Attitude Shift 

Richmond’s new schools superintendent talks about the system’s culture, crumbling facilities and hope for what’s next.

click to enlarge Richmond School Superintendent Dana Bedden is sworn into office at City Hall on Jan. 13.

Ash Daniel

Richmond School Superintendent Dana Bedden is sworn into office at City Hall on Jan. 13.

Dana Bedden made his first appearance as superintendent of Richmond Public Schools at the opening of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in January, where he joined Mayor Dwight Jones in expressing hope that a new building would help foster a renewed spirit in students and teachers.

The budget that Bedden put forward with the School Board, which came in with a $4.8 million shortfall, aims to spread that sense of renewal district-wide. Among its priorities was a pay raise for teachers and more money for building maintenance. Last week, Jones responded with a proposal that would direct $5 million toward capital improvement for the next year and a total of $18 million during the next five years.

While Bedden and the School Board worked to finalize funding, he spoke to Style about the "non-traditional" start of the new job, which has required a crash course on the pressing needs of the 23,775-student school district.

Style: Have you spent a lot time in the schools?

Bedden: No, and that's been one of the challenges. My last district, within half a year and with more schools, I had been to every school. This has been very much derailed. I've been to three schools this morning before coming here. … I'm having to extend the day. I didn't leave here until maybe 10 [last night].

What's it feel like to go into schools where there's a risk of things like boilers failing?

My career has been blessed and challenged to be in one of the wealthiest districts ... and I've also worked in a district with the highest per capita rate of teen pregnancy. … None of our facilities looked like this. None of them. Other than the District of Columbia, this is the only district I've been in that has facilities in this condition. I'd ask people to remember that environment can influence attitude.

At some point there has to be a dedicated, committed line item just for capital improvement in schools, and let's continue it. We've asked for a capital improvement plan over the next five years. But the challenge is, it's the basics. Mechanical, roofs and structural is the bulk of what we're asking for this year — and only $1 million is site improvement. None of those are frills.

The other challenge is all these are actually costing us money. Our operations and maintenance is one of the highest in the area. We have 20-something buses down. At some point we have to realize we've gutted this system to the point where it's hard to make it effective and efficient.

What are you hearing from staff, teachers and students as you go into schools?

Hope. Some of it realistic, some of it is I'd have to put an "S" on my chest. This has to be a journey with a very strategic, planned process. It can't be a race. That doesn't mean we don't have a sense of urgency with some things and can't grab low-hanging fruit and fix it. We have to have a cultural shift. I think that we will not make the progress we need to make if we don't address our climate and culture systemically. … It's staff and students, meaning how we approach the work. We have some places where we have attendance issues with adults. But here's the positive side: That's not the majority. The super-majority comes and does their job.

We have to have an attitude shift in the culture and climate within our community, meaning our parents and how they approach their role in education. Our business community — it's not just about going to them for more money. They have skills, resources and other assets that can help us improve.

What about buy-in from middle-class parents who don't have children in the system?

As we address the culture and climate, that's going to help that right off the bat. Running neck-and-neck is our academic performance. I will tell you that the culture and climate is interfering with academic performance. Remember, culture and climate — I'm talking about adults and students.

If anything, it seems like you're mostly talking about the adults.

When I look at the attendance rate of our schools, attendance is actually up. We're 90-something percent. Kids are coming, but what are they coming to? Belief systems, attitudes are part of our culture and climate.

When I was a teacher, there was an expectation that you were sitting in your seat when the bell rang, not just walking in the door. There is no getting up to sharpen your pencil. … We had rituals and routines in our classroom. … I had teachers who made me feel valuable and wanted at my school. Teachers who met me at my door. I liked going to school, I looked forward to going to school. What happens in the cafeteria matters. The bus driver who picks the students up, if that driver's yelling at you, you might go to school with a bad attitude.

The culture and climate also has to do with how we treat our staff. Accountability does not have to be a sledgehammer.

School Board Chairman Don Coleman's hope is to make Richmond known as an attractive urban district for young teachers.

We just have to be competitive compensation wise, but we don't have to be the highest-paying. If we're competitive with a great culture and climate, they'll come. If our staff is happy and embracing and welcoming and excited about meeting kids and working with them, the middle class will come. They'll feel like they're sending their most precious commodity to a warm, caring environment and, by the way, if I get that group of [teachers] that Don Coleman talks about, then I get to pick rather than just take who walks through the door. Then, hopefully I'm picking out of the best and brightest. And if I'm getting the best and brightest to teach our children, guess what's going to happen with academic achievement?


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