When Sharyland ISD trustees selected Dr. Richter as the district’s new superintendent, I remember reading in the paper that a PSJA administrator had been selected for the job. At the time, I assumed she had followed the traditional route to becoming superintendent. When we met, though, I learned “the rest of her story.”
Raised on a ranch in McCook, Virginia Richter was a freshman at Texas A & M, majoring in agriculture, when her parents moved to Mission. Two years later, during the summer before her senior year, Virginia interned at Southwest Grain. It proved to be a fruitful summer, with Virginia not only gaining experience in her field but also meeting her future husband, Jeff, a graduate of Sharyland High School.
When she graduated, Virginia accepted a job at “The Red Tractor Company” (Case International Harvester) and established her home in Mission. It was the mid 80’s, and the agriculture market was facing tough times. After just one year on the job, because she was the last one hired, Virginia was laid off.
“Alternative certification had just started,” Dr. Richter told me, “and I signed on. I was one of just four in the program.” (In Texas, individuals with a bachelor’s degree can go through an alternative certification program. After meeting several state requirements, they earn Texas teaching certificate.) Dr. Richter accepted a job at Alton Elementary, where she stayed for two years.
“I loved that community,” Dr. Richter said. “That’s where I learned to love mole (the Mexican sauce/stew). And I would not be here today had I not had the mentors there. It was actually the 5th grade teachers at Alton Elementary who showed me what it means to be a great teacher.” Those teachers served as models of leadership for Dr. Richter.
After two years in Alton, she accepted a job teaching third graders in PSJA ISD. During this time, Dr. Richter earned her master’s in education. She taught for two years before being selected as an assistant principal for the district. Then, when the district opened North Alamo Elementary, PSJA administrators chose Dr. Richter as the new school’s assistant principal.
“I served as assistant principal for eight years and principal for six years.” At the end of the school’s first year, accountability measures rated it “Acceptable.” The second year, it was “Recognized.”
“By the third year, it was exemplary, and that’s where it remained,” Dr. Richter told me.
While working as a principal, Dr. Richter earned an Ed.D (Doctor of Education) from the University of Houston. She served as an area superintendent in PSJA ISD for four years until she was hired as the SISD superintendent.
“I am a first generation college graduate,” Dr. Richter said. “My mom earned her GED and my dad didn’t graduate from high school. I didn’t get my doctorate with the goal of becoming a superintendent. I got it because I saw my mom struggle, and I didn’t want to go through that. I am a living testament that education opens doors.”
Dr. Richter feels it’s critical for her to open those doors for others. “Besides working with Central Office and campus administrators, my goal is to also work with assistant principals and lead teachers to develop leaders.”
I immediately recognized this as an important quality of a true leader—the desire to grow leaders within the organization rather than to be intimidated by their strengths and their potential. I recently came across this on a social media site: A CFO asks a CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?” CEO: What happens if we don’t, and then they stay?”
Dr. Richter shared her desire to build a love for learning in all of the district’s students, her belief that the district’s strict and consistently enforced Code of Conduct is one of the main reasons Sharyland has the strong reputation it does, and her gratitude for the strong Sharyland Parent-Teacher-Student Organizations.
“They play a major role in our schools,” Dr. Richter said.
Sharyland is opening two new high schools this year (Pioneer High School and Sharyland’s first early college high school, Sharyland Advanced Academic Academy) , but the district will remain unified. Each school will have the district’s signature red “S” with the unique school logo on that “S.”
“Even though we’re growing and expanding,” she told me, “our roots remain one. Unity is strength. TOGETHER, we are Sharyland.”
Throughout my interview with Dr. Richter, I recognized countless qualities of a leader, but I wanted to know her definition.
“To me,” she said, “a leader has to know her (or his) people. You have to be willing to get in the trenches with them. If I ask our people to work on Saturdays, I pop in to campuses. If I’m asking them, then I’m going to be there, too. I have to be the ultimate role model.”
And what would she like her legacy to be? “I want people to be able to say, ‘She was a great leader.’”
Trust me. They already do.
Focus on Leadership is a new series on leadership in the field of education. Chris will be interviewing a wide range of leaders in the field of education over the next several months.
Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with their business communications and also works for a McAllen-based alternative certification program. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.