Photo by Jay Paul
Jonathan Morris is one of 17 new RPS principals
Billed as a principal meet-and-greet, a late-August district meeting feels more like trial by fire for Jonathan Morris, the new principal of Lucille M. Brown Middle School.
Behind his glasses, his eyes do not betray any nervousness. He stands under the fluorescent lights of the Lucille Brown cafeteria, which, two weeks later, will be teeming with some of the most gifted sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the city, who apply for a spot in the school’s International Baccalaureate program. For now, the cafeteria is sedate. Folded lunch tables lining either side of the space form a sort of arena, in which about half of the 50 plastic chairs set out for the meet-and-greet are occupied by skeptical parents and squirming children. When introduced, Morris waves awkwardly, then laughs sheepishly at himself. Two students in the first row exchange a glance: Really?
With the meet portion of the night out of the way, parents begin plying Morris with questions — an hour and a half’s worth. Will the IB program be structured differently? When will my child know their schedule? How will I know what homework assignments are due? What about the supply list?
He responds to each in measured tones, unclasping his folded hands to articulate points about “best practices” or “assessing student needs” with gestures. He stresses that this will be a “transition year” at Lucille Brown. “That’s what they tell us every year,” one parent calls out.
“These are your kids. These are our kids, too,” Morris says. “I don’t want kids to have a lost year, and they’re not going to.”
With administrative stints at J.R. Tucker High School and Brookland Middle School in Henrico County under his belt, Morris is one of 17 new principals in Richmond Public Schools hired to help “rebuild the system,” as Dana Bedden, RPS superintendant, puts it. The new principal at Lucille Brown also must rebuild confidence among the parents of the children he’s shepherding. Morris stepped into his role in July, one year after 50 parents signed a letter, first published by Style Weekly, calling for new leadership at the middle school and an overhaul of its IB program. The letter characterized the school as “plagued with inconsistent teachers, ineffective discipline policies, abysmal internal and external communication, and a lack of meaningful IB-specific opportunities such as speakers, community service projects and field trips … ”.
Dishona Miller-DeSilva, Brown’s Parent Teacher Association president, whose daughter attends the middle school, says the concerns in the letter were “blown out of proportion. I felt that the people who wrote the letter were ready for the leadership to go, but that was someone’s career,” she says. “It put a black eye on [Brown], and a lot of good things being done here were not focused on.”
Brown’s principal at the time of the letter’s publication, Denise Lewis, filed a lawsuit in February 2014 for $3 million in damages against four of the parents who signed the letter. Subsequently, she was reassigned to an administrative office, and then left RPS. A judge in Richmond Circuit Court dismissed the suit in July, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
That leaves Morris with a laundry list of complaints to address in his first year. He says he hasn’t read the letter, but discussed with his staff how he could better support them during the upcoming year. A well-performing school starts with good, accountable teachers, he adds during an interview at City Hall in late July.
“[The staff] is very hopeful and anxious to move forward after a difficult year,” Morris says. “When teachers get frustrated, [it’s] because they don’t feel like they’re getting the support they want to do [the] best for their students. … I think that things [last year] weren’t probably as organized as I’m used to in terms of holding staff accountable, having your basic organization of your staff and your office structure and support systems you have in place for teachers.”
Communication with parents, too, will be a priority. Morris says he will have an “open door” policy and return calls and emails within 24 hours. His plan is on-par with what Kristen Larson, RPS School Board vice chairwoman and the representative for the district that includes Brown, says is necessary, but sometimes missing, at city schools: “We need to make sure that … the lines of communication between the community and the principal are wide open.”
Changes in the classroom are slated, too. By next year, all teachers at Brown will receive IB training, Morris says. The “school-within-a-school model,” where IB students are separated from the remaining student body, will be phased out, and all students will be enrolled in IB curriculum courses.
“When students sit in front of me and say, ‘Our school feels divided,’ that sealed it for me,” Bedden says. “Students who are in the IB program as a school-within-a-school feel like we’re over here, and we don’t get to experience things over there.”
Brown’s current IB program is limited to about 75 students per grade, many of whom don’t continue the program when they finish middle school. Richmond’s IB Middle Years Programme is intended to be five years, continuing at Thomas Jefferson High School for ninth and 10th grades, followed by the two-year Diploma Programme for 11th- and 12th-graders. But many of Brown’s IB students aim to attend one of the regional governors schools instead, and in the past six years, only six students have graduated from Thomas Jefferson with an IB diploma. The school system plans to stop offering Advanced Placement courses at the high school and replace them with more IB courses over the next three years, Bedden says. Students can receive college credit for IB courses.
The issues detailed in the letter aren’t unique to Lucille Brown, which was built for 550 students but has 780 enrolled. Across the system, dilapidated facilities, low test scores and a general dearth of organization has drawn scrutiny for Richmond Public Schools. A lack of continuity has hurt the school system, Bedden says, and it’ll take time to reestablish it. “We didn’t get here overnight. We’re not going to get out of here overnight.”