Chesterfield County School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi visits a class at Watkins Elementary School with Leslie Haley, the Midlothian District representative on the Board of Supervisors. (Photo courtesy Chesterfield County Public Schools)
Javaid Siddiqi, who has represented the Midlothian District on the Chesterfield County School Board since January 2016, was elected chairman this year by his fellow board members. With a father from Pakistan and a mother from New York, Siddiqi grew up in Chesterfield's Ettrick community and began his education career in 2000 as a science teacher at Meadowbrook High School.
He later served as principal at Robious Middle School and then as secretary of education under former Gov. Bob McDonnell. He is also executive director and CEO of The Hunt Institute for educational leadership and policy, based in Durham, North Carolina. Siddiqi traces his passion for education to his father, "who not only saw America as the land of opportunity, but education as the gateway to opportunity in America," he says.
When he talked with us in early February, the board was considering changes in start times at most county schools to accommodate a later schedule for high school students, something research has shown to be beneficial. The board unanimously approved the changes on Feb. 14; the new schedule goes into effect for the 2018-2019 school year.
The issue is one that Siddiqi emphasized when running for the School Board.
"Start time is now a long-standing conversation that dates back to my first year teaching in this system in 2000," he says. "We were researching the impact of sleep on our high-school age students and research was very clear then. The research has only become more clear and more compelling over the years."
Siddiqi says his view, and that of other board members, was, "If we're going to do it let’s do it and if we’re not, let’s not talk about it." The board held a series of public meetings last fall so that residents could offer input. "So I think what we’ve done is we’ve taken our priorities and laid out a clear path to set us up for what I don’t want to say is an easy vote but certainly a less controversial vote on it."
Other goals he has talked about for Chesterfield schools include putting a nurse in every school and a special education administrator in every elementary school.
In the wake of charter schools proponent Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as the U.S. secretary of education, he noted that while he doesn’t see an immediate need in Chesterfield, he wouldn’t rule them out. Driving the charter school movement, he says, is an effort “to create innovative, autonomous type settings where we could go and try things and implement things and learn.”
As an example of innovation, Siddiqi points to Chesterfield schools’ new partnership with Virginia State University to help Ettrick Elementary regain full accreditation. “That’s what we’re really trying to create: more opportunities for all students to find success in schools.”
Here are some of the other questions he addressed during our interview:
Richmond magazine: What made you want to come back and serve on the School Board of Chesterfield after climbing so high in the ranks of the Virginia education system?
Siddiqi: What motivated me to run was my wife and I, we have two school-age children, and there were some things that I was hoping we could do differently … things that I thought direction-wise the school district should be moving in. And I thought, I have a little bit of experience and I wanted to share that experience with the division.
RM: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the Chesterfield School Board right now?
Siddiqi: If you were to ask me that question maybe six to eight months ago, I would’ve probably had a different answer. It probably would’ve been more associated with thinking about building out the leadership pipeline and creating more autonomous schools. But given what we’re dealing with right now with some of the finances, [we’re] wanting to make sure we protect our supplemental retirement program for our longstanding employees, especially our teachers.
RM: You are credited with implementing "expeditionary learning" (an approach that seeks to engage students through interdisciplinary projects) as a principal. Could you talk more about that?
Siddiqi: We were the first secondary school in the state to implement the model. To be fair, Robious Elementary, at the time the neighbor to Robious Middle School, had already implemented it. And Anne O’Toole was the former principal of the school, so I give all the credit to her and her teachers at Robious Elementary. But having a secondary school take on anything like this always garners a different level of attention. As you go up the K12 continuum, in many cases the level of innovation and thinking outside the box tends to narrow. So I think why I was passionate about it was I saw kids in all parts of the country — in some of the most challenging environments — engaged, caring deeply about what they were learning. We were really intrigued by what they were learning. The manner in which they were learning, it just made so much sense. That’s a lot of what we’re all talking about wanting to do with expeditionary learning. The process, the professional development, it all created a pathway forward for what we all say we want but we haven’t figured out quite how to get there.
RM: How is the school system addressing the rising number of Hispanic students?
Siddiqi: This is a growing population in Chesterfield, one that the board and county leaders as well as regional leaders have to be proactive with in making sure our schools and staff are ready and able to deal with some of the challenges that come with students who, in many cases, do not speak [English]. They’re coming to us and are not very… literate in many cases… in their native language. So we have to recognize what it is we’re dealing with and then we have to make sure we align our resources. That’s the conversation we’re having, how we align our resources accordingly. So we’re in the process of having a hard look at our numbers student- and population-wise in the division.
RM: Why do you think your fellow board members elected you to be chairman for this year?
Siddiqi: I think we all have a great dynamic, this new board of five. We all get along really well. We’re all very passionate. We’re all really motivated to do the right thing for the right reason. I think they probably appreciate the fact I listen carefully. I care about their opinions. I really kind of want to be a team builder and bring the team, in our thinking, together so that we’re a unified voice for the entire county of Chesterfield.
RM: How do you think your time as secretary of education helped prepare you to serve as chairman on this School Board?
Siddiqi: Working in the administration and working closely with the legislature, you figure out what to push for individuals, for different communities. So you learn how to make a compelling case for whatever your priority is. The governor obviously had countless priorities. So [we tried] to make sure people saw how they would individually and regionally be positively impacted by whatever the program or budgetary item or policy lever, whatever we were trying to do. So you refine it, you hone it, and at the end of the day, it always comes down to relationships. And relationships are really established in trust. So I think that ability to build meaningful, authentic relationships really equipped me to serve well on this board.
RM: Has your time on the School Board changed your perspective on the county schools as compared to your time as a teacher and principal?
Siddiqi: I’ve always held the system in high regard. But now having a different level of insight into the organization, and experiencing and learning about some more challenges, I would say some of our challenges were greater than I had anticipated. That said, I also recognize that we have a great board and an amazing new superintendent. I feel very confident that we’re going to be in a very great place in three years.