By Taikein Cooper, Theresa Kennedy, Bryce Robertson and Thad Williamson
The Richmond School Board has a stark choice before it: Let the next four years be about the hard work of improving Richmond Public Schools (RPS), or let the next four years be consumed by a needless personnel drama.
Here’s the issue: Superintendent Jason Kamras’ contract is up for renewal. A four-year renewal would allow Kamras and his team, as well as the board, to fully focus on reopening schools once it’s safe to do so, helping students recover learning lost during the pandemic and continuing implementation of the district’s strategic plan.
These are monumental tasks that will require the full attention and engagement not only of school officials but the wider community. A four-year time horizon entirely is appropriate given the magnitude of this work and the relatively long advance planning that will be required to execute on key priorities.
A two-year renewal, reportedly favored by some board members, means that the next two years will be consumed by the question of whether Kamras will be here to see all this work through. A change in leadership, whether by board action or Kamras finding employment elsewhere, in turn would consume the rest of this term.
We can’t expose our kids to that risk right now. Now is the time for persistent implementation of a long-term strategy.
No one can doubt that RPS has major challenges and a long road to travel to reach its academic goals. When Kamras arrived in February 2018, the system recently had been placed under a long-term Memorandum of Understanding with the state Department of Education, in light of years of systemic failure and troubling findings of a systemic state review. Only 18 of 44 schools in the system were fully accredited.
Kamras nonetheless readily embraced as achievable the goal of making all schools accredited. He led the development of a community-driven strategic plan, Dreams4RPS, that not only articulates bold goals but has specified action steps and accountability metrics. This comprehensive plan offers the best road map Richmond has seen for improving learning in the classroom while addressing the myriad needs of children and families outside the classroom.
Perhaps most pertinently, however, Kamras has provided a style of leadership that has been a breath of fresh air. He has been transparent about problems in the system — for instance, correcting misleading graduation figures — and not allowed the manifest difficulties of the job to deter his message that systemic change not only is needed but is possible. As a white leader of a system that primarily serves students of color, he proactively has embraced a message of inclusion and social justice.
Moreover, RPS’ response to the pandemic has been exemplary. In the spring, the system established an elaborate food distribution system in conjunction with partners to assure students’ most basic needs were met, and then launched an initiative to get electronic devices to children in need so they could continue to learn.
When the system shifted to remote learning this year, Kamras’ staff overcame the logistical and curricular challenges to begin delivering quality remote instruction. Equally important, Kamras has communicated with the community every step of the way, with a daily email that includes shout-outs to staff, reporting of COVID-19 cases and policy updates. This leadership has inspired teachers and staff to go above and beyond to give this academic year value for our city’s children.
Nonetheless, the pandemic undoubtedly has damaged the education and development of thousands of Richmond children, exacerbating our city’s seismic equity gaps. That’s why it’s critically important to allow Kamras to get on with the work of the strategic plan to address those gaps, from investments in additional reading specialists to creating themed secondary schools offering students a variety of paths to success.
Plans must be given time to work, and it defeats the purpose of investing time in making a strong plan if it is going to be discarded before implementation takes place.
We absolutely agree that RPS should set strong accountability goals in place as it renews the superintendent’s contract, and should publicize those goals. But it also should give its administrators a realistic chance to do the hard work needed to achieve those goals.
Richmond’s kids and families need our leadership to focus on the work right now, not the drama.
Renew Kamras’ contract for four years, and let’s roll up our sleeves to do the work that has been laid before us.
Taikein Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels; Theresa Kennedy is an RPS parent; Bryce Robertson is an attorney and former Richmond School Board candidate; Thad Williamson is associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and an RPS parent. They each are members of Richmond Together (richmondtogether.org), a new civic organization dedicated to equity and improved governance. Contact them at: TogetherRichmond@gmail.com