In 2006, Decatur, Ill., Public Schools faced a widening achievement gap, an increasing dropout rate and schools struggling to meet yearly growth targets.
It was time for new leadership -- someone "visionary," according school board chairman Dan Winter.
"We got that," he said, with Gloria Davis.
Her record has caught the attention of the Beaufort County School District, which is searching for a new superintendent. Davis is one of three finalists selected by the Board of Education.
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Davis "increased the rigor of curriculum, particularly at the high school," Winter said. She also raised graduation rates and rallied support for a sales tax to renovate two high schools "during a tough economic, anti-tax climate."
Davis reorganized the district's central office, started a professional-development program and encouraged collaboration among teachers, according to Suzanne Kreps, president of the Decatur Education Association. She also used federal grant money to create an early-learning center, increased advanced placement classes from three to 14 and doubled the number of honors classes, according to Kreps and other school officials.
"This has demonstrated my philosophy that all children can be successful under productive leadership," Davis said.
That philosophy and passion for helping others was born of a hard-knocks life growing up in inner-city St. Louis as the oldest of three children raised by two blind parents.
Her father operated a concessions stand at an inner-city hospital, and her mother taught Braille from her home, Davis said.
"When you have parents who are handicapped, you learn empathy and care and the ability to do to anything at all odds," she said.
At age 8, she knew she wanted to be a teacher and thought of being nothing else.
"My childhood give me a passion for knowing that anyone and any child can do what they set their mind to with the right help, support and expectations," she said. "It doesn't matter their background or socioeconomic status. ... 'Can't' is not a word that I listen to."
Thirteen of the 17 elementary schools in Davis' district received awards from the state of Illinois for superior achievement among low-income and minority students, according to a biography submitted to search firm Ray and Associates.
Her district's reading and math scores on standardized tests increased from 2007 to 2011. The district's high school graduation rate improved from 73.3 percent in 2007 to 92 percent in 2010, before dipping to 70 percent in 2011, according to state data. About 75 percent of Illinois high schools saw a decline that year under a new formula that requires students to graduate in four years, according to deputy superintendent Lisa Mann and media reports.
"She's charismatic and very good with the community," Kreps said of Davis. "She has done some really good things here and will be successful wherever she goes."
The Beaufort County school board hopes to have a new superintendent hired by the first week in March, chairman Bill Evans has said, although the selected candidate would probably not start until July 1.
The other finalists are Jeffrey Moss, superintendent of Lee County Schools in Sanford, N.C., and Kathryn LeRoy, director of high school programs for Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.