Gertrude Ivory, Charlottesville's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, is retiring after 44 years in education. Credit: Credit: Charlottesville City Schools

Gertrude Ivory, assistant superintendent for Charlottesville City Schools, didn’t think she’d survive her first year on the job.

Offered her post by Scottie Griffin, a superintendent who resigned under pressure shortly after arriving in Charlottesville — and one with whom Ivory had worked previously — little did Ivory know that that was the first of two storms she’d soon have to weather.

“I really thought that at the end of that first year that I would be gone as well,” Ivory said. “But I knew that after [Griffin] left, the first thing we needed to do was to help people heal.”

“It was an opportunity for me to be myself and offer support to people because this whole community was hurting,” Ivory added. “It was very public, it was not nice and it was just a bad situation.”

But just as the healing process took root and the school division returned to stability, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, destroying many of Ivory’s relatives’ homes and turning their lives upside down.

“I remember looking at it on television and seeing people I know,” she said. “My friends and family were all over the country and I was here; and I was OK and they were not.”

Ten years later, set to retire after 44 years in education — 11 of which she spent in her current role — it’s her ability to support others that those she worked with will remember her by.

“Gertrude believes in people, and she knows how to move people to believe in each other,” said Carly Nicholson, an instructional coach at Charlottesville High School. “She trusts you and expects the best from you, yet she supports and guides you along the way.”

“My main purpose, and the main thing
I wanted everyone who worked with
me to do, was support teachers,
students and principals,” Ivory said.

“Her leadership in Charlottesville over the past 11 years has touched our community in a profound way, impacting students, families, community members and her colleagues here in the schools,” said Rosa Atkins, superintendent of the division. “Even bigger than her specific accomplishments is the way that she empowered the community to become advocates, not only in education, but in our larger society.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Ivory said that she wanted to educate children as soon as she met her second grade teacher, Mrs. Stevens.

“There was always something going on in her classroom and it seemed non-traditional to me at that time, so I guess I was always drawn to that type of teaching and learning,” Ivory said.

“It wasn’t just reading and writing and stuff like that. We would have to explain our math problems at the board, and we did big projects,” she added. “I remember being on the floor and drawing a big mountain lion.”

Ivory began teaching in 1971, and spent 16 years working with elementary school special-education students. She also served as a principal for 12 years before working at the division level, where she has directed summer school and literacy programs, among other responsibilities.

During her time in Charlottesville, Ivory said she’s most proud of the relationships she’s built with teachers and students.

“There are a number of students who I have personally mentored in the school division, built relationships with them and seen them graduate and go on and do other things, so I’m very proud of that,” Ivory said.

“My main purpose, and the main thing I wanted everyone who worked with me to do, was support teachers, students and principals, and I’m proud of the support that we have offered,” she said, noting that she’s even stepped in to teach classes herself when needed.

The final decade of Ivory’s career saw the rise of high-stakes testing and the role of technology in the classroom accelerate.

Ivory said testing isn’t the problem, it’s how the information is being used.

“If the information is used to improve what we’re doing, to teach better, to get better resources … that’s all well and good, but when it becomes punitive for students and schools, that’s where it went crazy,” she said.

“We want everybody to be at the same place at the same time,” Ivory said. “That’s what we don’t acknowledge with testing right now.”

And while she supports the use of technology as a tool, Ivory said good teaching is still where the rubber meets the road.

“Just because we put computers in the hands of children doesn’t mean their achievement will go up,” Ivory said. “It’s still how you use what you use, what you know about how children learn, and particularly how [a specific] child learns.”

Nicholson characterized Ivory as a “wild dreamer and thinker,” but one who’s “sure the wild dreams and ideas actually come to fruition.”

“She does all of this with the passion and insight for what is best for our students because she believes in our students foremost,” she said. “And she knows how to move people to also believe in our students.”

In New Orleans, saying you are “getting into someone’s gumbo” is another way of saying you are getting involved in community happenings.

After returning home, Ivory said she plans to spend time with friends and family, before finding a way to stay connected to education in some capacity.

“I don’t know whose gumbo pot I’ll be in,” Ivory said, “but I’ll be in somebody’s pot.”