Former area teacher Sherry Copeland returns as Cape assistant superintendent

Sunday, May 22, 2011
Sherry Copeland stands Friday outside of the administrative offices on Clark Avenue in Cape Girardeau. Copeland is the incoming assistant superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District. (Laura Simon)

Sherry Copeland is coming back home.

The self-described "military kid" who traded law school dreams for a vocation in education is returning to Southeast Missouri to serve as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Cape Girardeau School District. In March, the district announced Copeland was hired to replace veteran educator and assistant superintendent Pat Fanger, who is retiring this summer after eight years at Cape Girardeau's public schools.

Copeland was in town last week to set up her new home and for a reception welcoming her to the district.

Copeland was a well-traveled child, spending her formative years in Europe and in Florida, where her father served in the Air Force. His retirement in the early 1970s brought the family to Missouri while Copeland was a teen, and she graduated from Lee's Summit High School.

In 1978, she earned her bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Missouri. Her plan was to pursue a career in law, just as her husband, Fred Copeland, did. The Copelands moved to New Madrid so the practicing lawyer could open a law firm. About a year and a half later, Fred Copeland was appointed presiding judge of Missouri's 34th Judicial Circuit, in New Madrid and Pemiscot counties.

Looking for work, Sherry Copeland took an assistant teaching job in the New Madrid School District. She said it quickly became her life's calling. She earned her education and art teacher certificates from Southeast Missouri State University, and taught in New Madrid for a dozen years. She also has a master's degree in counseling from Southeast, and went on to earn her specialist and doctoral degrees from St. Louis University. Copeland's dissertation was titled "A Policy Analysis of School Funding," a topic with which she must be acquainted in the austere era of public education budgets.

She served four years as assistant superintendent for the Caruthersville School District, where she said she was instrumental in designing the district's web-based student information system. The software company was so impressed they hired her to show other schools nationwide how the programs work.

Copeland comes to Cape Girardeau having spent the past couple of years as director of the Regional Professional Development Center at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. The center serves 14 school districts in the region, from the 18,000-student North Kansas City to the 26-student Missouri City, the smallest public school system in the state. Such centers, including the one at Southeast, assist in curriculum building, school improvement and college faculty instruction.

Copeland takes a position with a school district that has been raising the bar on achievement but has room for improvement -- as evidenced by a graduation rate lower than the state average.

Here's what she has to say about her new duties.

Q: Why Cape Girardeau? Why now?

A: I was asked that in my interview. I said, "It's Cape." I lived 31 years in the Bootheel, and Cape Girardeau is the jewel. Everybody wants to be in Cape. The school district has such a good reputation. Plus, my kids have moved back. They've moved back to New Madrid, and Cape is one of the areas they're looking to move to. With them moving back, I had to move back. And with Pat retiring, it just all came together.

Q: You are a proponent of No Child Left Behind?

A: In the sense that I do not want to leave a child behind. The one thing I like about No Child Left Behind is it did address every child's need. Say what you want about the rates that they've set, I believe every child can improve. Now, will every child be proficient by 2014? No, that's not going to happen. … We've come to a point where we've realized in order to improve scores we have to address the needs of each individual student.

Q: What is your philosophy on education?

A: I always use the analogy that we have a product. Our product is that child. If I worked for Ford Motor Co. and my job is to put wheels on that car and it rolls off that line and the wheels come off, who is responsible for that? We all have jobs to do. Our job is to teach kids, to help them be the best they can be. That's where my philosophy is.

Q: How do you do that? How do you make every child the best he or she can be? How do you not leave a child behind?

A: It's a team effort, and what I've seen so far in Cape Girardeau is a team. … The old proverb, "It takes a community," is so true. You need parents, you need the community. That's what Cape has going for it right now. They're focused on the best for these kids. They want the best, and that's the place I want to be, with teams that have that same vision of moving forward. And that starts with getting the right people on the bus. What Jim Collins [author of best-selling best practices books] calls "good to great." We've got to have the right people on the bus and sitting in the right seats.

Q: What is Cape Girardeau School District doing well? Where is it lacking?

A: Lacking, I can't answer that. What they are doing well, I can tell you they really have a good handle on curriculum and what needs to be done. Can I add to that? Of course. Do I need to change everything? Not at all. They're already doing good things here.


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