The Smithfield Times sat down with the newly appointed Isle of Wight County Schools Headmaster Dr. Theo Cramer, to discuss his 30-year education career, recent move across states, and plans for the school division.
1. What got you into education?
My brother, who never taught a day in his life, was an educator major. I was the only one of the three of us who didn’t major in education. … He left his resume at home and called. This was before cell phones, he goes to the pay phone and says, “Can you bring my resume to the job fair?”
I just graduated and signed up at my older sister’s school. … I gave him his resume, and as I left, recruiters came from everywhere and said, “Are you a fresh graduate?” And I say, “I graduated, but I’m not an educator.”
I literally wanted to leave and that would be the end. I had so much interest from recruiters from across the country that I actually went home and put on one of my two suits… came back to the job fair and was offered a job right away that day. It was actually Prince George’s County.
2. What made you apply for the position of Superintendent and move from Maryland to the Isle of Wight?
I had retired from Maryland and knew that when I retired from Maryland I would be looking for a job as a superintendent. I have spent my career in education. After leaving Maryland, I wanted to work in a school system and community that I felt represented my values, a school system and community that I would like to live and work in…really within a 1½ to two radius Hours.
The Isle of Wight was further than I wanted it to be but I started doing my due diligence, did my homework, looked at board meetings and the community, googled Smithfield and actually came here and said this is a really great place. It was further than I wanted. I really wanted to be close enough to be able to go home and come back midweek 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 more than three hours away, but I honestly felt that this was such a great school community, such a great school department, and such a great place to live. I said I have to apply and got permission from my wife. I said, “Are you okay with that if it happens and it’s going to really change our lives,” and she said … it’s a great community too, I think it fits well.
3. What was your previous school system like?
I have worked in several school systems. In Maryland they are called systems to get used to the term “partition”. … I have worked in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a very large urban school system with over 130,000 students and over 200 schools. I worked there for a total of 17 years. It is in the suburbs of Washington, DC.
I have also served in a church very similar to the one in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, for almost a decade, nine years to be precise. My children grew up there. My wife and I…she worked there too. The demographics are very similar, the military community a bit more isolated than the Isle of Wight. … That was actually my first mediation experience. In this function I was the managing director of several departments.
One of my favorite jobs was … Executive Director of College and Career Readiness and also Career Technical Education so I have overseen that work which is why I am very excited about the work we are doing here at CTE Career Technical Education on the Isle of Weight.
My last role was similar to what I’m doing now. I have served as community leader of 26 schools, four high schools, seven middle schools, 14 elementary schools, and one special education center, ministering to the entirety of the needs of these principals and schools in a large school system totaling 77 schools.
4. Do you have any goals for the Isle of Wight yet?
There are three overarching themes that I have addressed that I think are important. … The things I wanted to focus on are creating a culture of collaboration, high academic expectations, and certainly also looking at the well-being and mental health of our educators and our students.
In terms of a collaborative culture, I think I started this process of working with others. I met with a community member less than an hour ago. I’ve met with a litany of stakeholders from the community, law enforcement, our board of directors, I’ve met with some of them, hope to meet with the others, all of our school board members, my colleagues at headquarters…and Parents, I have parents who have signed up to meet with me. I’ll be meeting with students, so that’s my leadership style in terms of collaboration. I believe in creating a collaborative environment and will continue to make myself available to our stakeholders and our community members.
I think it’s important that we take care of each other. … I know the pandemic isn’t over yet, but how do we create a sense of normalcy? Also, how do we ensure that we care for the spiritual well-being of our students as we progress? How do we make sure that we also take care of our employees? It’s important work, but it’s also challenging work and I think it’s important to look after people, to make sure there’s a work-life balance, to make sure the mental well-being of our students is taken care of .
As I move forward, I will have ongoing conversations with our educators about how we support you, how you support our students.
5. How familiar are you with Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and restoring pre-pandemic scores?
I am learning. What I said when I entered the school department was that I would hit the ground learning, not run. So I think you learn by talking to the stakeholders, the experts, so I have meetings with our staff all the time.
When it comes to credit recovery, what should we do and how do we support our students without overwhelming them? It’s hard to make up for a year or two of lost learning, so I think it’s conversations with the resident experts in the respective fields, whether it’s reading, whether it’s math. … As we have these conversations and develop plans and make adjustments, we are informed by the experts in the school community, but I also think we listen to our families and our parents.
6. What is your position on equity initiatives and how will Isle of Wight politics proceed?
My personal belief is that justice is about meeting the needs of all our students, absolutely every child, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, race. How do we meet the needs of each individual child? And that will be the prism through which I look at justice.
Exactly what we are doing and how we are moving forward will again be shared with Board members, elected officials, community stakeholders, my colleagues here at headquarters, teachers, students, others but, as Superintendent, I will be focused on all of our students . How do we look at the needs of all our students…whether we are talking about learning disabilities or whether we are talking about children attending advanced level courses.
7. What will be your priorities when it comes to replacing Westside Elementary and other projects listed in the Isle of Wight County Schools Capital Improvement Plan?
We decided not to really move forward (with proposed changes in August of the school system’s capital improvement 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 decide what those priorities are.
Editor’s note: In August, school officials proposed replacing the grass soccer field at Smithfield High School with artificial turf for $2.4 million and adding porches to all schools for just over $900,000, with both projects slated to begin next school year.
8. At the September School Council meeting you mentioned that Isle of Wight has avoided the teacher shortages experienced by other school systems. How will you handle recruitment and retention?
We’ve recruited some great educators with years of experience who wanted to come here because of the good reputation of Isle of Wight County Schools and now that people have come the other discussion we have to have is how to keep those people like this of crucial importance. We discussed ways this morning with our leadership team, with our leadership team, to do that, and one of the ways that we’re going to do that again is through collaboration. … We will discuss with the teachers why they came and what we have to do to keep them here.