How the Richmond, Va., District Fought to Keep Its Superintendent

By Tiara Beatty — June 22, 2015 4 min read
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When news broke recently that Richmond, Va.'s new superintendent, Dana Bedden, was a finalist for the superintendent’s job in Boston, members of the community rallied together to build an effort to keep him.

Before Bedden arrived, many of Richmond’s schools were suffering from overcrowding, outdated facilities, underfunding, and were suffering from shortages of technology and other resources.

Since Bedden took the position in January of 2014, several significant changes have been made to the district. He immediately changed the team in the central office, made staffing changes for teachers and principals, and worked on upgrading facilities.

Bedden said there was a “lack of systems in place” so he built a team of people from outside of Richmond to look at the challenges with new eyes.

Once news spread that Bedden was considering the superintendent’s job in Boston, an organized effort to keep him in Richmond began. One of the leaders was Donald Cowles, a retired business executive who works through different organizations to support public schools.

Cowles and about 10 others decided the best way to encourage Bedden to stay was to tell him they didn’t want him to leave. Cowles and other community members created a petition called “RPS: Better With Bedden.” The catchy title took off and soon the hashtag #betterwithbedden sparked a conversation on Twitter about how to keep Bedden in Richmond.

The electronic petition was signed by 782 people, including teachers, parents and community leaders. The petition was presented to Bedden at a school board meeting.

Tim Joyce, President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Richmond was one of the 782 signatures on the petition. Joyce, a former middle school teacher, applauds Dr. Bedden and his staff.

“All our children need all the help they can get,” Joyce said. The YMCA, which has several academic and athletic programs in collaboration with the district, tries to support the work that teachers and administrators do.

Joyce said he signed the petition in support of the changes in the district and because “YMCA considers the public schools as [their] number one partners.”

Although Bedden was grateful for the support, he credits a lot of the new success of the school system to his team. “No district is really one person,” he stressed.

Angela Jones, the district’s Director of Student Services, who oversees the Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE), is a part of Bedden’s team to help students. FACE helps with parental and family involvement, dropout prevention, attendance policies, language support services, prevention and intervention for bullying, gangs, violence and a lot more.

FACE, one of the many new programs implemented by Bedden, works on rebuilding community trust and having a universal response for problems that students and their families may encounter. “We’re really addressing all the social issues that aren’t housed in a text book,” Jones said.

Bedden’s Academic Improvement Plan and increased transparency for the community were other large changes. The Academic Improvement Plan set new academic goals, professional development opportunities for staff, better instructional tools, better monitoring of student performance, and interventions for students. Also, the district displays their financial records and budget information for anyone to see on their website.

Cowles and other community members got behind Bedden to support his Academic Improvement Plan by creating a website and a new petition to support Bedden’s budget that received 456 signatures.

Bedden said he found out about the massive support system behind him through the news media and his communications staff. A large presence at a school board meeting and the ongoing support helped Bedden see that the overarching public sentiment was to get him to stay.

Some community members, however, felt that his decision to interview for the Boston job after just one year in Richmond showed a lack of commitment. For example, one community member, Larry Olanrewaju, signed the Better with Bedden petition but wrote, “I am signing reluctantly only because I am tired of the revolving door at the Superintendent level. He will eventually decide what is best for him and his family.”

Other influential people also weighed in, asking Bedden to stay, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton.

Bedden said he’s focused on carrying out the three year Academic Improvement Plan in Richmond. “Any job I walk into, I focus on quality not quantity,” Bedden said. “Whether it’s three years or 30 years...I look for ‘am I making a difference?’”

“The biggest change since Dr. Bedden’s arrival is the community response,” Cowles said. “The community is engaged in the growth and development of Richmond Public Schools,” and Better with Bedden is the evidence of that.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.