In the early 1990s, the Hamlin Middle School Band in Texas had an important band competition. The students were well prepared musically, but they needed to get to the competition. A bus driver was not available. The band director, Vickie Cartwright, had just passed the test to obtain a commercial driver’s license, but she had never driven a school bus full of students.
“I had learned to drive the bus, and other band directors and students were getting on the bus. So, it was up to me to drive the bus to the competition. It was my first drive with students,” she recalled. “I took my first turn, and you could have heard a pin drop. The students were quiet. We got to the competition safely and earned superior ratings.”
School bus driving came naturally to Cartwright. He husband Carl also drove buses to school events. Her mother was a school bus driver in Escambia County, Florida.
Long before she was named superintendent earlier this year of Broward County Public Schools, the second-largest school district in Florida and sixth-largest in the U.S., Cartwright, now age 51, started her educational career three decades ago as a middle and high school band director in Hardin and Hamlin, Texas. She enjoyed success as a director and experienced principals encouraged her to pursue a career in educational leadership. Eventually, Cartwright became an assistant principal and then a principal for middle schools in Texas and Mississippi.
Her success led Cartwright to earn a master’s degree in music education, an educational specialist degree, and a doctorate of philosophy in education administration and supervision from the University of Southern Mississippi. She left teaching for her educational pursuits, but she also needed an income. She became a substitute bus driver in Ethel, Mississippi and drove school buses on a regular basis.
Cartwright became the Broward County Public Schools superintendent on Feb. 24. She was selected following a national search of candidates. Cartwright had served as the district’s interim superintendent since Aug. 2, 2021. In a Broward Schools’ official statement, she said “Students First” is her guiding principle and that she is “committed to ensuring all students receive a high-quality education, collaborating with stakeholders, creating partnerships and building relationships.”
Broward County Public Schools serves more than 256,000 students in 241 schools, centers, technical colleges and 91 charter schools.
Cartwright has been involved in many leadership positions over her years in education. When she was an associate superintendent in Orange County, she directed the accountability, research and assessment department. She also served as the vice president of the American Educational Research Association for the Division of Research, Evaluation and Assessment in Schools and President of the National Association of Assessment Directors. Before attending graduate school, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education from the University of Florida.
She has been married to Dr. Carl Cartwright for 30 years and has a son, Dylan. Cartwright still enjoys playing music and participates in a symphonic band program.
“There were a lot of dirt roads and steep drop-offs,” she said. “Sometimes students would get off the bus and help with very difficult three-point turns. As a bus driver, I was the first person at the school and one of the last people to leave the school at the end of the day.
“This experience really gave me a perspective and insight into the many positive things that our bus drivers deal with on a daily basis to help people have a positive day,” continued Cartwright, who was named Broward County superintendent in February after serving on an interim basis since last summer. “Some of the challenges include facing alternative routes and rowdy kids on the bus. I saw firsthand opportunities for ways in which we can have a positive effect on children. I was able to create good relationships with the students on the buses I drove.”
Early in her career, Cartwright said she developed leadership skills that were recognized when she was directing bands. One of the first bands she directed was in a school that was facing struggles. The band program was limited to a few students. “At the time I did not have a lot of experience, but I told the students we are a family, and we are going to be the best we can be,” Cartwright said. “I was able to create a dynamic leadership team and turn the program around. Leaders of the school district said I should be working with larger groups of students and become a school leader.”
She continued to pursue leadership training programs and developed a long and successful career in public education of over 26 years. She served as superintendent of schools for the Oshkosh Area School District in Wisconsin. She also worked for Orange County Public Schools in Florida for 17 years, where she served as associate superintendent for exceptional students education with responsibilities for supporting students and leading principals, central office administrators, instructional personnel and classified staff.
“I was able to adapt to various situations and was involved in the community and enjoyed many good relationships,” said Cartwright.
Cartwright shared her belief in the collaborative approach to leadership. She commented that no one person is better than anyone else. “I am purpose-driven. I believe we can work together for common good,” she said. “I want to ensure that students are successful and having the right person at the right time is important to me. What do our teachers think about this? What do school administrators think about something? I want to hear what drivers think. I want to receive feedback from them.”
Getting buy-in from personnel throughout the district is also very important to Cartwright. “I don’t believe in top-down management. I want grassroots and up. I want everyone to have a voice at the table and I want people to know I am listening to them. I want to get by-in from people. I want the bus drivers to believe in our program,” said Cartwright. “When there is a situation or [I am] looking to do something different, I can make sure representation is at the table from different job classifications. I want to get back and share information that we have gained from partnership.”
Though Cartwright has achieved much professional success, she remains humble.
“I remember when my mother was a school bus driver, and she would come home with the bus. I would often help her clean the bus,” she said.
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