Dr. Cecil Snead has nearly completed his first year as superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, and he is thoroughly pleased with the way things have gone so far.
The year has been “excellent,” he said, “and it’s because of the relationships. Truly, it’s the people.”
Since coming on board last July, the former superintendent of the Buckingham County Public Schools has concentrated much of his time and attention on getting to know people in the schools and the community and finding common ground. He joined the Rotary Club of Orange and became acquainted with members of the Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP and the Orange County Board of Supervisors, among other groups.
“If I wasn’t actively engaged with my students and my employees and, particularly, my community members, then I believe there would be room for people to have questions about, ‘What does he stand for? Who is he?’ And I believe getting out into the different organizations and creating those relationships has really helped. I believe it’s helped me, and I believe it’s also, hopefully, helped the school system,” he said.
There are tangible signs that the Orange County Public Schools are thriving. With Snead leading the way, the school board recently approved a new operating budget of $53 million, which includes a 3% raise for teachers and other staff members. Budget negotiations between the schools and the county went smoothly, with the county granting the schools nearly $21 million, the amount the school division had requested.
Snead counts the raise for teachers—the second in two years—as an important achievement. He also is pleased with improved math scores on the Standards of Learning exams, which appear related to stepped-up professional development by county math teachers.
Among the other achievements he cites are expanded career and technology courses to be offered at Orange County High School (OCHS) in the new school year and the construction already underway of a new Hornet Center for Innovation at the high school. A grant from Amazon will allow OCHS to offer computer science courses for the first time, and Snead is closing in on a goal of providing every student, from kindergarten through grade 12, with a computer device to aid their classroom learning.
In addition, he is delighted with the elimination of the so-called “pay to play” requirement for student athletes. From now on, students at Orange County High School and Prospect Heights and Locust Grove middle schools won’t have to pay a fee to join a team sport. At the high school, furthermore, the lacrosse club will become an official sport in the Virginia High School League.
During his first year, he also has placed a premium on equity in the classroom—that is, making sure all Orange County students have equal access to learning. He and his administrative staff have been working their way through a book called “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond. In the new school year, there are plans in the works for book study groups in each school so teachers can learn how to relate more productively to students of diverse cultural backgrounds. Snead said bus drivers also are being trained to recognize cultural differences, since they, too, interact with students on a daily basis.
The budget, computer access and the shifting cultural landscape in the classroom are ongoing issues that require Snead’s considered attention. But there is nothing quite like the possibility of snow to put him on high alert at short notice. Snead said he authorized seven school closings during the past year and four two-hour delayed openings.
On one occasion, a power outage resulted in a division-wide closure, but generally, it’s the weather that causes trouble. How does he decide what’s a snow day and what’s not?
“First and foremost, we want to err on the side of safety,” he said. “Some of the challenges become the weather, the timing of the weather and when our buses have to start. We don’t want our buses on the road if we feel like it’s going to put our students in harm’s way.
“This year, some of these calls have been right at the time we release buses. I don’t want to start out with our students getting picked up and then [quickly] returning home. Parents depend on, once a decision is made, that we’ll follow through with that decision. So we like to gather as much information as possible and try to make a solid decision the night before, so parents can have the opportunity [to arrange for] child care.”
Decreeing snow days is one among many essential duties that Snead handles with utter seriousness and concern for the welfare of students and staff alike. Yet anyone who talks to him for more than a few minutes sees his gentle good humor. He has said that when he meets with students thinking about dropping out of school, he does what he can to get them to smile and relax. He wants them to reconsider—and to know he is on their side.
While settling into his new post in Orange County, Snead has made it clear he is a family man whose personal relationships matter enormously to him. He counts his wife Sherrie’s happiness with their new life in Orange County as essential to his satisfaction with his new job and said they both love their new home in Lake of the Woods, where they spend time relaxing with their two dogs and have enjoyed getting to know their neighbors.
In January, the couple became grandparents. They flew to Los Angeles to be with their older daughter and son-in-law and help welcome baby girl Saylor to the world. Then, on the same day as Orange County High School’s graduation, the Sneads attended their younger daughter’s graduation ceremony at the University of Virginia.
It’s been a busy and eventful year for Snead, and he admits to working long hours, sometimes as late as 9 p.m. But as his first anniversary in Orange County approaches, he has no complaints. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I absolutely love it here.”