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Photo by Ken Penn
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Photo by Ken Penn
Bedden chats in the school’s hallway with student Alvin Wyatt.
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Photo by Ken Penn
Bedden visits with Armstrong High School students Le’andrea Maisonet (left) and Brandon R. Smith.
Through the metal detectors and past the three security guards manning the entrance, tucked around the corner in the Armstrong High School main office, where an administrator is chastising an ambivalent student for cutting class, there’s a windowless, cinder-block conference room, inside which Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden meets with Principal April Hawkins.
On this first Wednesday in April, they’re preparing for a series of classroom visits at the East End high school. It’s a weekly ritual for Bedden, who tries to set aside time to scope out schools across the system, though he admits it has been tough to do so.
“We’re always inundated with fires,” he says wearily. “We’re always putting out fires.”
Hawkins snatches hats from students’ heads as she leads the superintendent up to the second floor, through a sea of teens streaming to their next class. The tardy bell echoes in the stairwell, and the two administrators emerge to see hordes of teenagers still milling around the halls, seemingly in no rush to get to class. Betraying no surprise, Bedden leans against a row of bright orange lockers, his hands clasped at his waist. On the lapel of his brown suit, a gold “Kids First” pin gleams.
The first stop is Mr. Jaini’s 11th-grade chemistry class, where students donning blue rubber gloves prepare for an experiment involving battery-acid solutions. Next, Bedden peeks into Mr. Zelonski’s freshman earth-science class, plucking papers from a manila envelope taped by the door — a lesson plan. “Anyone who comes in the building should be able to see what the students are learning,” Bedden says, looking satisfied as he glances at the week’s rundown. Hawkins agrees with a nod.
Visits to the school’s library and several other classrooms follow. At some, Bedden chats with teachers and tutors, who offer a quick overview of what students are working on, be it Virginia history or polynomials. At others, he simply observes and inspects the lesson plans, occasionally offering comments or feedback. (“They’re going to talk about marijuana today,” he says with a chuckle outside of a science class. “Real-world connections.”)
Half a dozen classrooms later, the superintendent is late for his next school visit. On his way out, Hawkins introduces him to a senior with acceptance letters from the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and the College of William & Mary. Bedden congratulates the student. “You see, those are the RPS stories you don’t read about in the media,” he says.
Instead, you read about crumbling facilities, School Board beefs, budget battles and low test scores — basically, every major problem associated with 21st-century urban public education. Through some combination of stress, public scrutiny and politics, the average public-school superintendent in an urban district lasts only three years on the job, according to a Council for Great City Schools survey conducted during the 2013-14 school year.
As his first full academic year at the head of RPS closes in June, Bedden has already flirted with employment at a bigger district. Turning around RPS is the toughest task of his career, he says. Few question his qualifications, but can he pull it off? Or will the politics and dysfunction run him into the ground?
ALL THE BROKEN PIECES
Colleagues describe Bedden as an unflappable leader who’s not afraid to address tough situations head-on.
At 48, he has two decades of experience as a school administrator, including more than 10 years as a superintendent at small and large districts in multiple states. “I’ve spent 35 years in this business, and I’ve never really seen someone who works it like he does,” says Ralph Westbay, RPS’ assistant superintendent for financial services. “He’s just straight up.”
Some observers speculate that Bedden doesn’t play politics; others think he just plays them with more skill than Richmond is used to. He doesn’t fire people; he “de-hires” them. To him, it’s not a budget, it’s a “statement of needs.”
“If I took this glass and smashed it on the floor, it would take me a second to break it, but how long would it take for me to put it back together?” Bedden asked the first time we met last July, responding to a question about balancing public expectations for an expedient turnaround of RPS. “Much longer, right?”
“Can it be put back together?” I asked.
“I guess we’ll see.”
Ask anyone about Bedden’s first 18 months in Richmond, and one of the first signs of progress they’ll mention is the team of administrators he hired to handle the system’s day-to-day operations. The result has been better communication with School Board members, a higher level of responsiveness to parent concerns and complaints, and increased fiscal transparency.
Bedden and his team seem to genuinely value public input. In recent months, his staff could be found at public forums covering on topics such as school start times or the future of Binford Middle School, collecting parent and community feedback to share with the superintendent before his final recommendation to the board.
“Richmond has had too many dictators,” laments Don Coleman, chairman of the School Board. “That’s what’s [been] killing us.”
FROM THE OUTSIDE IN
By unanimous vote, Bedden became the first out-of-towner hired to head Richmond’s school system since Albert Williams in 1997. That Bedden is a transplant instead of an RPS come-up, as the city’s superintendents historically have been, has played to his advantage when making unpopular decisions, observers say, whether it was staggering school start times or replacing seven principals last summer. The board made it clear to Bedden when it hired him that the system’s status quo needed a shake-up, and doing so would likely not endear him to the masses, remembers School Board Vice Chair Kristen Larson.
“There are change agents that you see who come in and are aggressive in a scary way,” Larson says. “Then there are people who are change agents who come in and are aggressive in a calculated, smart, intentional way. And that’s who Bedden is. And that’s why I think he’s been a good fit for us, because things are so broken.”
That may be an understatement.
In 2013-14, only 11 of the system’s 45 schools earned full accreditation from the state, by far the worst mark in the region and among the lowest in Virginia.
Since 2005, RPS has closed 17 schools, eliminating more than 6,600 seats. Even the most conservative enrollment calculations still show 5,700 empty desks districtwide.
About 17,000 of the 23,000 students enrolled in RPS receive free or reduced lunch, the measure used to determine how many live in poverty. It costs a school system more to educate students from underprivileged backgrounds, which partially accounts for why RPS spent more money per student last year than the surrounding counties — $12,731 in Richmond versus $8,978 in Henrico, $9,023 in Chesterfield and $9,049 in Hanover.
Test scores and dollar figures tell only half the story. During
a 10-day period this spring, seven RPS students were in-
volved in shootings off school grounds.
One died. In the city’s poorest districts, neighborhood conflicts routinely spill into school buildings.
“Schools are a microcosm of society,” Bedden says. “If you’re in a neighborhood with high poverty and crime, that’s what’s walking into the school.”
The superintendent is adamant that a zip code should not determine the quality of education a child receives in this city. Few would disagree. However, funding a lofty vision in Richmond is tougher than talking about it, Bedden learned this spring.
In January, he rolled out his three-year academic improvement plan, which called for longer teacher workweeks, a slight
pay increase and funding for more professional development.
When Mayor Dwight C. Jones submitted his proposed budget to City Council in March, with nearly $137 million for RPS’ operational costs and $13.1 million for maintenance, it shorted Bedden’s request by $24 million. The mayor’s proposal earmarked an additional $10 million if the school system develops a plan to address under-enrollment and meets other “mutually agreed performance measures.”
Charlotte Hayer, president of the Richmond Education Association, is skeptical of this stipulation. A teacher in city schools since 2000, Hayer’s career as an educator dates to 1984. Seeing her peers spend a portion of their salaries on classroom supplies for students using outdated textbooks in schools, either freezing or sweltering for lack of adequate central heating and air systems, she’s been left with little reason for optimism regarding the city’s budgetary decisions.
“We can have a superintendent that has a vision, but if we don’t have the resources … we don’t have the means to get anywhere,” she says.
City Council mined an additional $9 million for Bedden’s plan, mostly by repurposing money set aside for vacant city jobs. The final vote on budget amendments occurred after press time.
In April, Bedden and his staff recommended a plan to modernize RPS facilities. It would slash the district’s number of empty seats and, by extension, its operating costs. To ease overcrowding in elementary and middle school classrooms south of the James, the plan would close some schools, renovate others and build new ones.
Tommy Kranz, who handles the system’s operations and facilities, projects that it will cost about $620 million and take 10 to 20 years to implement. In May, the School Board unanimously voted to merge Thompson and Elkhardt middle schools, shuttering the latter after 75 years of use. It was the first step of an effort that Bedden’s staff views as inextricably linked to the district’s academic success.
“The facilities piece and the academic-improvement piece go hand in hand,” Kranz says. “I don’t think one can be successful without the other.”
Neither does Kirsten Gray, the parent of two RPS students and a longtime public-education advocate in the city: “Who wants to run a system that’s doomed to crumbling because it’s perpetually underfunded? Who would want that? I wouldn’t.”
ST. PETE’S OWN
Dana Tyrone Bedden was born to a mother with an eighth-grade education and a father who worked as a maintenance man at the St. Petersburg, Florida, public-housing complex where the family lived.
His mother, Elsie, pulled Dana out of the projects when he was 3 or 4. They moved to a nearby apartment where he slept on a sofa until he was in high school. With his father, three brothers and relatives still living at the housing project, he visited often.
“Everyone who was anyone in St. Pete’s came from public housing,” Bedden recalls. “It’s a good foundation for survival, but if you don’t dare to dream, you can get stuck.”
Bedden’s oldest brother has spent more than half of his life in prison. His second-oldest brother, after blowing out his knee playing high school football, joined the Navy. Addicted to drugs, the youngest of Bedden’s three older brothers bounced in and out of the criminal-justice system before contracting HIV from a contaminated needle. He died of AIDS.
Bedden credits his mother with instilling in him the importance of academics. If he didn’t make good grades, she wouldn’t allow him to play sports. Bedden became the first three-year, three-sport letterman at Osceola High School, excelling as the starting quarterback of the football team, a guard/forward hybrid on the basketball court and a triple-jumper in track and field.
Florida Congressman C.W. Bill Young nominated Bedden to attend West Point after he graduated high school with honors. He was accepted and enrolled, but after a month in the program, Bedden decided it wasn’t for him. He returned to Florida, much to the dismay of his stepfather, and instead enrolled at the University of Florida. While there, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and eventually became a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve.
“The military reiterated what my stepfather used to always say to me: ‘It’s always better to do it right the first time rather than cut corners. You’re going to end up going back and doing it anyway,’ ” he says.
An aspiring athletic director, Bedden earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science. After a short teaching stint at his childhood middle school in Florida, Bedden left to get his master’s in education from Penn State University in 1993.
Bedden remained in Pennsylvania during the mid-’90s, working as a high school athletic director for small school districts. At administrative meetings, the puzzled looks he received when talking about academics troubled him. He knew he was more than a jock, even if his colleagues only saw him that way, so he decided to change course.
In 1996, Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools hired Bedden as a sub-school principal at Mount Vernon High School. That led him to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a principal at a public prep school. There, by way of a collective bargaining negotiation, he met his wife, Ava, who served as the school district’s director of employee relations and labor management. Both had divorced previously, and Ava wanted to take things slow. “I told him I wouldn’t marry him unless he got his doctorate,” she says, laughing.
Then Philadelphia came calling. The 200,000-student district hired Bedden in 2003 as a regional superintendent, and for three years, he oversaw a section of the district that’s larger than all of RPS. While working full time, Bedden earned his doctorate from Virginia Tech in 2004. The couple married the following year.
Augusta, Georgia, hired Bedden as its superintendent in 2007. Despite staff furloughs necessitated by funding cuts totaling $75 million during his three-year tenure, Bedden improved the underperforming school system’s graduation rate. With his contract up for renewal, Bedden and the board could not agree on an extension that would deliver a higher base salary. Amid the dispute, he was named the sole finalist for the superintendent job in Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas with 35,000 students. To Texas he went.
Valerie Jones, the last member still serving on the Irving school board that hired Bedden in 2010, says he helped repair the district’s relationship with the business community. The resulting partnerships led to more internship and learning opportunities for students, as well as an influx of donations and grants, Jones says. “I still see fruit from a lot of the things he did.”
A contentious relationship with the board ultimately cut Bedden’s time in Irving short. He cites ideological differences with new members, specifically his desire to provide more resources for bilingual education throughout a district where three out of four students is Hispanic. The majority of the board did not agree with his plan, and the two sides struck an exit agreement after the 2012-13 school year.
“You can’t have a superintendent be effective if they’re always clashing with the board,” Bedden says of the conflict. Later, he adds, “I’m not going to compromise what I believe is the right thing to do just for money or a salary.”
‘HOW COMMITTED ARE YOU?’
Sitting in a 17th-floor conference room at City Hall, that’s how Dana Bedden describes his first year as superintendent of Richmond Public Schools. He offered this assessment in mid-February, just two days before a pipe burst on the 17th floor of City Hall, soaking the RPS’ administrative offices and flooding two floors below; five days before the administration announced that half of the teachers at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle would be “de-hired” at year’s end, a move that John Murden, a former teacher at the school turned prominent local blogger, called “bullshit”; and six days before news broke that he was a finalist for the superintendent job in Boston after only 13 months in Richmond.
The School Board hired Bedden in December 2013, and he started the following month. He is the highest-paid superintendent in the school system’s history, earning nearly $232,000 annually. His contract lasts through the 2016-17 school year.
In February, Boston Public Schools named him one of four finalists for its superintendent opening. Locally, news trickled out after Coleman called an emergency School Board meeting to inform its members, some of whom are not shy about voicing their displeasure with Bedden’s decision to seek employment elsewhere.
“It was disheartening that in the first year he wasn’t fully focused on what was happening in RPS,” says Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, the board’s 9th-district representative. “That was my initial reaction: How committed are you?”
Organizers of a “Better With Bedden” campaign circulated a petition that tallied nearly 800 signatures. Amid an upswell of community support, Bedden ultimately withdrew his name from consideration.
Publicly, the superintendent has said he was recruited to apply for the Boston position, and money did not factor into his decision. Several board representatives have said that situations caused by individual members circumventing the body and going straight to Bedden may have contributed to him looking for an out.
“They’ll show up in his office unannounced, demand meetings, question everything … It can be time-consuming,” says Kimberly Gray, the board’s 2nd-district representative. “It’s frustrating and embarrassing at times.”
“Some of the members probably created some situations that were just not pleasant for him,” says Jeffrey Bourne, the board’s 3rd-district representative. “Over time, those things build up.”
In February, the board passed a resolution detailing its priorities. Any member who acts outside of those or the body’s administrative protocols will face “disciplinary consequences,” it stated.
Bedden is tight-lipped about his relationship with the 9-person board. “I’m following the governance model,” he says. “I follow by the majority. Whatever the majority votes, that’s what we do.”
Forty-five minutes behind schedule, Bedden arrives at Carver Elementary, the second stop on his round of school visits in the first week of April. Then his phone rings. Another proverbial fire to extinguish.
As the superintendent paces around the school’s entrance for 10 minutes, children in single-file lines head into the auditorium. Students and staff are preparing to surprise their principal, Kiwana Yates, who has won The Community Foundation’s R.E.B. Award for Distinguished Educational Leadership. The superintendent is scheduled to speak at the assembly after a few classroom visits, but he makes it to only one in the 25 minutes he’s at the school, and he leaves before the program to make it to his next destination.
On a good night, he makes it to his North Side home by 9 p.m., but sometimes he works until 11 p.m. or midnight. Then he wakes up early to drive his 10-year-old daughter, Diana, to Linwood Holton Elementary. “It may be the only time I get to see her during the week because she’s asleep by the time I get home,” he says.
“If I try to get in on that morning ride, [Diana] will have a heart attack,” Ava says with a laugh. “That’s her daddy time.”
The couple’s 19-year-old daughter, Avanna, lives with her biological father in D.C. Their 20-year-old son, Daniel, attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies psychology. He’s considering applying to law school, Bedden says proudly.
Watching the superintendent, it’s easy to question how he doesn’t suffer from burnout. Asked about hobbies, he laughs. “I had some before I took this job.” Now his billiards cue stays stowed in the trunk of his car, and the James Earl Jones movies have to wait.
“I feel like he has his guard up at all times,” says his wife, Ava. “He’s never completely able to relax.”
Fellow administrators strain to offer a weakness Bedden displays as a leader, but they settle on a similar concern: “He needs more time for himself,” says Anthony Leonard, the school system’s director of elementary education.
“He’s on the go 24/7, and I’m not sure if that’s healthy,” Westbay says. “He’s up 10 or 15 pounds since he got here. So am I, frankly. We haven’t been doing anything but working.”
Bedden’s SUV pulls into the bus loop at Thompson Middle School, adjacent to the recently opened Huguenot High, the district’s first new high school built in more than four decades. There does not exist a starker side-by-side example of RPS’ facility disparities. Built in the ’60s, Thompson faces projected overcrowding in the next three years. It’s one of the lowest-performing middle schools in the state.
By the time Bedden makes it into the main office, the meeting he was supposed to sit in on seems to be coming to a close. He chats briefly with Thompson’s principal and representatives from the private group contracted to help the school achieve re-accreditation, per state mandate. They’ve implemented a school-wide contest tracking attendance, discipline and academics among sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. At year’s end, the winning grade will earn a pizza party. Bedden inspects the scoreboard poised above a row of lockers across from the central office.
“If we don’t celebrate growth, we’re killing spirits,” he says.
The visit ends after about 20 minutes, and Bedden heads back to City Hall for a quick conference call with the school system’s mobile-app developer, then his weekly meeting with School Board leaders. Then who knows what. His day is just starting.