are unacceptable. They bring graduation rates down. So I’ve learned a long time ago that we’re never going to be homecoming queen, because we’re here to take care of our children.

“You’re going to have meetings with an administrator where a particular child just cursed everybody in the office out,” Walker continues. “Well, this child has a severe emotional disturbance, and so we might need to adjust his or her EIP [early intervention program], but we’re not just going to expel them or send them to the alternative school for the rest of the year. We’re going to change what we do and how we serve them. That’s not a popular decision, but it’s a legal decision, and it’s what’s right for the kids.”

Debbie Walker

Debbie Walker

While other districts in Alabama have faced intervention in recent years—including Birmingham,

Selma, and Coosa County—Midfield leaders, by all accounts, responded to the action with the most positive attitude. The problems the district was facing in early 2012 were too obvious to ignore, Sanders and others recall, and they welcomed the help. Discipline problems, particularly at the high school, were out of control. “It was to the point when I first took over that I had to sit up there at the high school every day,” Sanders recalls. “We were having food fights and all kinds of things going on. We had to bring extra security guards in. It was not a place where you really wanted to be. If I had to blame anyone for the craziness, it would be the culture at that time. Teacher morale was low in the face of everything going on. It was like a total sense of helplessness on all parties trying to figure out what to do.”

Worse was the high school’s 46 percent graduation rate. One major problem was the number of students who simply never showed up, either because they’d dropped out or transferred to other districts while remaining on school rolls and ultimately registering as students who failed to graduate, though in reality, they weren’t even there. The district quickly began to strike all no-shows from the books, which isn’t as simple as it sounds, because they receive money based on the number of students enrolled. “It hurt us on the funding side,” Sanders explains. “But at the end of the day, the state looks at our graduation rate for accountability.”

Other students remained in the classroom but failed to earn the credits they needed to graduate. In some cases, they weren’t even coming close: “We had students who were in 12th grade but were really ninth graders, because that’s how few credits they had,” Sanders says. “For a 17-year-old student who’s a ninth grader in credits, they’re not dealing with us much longer. They’re going to drop out.” With the help of the state coordinators sent to intervene, Sanders and other administrators created a dropout prevention program where students behind in credits spent their days with a teacher, facilitator, and paraprofessional dedicated to helping them catch up. “Already, we have students who have returned to the general curriculum, and we’ve been able to keep them in school and where they’re supposed to be.” The result? The school went from a 46 percent graduation rate to 80 percent in just two years.

Last October, the Alabama State Board of Education voted unanimously to release the Midfield City School System from state intervention. Debra Rust, a 40-year veteran of Midfield schools who teaches both elementary special education and the gifted program, says the changes she’s witnessed have been nothing short of miraculous. “Everyone works so well together now, as we always did until the problems began a few years ago,” says Rust, who was one of Sanders’s biggest champions in becoming superintendent. “There’s a strong bond between the schools and their faculties, who really support one another.”

Under Sanders’s leadership, the school is not only back on its feet but forging ahead with new initiatives to improve its service to students. A dual enrollment program between the high school and local colleges is in the works, allowing high school students to begin earning college credits. The elementary school, the exterior of which was renovated last year, is about to get an interior overhaul. And the district just finished planting a community garden, right across the street from Sanders’s office.

Ironically, another change is that Midfield is now regularly held up as a shining example of one of the state’s most successful interventions. State superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice has publicly cited Midfield’s cooperative attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to solve problems. Sanders welcomes the praise but understands it brings its own kind of pressure. “One thing that’s come out of this is that Midfield is put in a different light,” she says. “It’s a different level now of accountability. The state has almost made us their golden child. My mother-in-law lives in Montgomery, and she’s heard Dr. Bice say time and time again, ‘I hope other interventions will go as well as Midfield.’ So our name is out there.”

In March, the Alabama Community Educators Association named Sanders Superintendent of the Year for the central region of Alabama—no small feat for a woman who never envisioned herself so much as applying for the job. “It’s been a rough year,” Sanders said at the meeting when the award was given. “But it’s been a good year.”

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