Talk about a short learning curve. Dana Bedden received his nod from Richmond's School Board in late December ― midway through the current school year. By Jan. 14, he was on the job, and by late January, the district was well into the task of putting together its budget priorities for next year.
A Florida native, Bedden's tight career arc includes stints in Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, the city of Fairfax and most recently a controversial term as superintendent in Irving, Texas.
Bedden will lead the district, but he and wife Ava also plan to become customers of the school system. They have two grown children ― Daniel is a sophomore at Univeristy of North Carolina and Avanna will finish her senior year in high school in Texas ― but their youngest, Diana, is just 8 and in third grade.
"Our intentions," he says, "are for [Diana] to be an RPS student as a fourth-grader next year."
This means he's got a lot of work to do before she arrives for fall 2014.
RM: How do you plan to reverse the trend of failing schools that fall below state standards?
DB: The [school system] already had been working with the state, and I'm actually going to let that take its course and let those initial plans be implemented. We will then start discussions about the effectiveness of those plans and begin making plans with the Department of Education to amend those plans.
RM: Are you looking at Central Office changes, too?
DB: We are advertising a number of positions. You also have a request back for some positions cut, like director of curriculum instruction … It's a key part of, I think, our improvement process that we have to have someone who is focusing on revisions to our curriculum and instruction.
RM: Are you concerned that a number of your schools are eligible for state takeover under the law that went into effect last year?
DB: I am concerned. I think that if you look at the number of states that have tried to have a state department try to run a school, you will find that it hasn't been very successful.
RM: You taught at a lab school in Florida. What are your thoughts on school choice ― waivers and charter schools? How should they fit into the RPS mix?
DB: I don't have a problem with choice. I think the conflict and the challenges come up in how you go about implementing choice and equity of opportunity and funding of equity… and a lot of the data doesn't necessarily say that charters are outperforming traditional public schools. A lot of the reform systems
we're putting in place are not actually creating equity of opportunity.
RM: What are your thoughts on Virginia's standardized tests? One criticism of RPS, especially after last year's SOL scores, is that we only teach to the test. How do you reverse that?
DB: I can only speak to my belief that we should be producing students who are critical thinkers and problem solvers. Now, that said, I have to meet the state expectation on the state assessments. I would express my concern that we test too much. I get that we need some way to check on a student's progress on a state level, but it gets to a point where it's too much. I would love to have some of that money go back to the arts, languages and other things that will make our education program a well-rounded program for our students.
RM: Media reports suggest you took a strong stand to ensure equity for Spanish-speaking students in Irving. How do you translate that same commitment to this district, where most students live in poverty?
DB: What I would say about my departure was that the new board was interested in a new direction. They had different philosophical beliefs, so they needed to have a new superintendent. When it comes to dealing with populations that have large socio-economic challenges, it's important to try to remove those barriers; to level the playing field. What I mean by that, when I arrived in Irving, our SAT test taking, particularly for our juniors, was at 39 percent. When I left it was 85 percent. And a big part of that was making sure we removed the financial barriers. We paid for the test. We also removed the barriers of when and where. We got away from Saturday testing. We did in-school SAT assessment. We offered tests in-school during the day for our juniors.
RM: How do you plan to attract good teachers?
DB: When you have students who are excited about attending a school, you can change the culture and climate [of a school]. If you put students in a yucky environment, you might get yucky attitudes. One of the things we have to work on here is the quality of facilities. Do bricks and mortar teach? I would say no, but if I give you a nice place to go to school, aren't you more likely to want to learn?
The challenge for many of our kids and teachers is they do look at what the surrounding jurisdictions have and they look around at what we have, and what we're lacking here in terms of resources. The bar [for achievement] here is the same as for every kid in the state, but the problem is every kid here doesn't have access to the same resources. Every teacher doesn't have access to the same resources to get the same output from their students.