Monday, June 24th, 2019

New Superintendent of Chesapeake Schools, Dr. Jared A. Cotton, is back home Story


by Angela Slevin

Jared A. Cotton, Ed.D <BR>Photo by Lifetouch

Jared A. Cotton, Ed.D
Photo by Lifetouch

Getting students engaged in learning is a tricky business, according to the new Superintendent of Chesapeake Public Schools. Jared A. Cotton, Ed.D, has spent the last 25 years of his life as an educator, and recently returned to Chesapeake after almost seven years in Henry County, Virginia. He is very pleased to be back home, though he sees many things have changed. “Growing up in Great Bridge, it felt like being in the country, even though I lived off Dominion Boulevard. There wasn’t much around the new Great Bridge High School at that time,” he recalls fondly.

Well-spoken, confident and approachable, Dr. Cotton is easy to talk to. He genuinely cares about the students and families in his school division, and has earned the respect of his peers. In Henry County, where Dr. Cotton served as Superintendent of schools, 60 percent of the students live in poverty. The performance gap between disadvantaged students and their more fortunate counterparts was significant. Dr. Cotton set out with humanitarian intent, finding ways to provide these students with basics like food and clothing, as well as academic opportunities. He promoted project-oriented learning and performance-based assessments allowing students to learn in different ways and to apply their knowledge in different ways. As a result, the performance gap in math and reading steadily closed until the Title I elementary schools returned to full accreditation. For this work, Dr. Cotton was selected as the Virginia Superintendent of the Year for 2019.

As a former Chesapeake student himself, Dr. Cotton understands this community and these students as only a Chesapeake native can. Dr. Cotton’s father was in the military, and their family moved around quite a bit until he was in fifth grade. They settled here in Chesapeake and he attended Crestwood Intermediate school. He speaks of his time there and of his teachers with warmth.

Growing up, Dr. Cotton didn’t think education would be his path; he thought he might become a pharmacist, or a marine biologist. After graduating from Great Bridge High School, he enrolled at Tidewater Community College (TCC), and took a job as a counselor at The Pines Treatment Center in Portsmouth. Substituting for a teacher out on leave, young Jared found the children in the day program were acting up and getting into trouble. He tried a different approach with them: instead of learning from worksheets and memorizing facts, he led them through hands-on experiments and took them outside where applying knowledge was fun and exciting. The students’ reaction was extremely positive; they were excited about learning and there were no further behavior problems.

It was an “aha” moment for the young man. “I thought, ‘Wow – I’m good at this. Maybe this is my calling.’ I went back to TCC and earned my Associate in education, and spoke with advisors at Old Dominion University about continuing my education there,” Dr. Cotton explains. “I had an interest in so many different things, and teaching allows one to take on all kinds of roles – actor, scientist, counselor, mathematician. A teacher gets to explore so many areas.”

Grassfield High School’s SCA bestows an Inspire Hope T-shirt to new Superintendent, Dr. Cotton

Grassfield High School’s SCA bestows an Inspire Hope T-shirt to new Superintendent, Dr. Cotton

Dr. Cotton went on to earn his Bachelor’s degree in Middle School Education from Old Dominion University and his Master’s degree in Educational Administration from George Washington University. His first teaching job was at his own school, Crestwood Intermediate, as a fifth grade teacher. The principal walked him to what would be his own classroom, and Dr. Cotton was shocked to see that it was his old fifth grade classroom when he was a student.

“My first thought was ‘I haven’t traveled far at all,’ but I wanted to give back to the community where I grew up by teaching in it,” he points out. “I had a lot of fun with it. I’d tell the students ‘I know how you feel because I have been in your seat, literally. Maybe that exact seat you’re sitting in!’ ”

“I think it’s extremely important
to be innovative and use new technology.
That’s what excites students about learning,
and I really enjoy seeing students
really get excited about school.”

—Superintendent Jared A. Cotton, Ed.D

Dr. Cotton is a staunch believer that school should be interesting. “I’m big on making learning relevant and meaningful for students,” he says. “I think it’s extremely important to be innovative and use new technology. That’s what excites students about learning, and I really enjoy seeing students really get excited about school.”

In his previous school division in Henry County, Dr. Cotton implemented two New Tech academies, a first in the entire state. Students who were sick at home with fevers were so eager to participate and not miss anything in class that they were using Facetime on the cell phones of fellow students in the classroom to be there virtually. This made Dr. Cotton realize he had found a great way to engage his students. “I carry that memory with me so that I always bear in mind there are cool ways to get kids excited about school,” he smiles.

Plans for the Chesapeake school division are going to be made in collaboration with students, parents, teachers, bus drivers, and all levels of school staff. “I don’t want to make the assumption that everything I want to do is what we should do,” Dr. Cotton comments. “I want to form a collective plan with our valuable stakeholders. I’m most excited about getting feedback from students, and I’ll be meeting soon with the Student Council to hear their thoughts.”

Dr. Cotton anticipates that innovation, personalized learning, different pathways to learning, ways to explore other interests, and career and technical education will be among the topics addressed. He recognizes that college isn’t a good fit for everyone, and that Chesapeake and the rest of the state and the country need skilled technicians just as much as physicians and marketing experts. “We want our students to have great opportunities, and that doesn’t always mean college. Our graduates sometimes go on to work with certifications in electronics or HVAC, and often, after finding what they love, they go back to college, and their employers pay the tuition.”

The Superintendent also wants to ramp up communication efforts to be more accessible to stakeholders and have two-way communication. To that end, he updates his blog regularly and has a Twitter account for the school division.

Dr. Cotton has been married to his wife, Joanna, for 25 years. She is a Virginia Beach native, and an educator as well. Their children, William and Michaela,  have set out on journeys of their own. William is in Naples, Florida, enjoying a great career in HVAC, and Michaela is exploring her new role as an optometrist’s scribe in Hampton Roads.

Although he hasn’t had much free time lately, Dr. Cotton is an avid tennis player. He has volunteered with his church and has been in the choir. In the near future, Dr. Cotton would like to cruise to Alaska with Joanna, and accompany Michaela to one of the off-beat destinations she enjoys visiting, like Iceland or Thailand.  Of course, a trip to visit William in Florida will be planned as well.

Dr. Cotton is already getting a warm reception. On a recent visit to Grassfield High School, students wore T-shirts emblazoned with his mission, “Inspire Hope,” and they presented him with his very own. “That is my new favorite T-shirt!” Dr. Cotton declares proudly.

Jared A. Cotton

Superintendent of Chesapeake Public Schools
Chesapeake, VA