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What's Up Magazine

Dr. Carol Sheffey Parham

Mar 09, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous

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The 15-year resident of the South Haven area of Annapolis has carved a noticeable niche within the field of education, which extends well beyond her years serving in the high-profile position the superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Today Parham is the Professor of Practice–Organizational Leadership & Policy Studies, at the University of Maryland at College Park, educating graduate students pursuing school administration careers. “I think it [the program] is forward thinking because there really has to be reciprocity in theory and practice,” she says. And this past July she was named chair of the University of Maryland’s President’s Commission on Women’s Issues—a two-year appointment. “We advocate for women’s issues at the university, making sure it’s a better place for all women, and promote and gather research that supports our positions,” explains Parham.

Parham’s story begins with the ultimate foundation of any individual, her family—a family that instilled within her a deep appreciation for her fellow man, woman, and child. Parham’s great-grandfather was born into slavery during the early 1800s in Calvert County. In the face of such adversity, he managed to rise to the rank of sergeant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Her father, Powell Sheffey, was the oldest of 12 siblings and at one time was a high school dropout—yet he returned to school, earned his high school degree, and went to college on what was known at the time as a “poor boy’s scholarship.” He would become a schoolteacher and marry his love, Margarie Talbot, also a schoolteacher. From a young age, Parham and her three siblings were raised to appreciate their education as a means to create opportunity. “Certainly a big influence was my parents, but I also think it was a different time, basically, for African American women. You were sort of expected to become a teacher, or a nurse—but it’s a career path I’ve never regretted and one that I’ve enjoyed.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree cum laude from the University of Maryland at College Park she began her professional career as a social studies teacher in Baltimore. Her early classroom experiences motivated her to pursue a master’s degree in school administration, with advanced studies in guidance and counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Shortly after graduation, she accepted a supervisory position in the personnel office of the Howard County public school system.

Married in 1970 to William Parham, she began raising a family, a son and a daughter. By the time the children were nearing college, the Parhams had moved to Anne Arundel County (in 1989), she had earned a doctorate of education from the University of Maryland, and she’d taken a new position as head of the county public school system’s personnel division.

Then one day her job description changed. “I came into work one Saturday morning and by that evening I had been named acting superintendent of schools, which I considered to be a great honor and privilege,” Parham recalls.

Called upon to serve as interim superintendent for one and a half years, in the wake of an intense controversy within the school system, Parham immediately went to work stabilizing a system that, she says, “was going through a very unfortunate period. There were threats from the state superintendent to take over the school system. There was upset among all of our constituencies—parents, the public, elected officials. [But] my counseling training helped me to work with people, build relationships, and rebuild relationships with different constituencies—to regain their confidence in the school system.”

She made great strides in positioning that system—43rd largest in the nation—for success. Officially appointed superintendent in 1994, she became the first female—and first African American—superintendent of schools in county history, and served until 2001. She cites closing the achievement gap and ensuring that the system was always child-focused, as opposed to adult focused, as guiding principles of her tenure. “Yes, it was hard work; yes, there were times that were extremely challenging for me personally and professionally. But my focus was always on the school system,” says Parham.

Parham has received many accolades over the years, including the 1996 Maryland Superintendent of the Year, the Martin Luther King Peacemaker Award, and the Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Award for Excellence to Outstanding Maryland Women in Government Service. The Anne Arundel County Board of Education building was named in her honor—a testament to the stability and advances her leadership provided the system. “I think I left a school system that is very desirable.”

In addition to her work at the university, Parham organized a health forum, held this past September, that brought together one of the area’s major churches, a public service organization, and Anne Arundel Medical Center. More than 100 women attended. She is planning more of these events for the future. “In the past several years, I’ve had an interest in diabetes awareness and health and wellness for African American women. I’ve done volunteer work at the diabetic clinic at the Stanton Center,” she says. “I think that in terms of informing women about health care issues, you’re really able to reach the entire family. It’s the ripple effect. Being involved in health care is a passion of mine. And hopefully that’s going to grow.”

For Parham, the inspiration for her professional work and philanthropic endeavors always comes full circle, back to her family. She is an active grandmother of three (with a fourth on the way) and she and her husband of 38 years, William, enjoy traveling and visiting museums and historic sites. They are looking forward to a spring teaching assignment, which will take them to Germany this coming April and May. “I’m open to new opportunities,” says Parham. Many individuals touched by her work over the years are thankful she has risen to accept and create those opportunities.