Education endeavor: A conversation with Sherry Copeland

Friday, July 22, 2011
Sherry Copeland is the new assistant superintendent of Cape Girardeau Public Schools. (Kristin Eberts)

Sherry Copeland, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Cape Girardeau School District, had plans to become a lawyer. That changed when a friend from college asked her to teach an at-risk high school math class. "I loved it," she said. "To experience such a rewarding endeavor made me realize that good teachers really do make a difference, and I wanted to be that type of teacher." She began taking teacher certification classes at Southeast Missouri State University and eventually earned a master's degree in counseling and specialist and doctoral degrees. Now back "home" in Southeast Missouri, Copeland talked to Business Today about changes and challenges in the education field.

Business Today: How has the teaching field changed since you started?

Sherry Copeland: Teacher preparation programs have changed, thus, so has teaching. Teaching now is very much individual student directed, based on specific student needs. When I started teaching we considered our textbook to be the curriculum, and we taught to the "center" of the class. If a student was not proficient we still moved forward. Teachers are not necessarily better; they are better prepared.

BT: The Cape Girardeau School Board recently approved a salary increase for teachers. How does that benefit students? Some businesses have incentive-based raises: Do you think that system would work for schools?

SC: We want to attract the best teachers for our students. ... Highly qualified teachers have their choice of districts, and we want them to consider Cape. Although our salary schedule, in some instances, does not compare to large city districts, we want to attract those great pre-service and veteran teachers to come to Cape Public Schools not only for a fair salary schedule but also for the educational climate created by all stakeholders in the community. Incentive-based raises could work as long as we are using multiple measures to assess student growth. ... Rewarding teachers for students showing an increase in achievement has been discussed and implemented in many districts nationwide. In Cape, we need to look at the research and discuss if this is the best course of action.

BT: Sometimes there's a perception that the more money a school district has, the better education it can provide. In what ways, if any, is a district's funding tied to student achievement?

SC: Obviously there is a minimum of how much money constitutes a quality education. More money does not necessarily mean a better education, and we have seen the result of such action in our own state, where millions of dollars have been thrown at districts, only for those districts to not see any improvement in student achievement. Helping direct the funds appropriately and just not buy more "things" or "programs" can help gain more bang for your buck. Quality teaching, quality instruction and a quality curriculum -- this is what gets higher results in student achievement. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds sometimes need help in building a better foundation and experiences, compared to their more affluent counterparts, and this can sometimes cost more money for districts. The federal government recognizes this and allocates more funding to those schools/districts that have higher numbers of lower socioeconomic students.

BT: What are your thoughts on No Child Left Behind? What has it done right? How can it be improved?

SC: No one in education has ever wanted to leave a child behind. What the reform did was to set benchmarks for schools for improvement. It made schools realize that in order to achieve those benchmarks, every student's needs had to be addressed; if not, drastic measures would ensue. The accountability increased substantially. Because of NCLB, curriculum, instruction, assessment and school culture have changed. It has made for a stronger educational society and put the U.S. on a path of improvement where our students can compete worldwide. Members from education, the political sector, and business and industry are coming together to help the current administration change and/or reauthorize this act of Congress.

BT: Your last job was director of the Regional Professional Development Center at Missouri Western University, which worked with 14 school districts. What differences do you see in large and small districts?

SC: The differences between smaller and larger districts are smaller than you would think. I represented several large districts, with North Kansas City at 18,000 students being the largest, down to the smallest being Missouri City with only 33 students. In smaller districts the administrators wear many hats, whereas in larger districts the administrative departments are more specialized. In smaller districts, programs and reform models spread districtwide more quickly, and the way to reach the mission, vision and goals of the district seem more common between buildings. In larger districts it tends to be more site-based. It did not matter the size; there are excellent teachers and administrators regardless of the size of the district. The districts of 10-, 12-, 18,000, were just as much fun to work with as a district of 1,000 or less.

BT: How would you like to see the community get more involved with schools? What can individuals or businesses do?

SC: I am such a proponent of community involvement in our schools. I adhere to the old African proverb of "it takes a village to raise a child." ... This is not just the people who work for Cape Public Schools' district -- the district belongs to everyone in the community. ... We already have an excellent Adopt-a-School program, so that would be a great avenue. Joining the PTO is also a good way to help our schools. There are many opportunities to volunteer in the district or a specific building. We have always had solid support for athletics, and we welcome that same type of enthusiasm for our academics. We have many talented people in Cape whose experience and expertise would be so beneficial to our students.

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