Cramer pledges ‘collaboration’ and focus on ‘every child’
Published 4:51 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2022
The Smithfield Times sat down with newly hired Isle of Wight County Schools Superintendent Dr. Theo Cramer on Sept. 14 to discuss his 30-year education career, recent move across state lines, and plans for the school division.
1. What got you into the education field?
My brother, ended up never teaching a day in his life, was an education major. I was the only one out of the three of us who wasn’t an education major undergrad. … He left his resume home and he called. This was before cellphones, he goes to the payphone and says, “Can you bring my resume to the job fair?”
I just graduated and was subbing at my older sister’s school. … I gave him his resume, and as I was leaving there are recruiters coming from all over like, “Are you a recent graduate?” And I’m like, “I graduated, but I’m not an education major.”
Literally, I was going to leave and that was going to be the end of it. I had received so much interest from recruiters from all over the country, I actually went back home and put one of my two suits on … came back to the job fair and was offered a job on the spot that day. It was actually Prince George’s County.
2. What led you to apply for the superintendent position and relocate to Isle of Wight from Maryland?
I had retired from Maryland and knew that once I retired from Maryland I would seek an opportunity as a superintendent. I have spent my career in education. Leaving Maryland I wanted to work in a school system and a community that I thought represented my values, a school system and community that I would enjoy living in and working in … really kind of a 1½- to two-hour radius.
Isle of Wight was further than I wanted to go, but I started doing my due diligence, did my homework, looked at board meetings and looked at the community, Googled Smithfield and actually came down here and said this is a really great place. It was further than I wanted. I really wanted to be close enough where I could go back home like midweek and come back because my wife and daughters, my youngest daughter is in Pennsylvania at Lafayette College and my oldest is at the University of Maryland.
I didn’t want to be three-plus hours away, but I honestly felt that this is such a great school community, such a great school division and such a great place to live. I said I”m going to have to apply and got permission from my wife. I said, “Are you OK with this if it happens and it’s going to really change our lives,” and she said … it’s a great community as well, I think it’s a good fit.
3. What was your previous school system like?
I’ve worked in multiple school systems. In Maryland they’re referred to as systems, getting used to the term “division.” … I’ve worked in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is a very large, urban school system, over 130,000 students, over 200 schools. I worked there for 17 years total. It’s in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
I’ve also worked in a community that’s very similar to this one in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, for almost a decade, nine years in fact. My children were reared there. My wife and I … she worked there as well. Demographics are very similar, military community, a little more isolated than Isle of Wight. … That was actually my first central office experience. In that role I served as executive director of multiple departments.
One of my favorite jobs was … executive director of college and career readiness and also career technical education, so I oversaw that work, which is why I’m very excited about the work we’re doing here in CTE career technical education in Isle of Wight.
My most recent role was akin to what I’m doing now. I was community superintendent of 26 schools, four high schools, seven middle schools, 14 elementary schools and one special education center and handled the entirety of the needs of those principals and schools in a large school system with 77 schools total.
4. Do you have any goals for Isle of Wight yet?
There are three overarching themes that I shared that I think are important. … The things that I wanted to focus on are creating a collaborative culture, high academic expectations and certainly also looking at the wellness and the mental health of our educators and our students.
As it pertains to a collaborative culture, I think that I have started that process of collaborating with others. I just met with a community member less than an hour ago. I’ve been meeting with a litany of community stakeholders, law enforcement, our Board of Supervisors, I’ve met with a few of them, hope to meet with the others, all of our School Board members, my central office colleagues … and parents, I have parents who have signed up to meet with me. I will be meeting with students, so in terms of collaboration that’s my leadership style. I believe in creating a collaborative environment and I will continue to ensure that I am accessible to our stakeholders and to our community members.
I think it’s important that we take care of one another as well. … I know the pandemic is not behind us, but how do we create a sense of normalcy? How do we also ensure that we are taking care of our students’ mental well-being as we move forward? How do we make sure that we are also taking care of our staff. This is important work, but it’s challenging work as well, and I think taking care of people, ensuring that there’s work-life balance, ensuring that our students’ mental well-being is being considered is important.
As I move forward I will be having ongoing conversations with our educators about how do we support you as you support our students.
5. How familiar are you with Virginia’s SOL (Standards of Learning) tests and getting scores back to their pre-pandemic levels?
I am learning. What I said when I entered the school division is that I was going to hit the ground learning, not running. So I think you learn by speaking to the stakeholders, speaking to the experts, so I’ve been having ongoing meetings with our staff.
What should we be doing as it pertains to credit recovery and how do we support our students without overwhelming them either? It’s hard to recover a year or two years of learning loss, so I think it’s having conversations with the resident experts in the respective areas, whether it’s reading, whether it’s math. … As we have those conversations and as we develop plans and as we make adjustments that’s going to be informed by the people who are experts in the school community but it’s also going to be, I think, listening to our families and our parents.
6. Where do you stand on equity initiatives and what will Isle of Wight’s policy be going forward?
My personal belief is that equity is about meeting the needs of all of our students, absolutely every child, regardless of gender, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of religion, race, how do we meet the needs of every single child? And that is going to be the prism from which I view equity.
As it pertains to exactly what we do and how we move forward, that’s going to be informed again by board members, by elected officials, by community stakeholders, by my colleagues here at central office, by teachers, by students, by others, but as the superintendent my focus is going to be on all of our students. How do we look at the needs of all of our students … whether we’re talking about struggling learners or whether we’re talking about children who are taking advanced placement courses.
7. What will your priorities be as far as replacing Westside Elementary and other projects listed in Isle of Wight County Schools’ capital improvements plan?
We decided to not actually move forward (with proposed changes in August to the school system’s capital improvements plan). We felt that the community needed to provide more input. I think it’s important that we wait until we get that input from our community before we determine what those priorities are.
Editor’s note: As of August, school officials were proposing to replace the grass football field at Smithfield High School with artificial turf at a cost of $2.4 million and adding security vestibules to all schools for just over $900,000, with both projects slated to begin next school year.
8. At the September School Board meeting, you had mentioned Isle of Wight had avoided the teacher shortage other school systems are experiencing. How will you handle recruitment and retention?
We have recruited some amazing educators with many years of experience who have sought to come here because of the reputation of the Isle of Wight County Schools and now that people have come we need to have the other discussion about how do we keep these individuals so retention is critically important. We discussed this morning with our executive team, with our leadership team, ways to do that, and one of the ways we’re going to do that again is by being collaborative. … We’re going to be having discussions with the teachers about why they came and what we need to do to make sure that they stay here.