After 16 years at the helm of Hanover County Public Schools, Superintendent Stewart Roberson is stepping down at the end of this academic year. But during his time as the metro region's longest-serving superintendent, Roberson, 55, has had a pretty good view of Virginia's educational landscape.
When Roberson came to Hanover in 1995, the district was still predominantly rural, with only 16 schools. Today, as he retires, there are 24 schools.
In 1995, the county had no website or e-mail. More significantly, the implementation of Virginia's Standards of Learning tests as a requirement for graduation and for school accreditation was just a glimmer in the eye of a few state legislators.
Roberson came from the city of Falls Church schools district, where he served as superintendent. His tenure in Hanover has been well received, as he's led what is arguably the Richmond metro region's most stable, successful school system.
Despite the appearance of smooth sailing, Roberson says, "It's been a 16-year hurricane." Many of the fiercest winds that have buffeted Virginia's education sector during the last two decades have been in the advancement of technology.
In some ways, Hanover pushed against those winds. Unlike neighboring Henrico County, Roberson did not buy into the idea of dispensing laptop computers to every student. Today, students still rely on banks of five computers in classrooms.
But that's not to say Roberson is a Luddite; he stands as a leader in the revitalization of vocational-technical education. In a stance that seemed quaint a decade ago, the superintendent pushed his School Board toward creating a regional vo-tech school. Today, as Richmond-area schools face pressure from corporate leaders to improve vocational training for graduates entering the local workforce, Hanover's early entrance — without regional buy-in — looks prophetic.
Notes Roberson, "what had occurred in the last 16 years is a community realization that technology drives the creation of career opportunities for all students."
Hanover High School's career technical-education program graduates students with not only high school diplomas but also with advance certifications in medical and other fields, as well as preparation for college programs such as engineering.
Meanwhile, in a state-of-the-art facility behind the high school, the Hanover Center for Trades and Technology focuses on more traditional vocational-technical programs like car mechanics and cosmetology.
"The Hanover trade center was the first career and technical center built in Virginia in 25 years," Roberson says proudly, adding that part of what was missing from the statewide conversation about education was that vocational jobs are not only necessary, they're also high-paying.
"We don't talk about the manual arts," he says. "We talk about how you can become a productive citizen when you leave high school. We viewed that this particular vision was one that could serve the needs of other school systems."
Roberson often peppers his answers with "we," speaking of Hanover's achievements during his tenure as shared rather than personal.
In many ways they are, but Roberson's personal achievements gained him plenty of notice during his years in charge.
In 1998, he was courted by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore to take the helm as Virginia's superintendent of public instruction. With pressure — including a tidy boost in salary — from a variety of Hanover leaders, Roberson chose to turn down the position. Two years later, Roberson turned down an offer from Chesterfield County, the region's largest school division.
"It's natural as a human to reflect on what-if," Roberson says, but he notes, "My family and I have thrived in Hanover."
In some ways, Roberson's influence over state policy matters was greater from his position, a 15-minute drive from the state's capital and the offices of the Virginia Department of Education.
In the same year he was offered the state job, Roberson opposed many of the particulars of the new Virginia SOL tests. He appeared publicly, asking fundamental questions about the direction that state education officials were taking. Eventually, Roberson says, that discussion ended with better tests.
He still calls SOLs "trivial Trivial Pursuit," though he has mellowed on how they turned out. Rather, he thinks the tests have been important to raising student achievement.
"I wasn't an early critic of the SOLs," Roberson says, "but I was an early skeptic of what material are you going to choose to test. The jury will always be out on whether children are learning what they need to be learning. That's where the political influence comes into schools."
Roberson pulls fewer punches about the federal No Child Left Behind law and its attendant Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirement for schools.
"I retain a deep concern with the political motivation behind the federal directions," he says, concerned that schools are now "punished for not making an arbitrary benchmark set by the state and federal government."
His criticisms were echoed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's warnings that AYP's seemingly arbitrary benchmarks — year-over-year percentage improvements in student achievement — will mean that nearly every school in the nation is at risk of appearing to fail even as they succeed in broader goals.
Rather than implementing policies that tear down public schools, Roberson says, politicians should "become specific about what you perceive to be the issues with the nation's public schools."
And then, he says, officials need to step back. "Educators must be at the table when it comes to education policy development."