By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
Anyone who wants to marvel at where the city of Bessemer is headed can look no further than city’s school system—and Superintendent Autumm Jeter, EdD.
Elected earlier this year, Dr. Jeter wasted no time helping everyone connected to the system—administrators, teachers, employees, students, parents—reimagine their potential, reshape how they perceive themselves, and believe quality education will become integral in all that they do.
“A functioning, progressive educational system is what it will take to move the city of Bessemer forward, and we’re committed to that,” she said.
Dr. Jeter, 41, has a 20-year career as an educator and 15 as an administrator, and believes strong leadership will get Bessemer’s students on par with those in the region.
“My experience really prepared me for where I am now, to mold and lead this district into what we see in neighboring districts—good academic achievement; fun and inviting things for our community members and our students; and lots of exposure and resources,” she said.
Dr. Jeter has been a principal in several Alabama school systems, including those in Fairfield, Trussville, and Tuscaloosa. Most recently, she served as director of curriculum and instruction at Hoover City Schools.
In “The Marvel City,” the superintendent spent her first few weeks getting acquainted with the system’s eight schools, 600-person staff, and many of its 3,400 students. Bessemer has five elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and one alternative learning school.
“My number-one priority was to connect with my students and teachers and make sure they know who I am,” she said.
Dr. Jeter’s days can begin as early 6 a.m. and last until she’s “falling asleep,” she said.
“What I’ve learned, as with many other things, is there is no set schedule. You know you have tasks to do, and you just have to get them done,” she said. “Typically, somebody’s calling or emailing in the 6 o’clock hour while I’m getting ready for work. … At a certain point, I do try to stop to see about my personal children and go to football games or basketball games. I [also] try to take time to go walk and get a little exercise in.”
Dr. Jeter is married to Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Reginald Jeter; they have two sons: a ninth and fifth grader.
Growing up, Dr. Jeter always considered herself a good student—“A talkative one,” she laughed.
“I was truly an outgoing student, I wanted to be around people who enjoyed school, and I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities,” she said, adding she knew at a young age that she wanted to teach.
“In elementary school, we used to have career days, when we would dress as what we wanted to be. Of course, everyone dressed as a doctor or a nurse, but I wanted to be a teacher,” Dr. Jeter recalled. “Helping and teaching others was natural for me, and I enjoyed it. I used to play school at home and with imaginary friends.”
She also looked up to her elementary school principal, Dr. Evette Richardson, at Glen Oaks Elementary in Fairfield, Alabama, where she was raised. She loved helping her teachers pass out materials in class.
“I enjoyed helping friends [with class assignments]. … In essence, that’s what you do as an educator: help others. So, I can say that it’s been a lifelong dream to be a teacher,” said Dr. Jeter.
The former Girl Scout took piano lessons for three years in middle school and high school and formally trained in tap, ballet, jazz, hip-hop dance.
“I was a cheerleader in middle school, and I was in the band in high school,” Dr. Jeter said. “I was a Tigerette Dance girl all four of my [high school] years, and I made captain in my senior year. I really enjoyed dancing. If I were not an educator, I’d probably be a professional ballet dancer with the goal of competing on shows like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ or ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
Dr. Jeter also developed a love for books as a child—among her favorites were classics like Berenstain Bear books and children’s poetry by Shel Silverstein—and she remains an avid reader.
“In high school, the teachers in our English classes had us reading African American authors. My first set of books were by Toni Morrison—‘The Bluest Eye,’ ‘Beloved,’ [and many others—as well as] Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’ That’s what got me reading a lot of African American authors all the way through college,” Dr. Jeter said.
“When I have time, I enjoy reading biographies. … I’ve read a book on former President Barack Obama, and I’m halfway through [former First Lady] Michelle Obama’s biography now,” she said.
Dr. Jeter earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Talladega College and a Master of Science in education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She also has an educational administrator certification, an Educational Specialist degree, and a Doctor of Education degree from Samford University.
“The degrees I earned were all aligned with instructional leadership, so curriculum and instruction are strengths of mine,” she said.
The Hoover, Alabama, resident began her career in 2001 in Jefferson County Schools as a middle school teacher. In 2006, she served as assistant principal at Fairfield High School for one year. In 2007, she acquired her first full job as principal at her former grade school, Glen Oaks Elementary in Fairfield.
As the superintendent of the Bessemer school system, Dr. Jeter started working with curriculum administrators to incorporate several changes.
“I’ve been working along with Director of Curriculum [Dr. Marcy Burroughs],” Dr. Jeter said. “She and her team provided an overview of what was being used when I came on board, and we streamlined that. [Then], I brought in some programs I was familiar with and got rid of some that were redundant [to make] sure we had a curriculum program we could implement.”
There’s also been a focus on teachers, Dr. Jeter said.
“We’re bringing professional development structures I was accustomed to in other settings here to make sure our teachers receive regular [training] that is targeted to the needs of our children and structured in a way that teachers are engaged and excited about it,” she explained. “We’re building rigorous teaching in the classrooms and partnerships with various community members and stakeholders. … The quality of teaching in the classroom is important.”
Facing the Pandemic
All in all, Dr. Jeter said her beginning as superintendent was overwhelming in the sense that it was nonstop, but she was ready for it.
“Then, within two or three weeks, the COVID-19 talk started,” she said. “It just totally stopped the ship.”
“[It didn’t stop the ship] from sailing, but we had to stop and change the route to one for which no one knew what was ahead, what was in between, or what was going on. … And [things are] constantly changing, even as of now,” Dr. Jeter added. “We went from traditional teaching, when everybody comes to school and things are great, to ‘Wait a minute. How do we navigate [virtual learning]?’ For the first four weeks, we were all virtual and remote learning from home, but on [September 28] we started blending those families who choose to blend back in: … two days learning face to face, and three days at home.”
Leading the district through the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge, Dr. Jeter said: “It’s been hard, and there’s no exaggeration or other grandiose word to use for it. It’s been difficult.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Jeter and her team have stepped up to deal with the pandemic and expectations.
“Virtual learning was one of those [expectations],” she said. “We had to come up with a plan immediately back in the spring. My true goal has been to change the culture to more of ‘what we can do’ instead of ‘what we can’t do’ in order to grow Bessemer academically and athletically, and to grow our overall school program.”
Dr. Jeter has the ship sailing again, although the waters remain choppy.
“We’re really focusing on the culture of the school district first, how others perceive Bessemer City Schools and how we perceive ourselves,” she said. “Our hashtag and slogan are #ReimagineBessemerCitySchools.
“We’re working on reimagining the school system in the sense of imagining the district you would want for your children and where we want to go,” Dr. Jeter said.
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