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The road to recovery from multiple surgeries has been long and hard, but Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, is back in Congress and ready to work.
McEachin returned to Congress on Thursday to work on draft legislation to strengthen civil rights protection for environmental justice.
His work schedule will be “intermittent” until after Congress returns from its Thanksgiving holiday recess in early December, he said in a telephone interview. “I expect to be full time and wide open by after the Thanksgiving recess.”
McEachin, 58, has lost more than 100 pounds since he joined Congress almost three years ago, but he said his recovery is almost complete from surgeries to repair a “fistula” — an abnormal connection between his colon and bladder — created by his successful treatment for rectal cancer five years ago. He said Thursday that he is still cancer free.
He also has a message for anyone who thinks he will retire because of his health when he completes his first full congressional term at the beginning of 2021.
“I am absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about-it running for re-election,” in 2020, he said.
His friends in the Henrico County Democratic Party say they have no doubt of McEachin’s resolve.
“Nothing that I’ve heard from him indicates in any way he is going to be on the sidelines,” Henrico Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone Nelson said Thursday.
McEachin, who lives in South Richmond, made an appearance at a Henrico Democratic post-election celebration on Monday.
A week earlier, on election night, he gave an emotional speech to Democrats after his wife, Colette, was elected as Richmond commonwealth’s attorney and the party seized control of the General Assembly for the first time in 25 years.
“Tonight, I feel mighty good!” he declared to an elated crowd at the Hilton Richmond Downtown.
The low point came in August, after the second surgery to repair the fistula and eventually restore his digestive tract. “I expected to go home two days later,” he said. “Instead, it was one week later and I could hardly move.”
Doctors discovered internal bleeding, which they sought to control with a second surgery. McEachin entered a rehabilitation facility, but remained in pain and began to lose a massive amount of weight. At one point, he weighed almost half of the more than 300 pounds he carried when sworn in January 2017 to represent a district that had been redrawn at the direction of federal judges.
A third surgery last month corrected the problem, although he will require a final procedure sometime in the future to fully reconnect the digestive organs that had been compromised by the fistula.
“The fistula is healed,” he said.
McEachin, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, has regained more than 20 pounds, but he hopes to raise his weight from his current 187 pounds to 230 pounds. A year ago, before his first surgery to divert intestinal flow away from the lower colon, he weighed about 245 pounds, already having lost 60 pounds because the fistula made eating a torment.
“The good news is I don’t have to take blood pressure medicine or to manage diabetes,” he said.
McEachin said his biggest battle was spiritual. He said he could not mentally accept what had happened during the surgery or the rehabilitation that he faced.
An ordained minister, he received an “altar call” by FaceTime with the Rev. Dr. John W. Kinney, his pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaverdam. The prayer service was “so uplifting, my mind was able to accept what had happened,” he said. “I was in a very bad place up until that time.”
“Once your spirit gets right, your mind gets right, and everything else falls in place,” he said.
After the final surgery last month, McEachin began to recover his strength. “Three weeks ago, I needed a walker to walk and now I’m not even using a cane,” he said. “I feel really blessed.”
Now, he has to allay the concerns of his supporters, who cheered him when he appeared at an event for campaign volunteers that Henrico Democrats staged on Monday.
“People have been concerned for him, obviously,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who was re-elected in the 72nd House District. “People have a genuine love and affection for the man.”
McEachin had plenty of reason to celebrate. Democrat Alisa Gregory had been elected Henrico sheriff to succeed Republican Mike Wade, who is retiring after 21 years in office. Democrat Shannon Taylor was re-elected commonwealth’s attorney. Democrats took control of the House of Delegates and Senate, and McEachin had served in both.
“It’s been a labor of love trying to flip the General Assembly,” he said on election night.
On Monday, McEachin sounded like himself, VanValkenburg said, “fighting the good fight, rallying the troops and making the argument for Democratic policies.”
“It really was kind of vintage Don McEachin,” he said.
Hanover County Administrator Cecil “Rhu” Harris Jr. plans to retire in May after 15 years at the county’s helm.
“It has been a blessing to have the opportunity and privilege to work with so many outstanding members of the Board of Supervisors, county staff and citizens,” Harris said in a release. “Hanoverians have much to be proud of, and I appreciate being a small part of this outstanding team.”
In an email Thursday, Harris, 61, said he wants to spend more time with his family, particularly his three grandchildren.
He was first hired by the county in 1984 as a member of Hanover’s Finance Department. He was promoted to finance director three years later. In 2004, the Board of Supervisors tapped him to replace Richard Johnson as chief executive upon Johnson’s retirement.
“I truly appreciate the opportunities given me while working here and the incredible friendships I have made over my career,” Harris said.
County leaders on Thursday described Harris as a dedicated and professional leader, who has steered Hanover well through moderate, steady growth.
“I really just can’t say enough nice things about him,” said Supervisor Faye Prichard. “He’s a man who works a lot and deserves time with his family and beautiful grandchildren and wife.”
“I’ve got mixed feelings because he’s been a trouper for us,” said Supervisor Bucky Stanley, who was first elected to the board around the same time Harris came to work in Hanover 35 years ago.
In the time since then, Hanover’s population has doubled from about 50,000 people to a little over 100,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Hanover officials often speak of managing growth so that it remains a suburban and rural community even as more high-density, urban-like development has started to take hold in parts of neighboring Henrico County.
In his 15 years at the top, Harris and the county’s decision-makers have taken a measured approach to population growth. In 2004, Hanover served as home to about 95,803; today that number is 106,891.
As of July 1, his total annual compensation — including a vehicle allowance, health benefits and deferred compensation — is $283,495, according to county spokesman Tom Harris (no relation).
The county’s eastern corridor — those areas east of Interstate 95, including around U.S. 301 and U.S. 360 — have seen the largest population growth under his leadership, though some development is beginning to extend westward from U.S. Route 1.
“I think our ability to maintain a steady growth in population and business all the while keeping 80% of our county rural is a tremendous accomplishment,” Harris said. “Doing this in a planned way has allowed us to enhance public services and improve the county financial condition. It sets us up for continued success in the future.”
Stanley said that the desire to maintain the county’s rural character has made economic development an important element in making sure schools and public safety facilities are well staffed and in good condition.
“Rhu Harris has been a friend to Hanover County Public Schools throughout his tenure, and I am proud to call him a personal friend as well,” said Hanover Schools Superintendent Michael Gill. “I have admired his dedication and professionalism in all facets of his role. There is no one that is a more tireless advocate for Hanover County than Rhu. He truly has a servant’s heart.”
He said Harris has succeeded in luring economic development projects along commercial corridors, such as the 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops store off I-95 about a decade ago.
Harris’s tenure saw Hanover attain a coveted AAA bond rating from all three of the country’s bond-rating agencies in 2010.
Stanley said he believes the county is in a good position financially today because of Harris’ leadership.
“I’ve been there since day one with him,” he said. “I knew the promise was there.”
Harris will continue working for the county until May 15, according to a release, which means he will be involved in developing the county budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020.
Harris’ imminent departure follows that of former County Attorney Sterling Rives, who retired in February after working in county government for 31 years.
Board of Supervisors Chairman W. Canova Peterson said Harris’ retirement will be a loss for Hanover, but that the county is in a strong position.
“I think Hanover has been on a solid upward track for a longtime. I don’t see that changing,” he said. “I anticipate that the opening for county administrator will draw the attention of a lot of excellent talent for us to speak with. I expect us to end up with another top-notch county administrator.”
Virginia’s education leaders have approved an overhaul to the state’s teacher evaluation system that judges teachers less by how well students do on tests and more on factors like classroom environment.
The changes, approved unanimously Thursday by the state Board of Education, are the latest in a series of reforms over the past two years that target what the state schools chief called an “overemphasis” on test scores.
No longer will standardized test scores count for nearly half (40%) of a teacher’s rating. Now, test scores will account for the same amount as teachers’ planning and their classroom environment, among other factors.
“I certainly think it’s important to know how our students are doing and what impact our teachers are having on that,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said. “When the decision was made to do that 40%, I don’t think that was in balance with the things that really matter in the classroom.”
Academic achievement has counted for 40% of a teacher’s evaluation since 2012, when the state changed its requirements so it could get federal money in the wake of the Great Recession, which left the state budget starving for an influx. The six other factors that go into a teacher’s rating — professional knowledge, instructional planning, instructional delivery, assessment of student learning, learning environment and professionalism — accounted for 10% each.
With the changes approved Tuesday, student academic achievement will be weighted at only 15% of a teacher’s evaluation. Professionalism will count as 10% of the evaluation, while the others will also be at 15%.
Keri Treadway, a teacher at William Fox Elementary School in Richmond, called the changes “a huge step in the right direction.”
“Teaching is a complex science and an art. As a teacher, I welcome all students into my classroom. Students come to me from a variety of backgrounds, academic levels and experiences,” she said Thursday. “My job is to meet students where they are and help them learn, grow and develop. Student test scores only show a small snapshot of one day in the life of a student and not an overall picture of the teaching and learning the students have accomplished throughout the year.”
Teachers with negative evaluations can be put on performance improvement plans, which could result in their firing by their school district, which enforces the state policy. Ninety-nine percent of teachers nationwide are rated good or great, according to the Denver-based research group Education Commission of the States.
It’s unclear how many teachers have been fired over poor evaluations in recent years. The Virginia Department of Education does not collect statewide teacher evaluation data, a spokesman said Thursday.
Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, an independent think tank housed within the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, said the de-emphasis of test scores can lead to less pressure for teachers. He added, though, that they’re still an important part of looking at schools and teachers.
“It’s not the worst thing to lower the impact of test scores on teacher evaluations, as long as they remain a part of the system,” he said. “They are, after all, measuring what’s most important: student performance.”
The strong emphasis on test scores in a teacher’s evaluation was a product of the education reform movement of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Education reform advocates have championed using test scores as the best way to evaluate schools and teachers.
“It’s problematic for teachers,” Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said of the current system. “A single snapshot in time that is a standardized test score is not an accurate reflection of student ability or a teacher’s ability in the classroom.”
The state is able to make the change now that the federal requirements, which came in exchange for money from the U.S. Department of Education to fund basic operations, have expired with the implementation of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
“The weighting of student academic progress at 40% of the summative evaluation is no longer required,” said Patty Pitts, Virginia’s assistant superintendent for teacher education and licensure.
With the higher weight no longer necessary, the state’s K-12 governing board is able to continue a sequence of changes that have tried to lessen the importance of test scores.
“We wanted to think about this weighting so we can really make sure the evaluation is at least equally or primarily based on things we think make the most impact on student outcomes,” Lane said.
Last year, Virginia rolled out a new accountability system that rates schools as either accredited or accredited with conditions. Performance on the Standards of Learning tests, administered annually, had previously been essentially the sole factor in deciding a school’s accreditation rating.
Now, a school’s rating includes student attendance, dropout rate and college readiness, among other factors.
Students must also pass fewer state tests — five rather than six — in order to graduate under changes approved by the state board in 2017. This year’s freshman class is the second to be affected by the new requirements.
The evaluations, which are typically finalized in the spring, will change as local school boards adopt policy that aligns with the new state standards.
Gunfire interrupted Abdus Shakur Rogers’ nightly prayer around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.
At first, he thought his children — he and his wife have five daughters and three sons ranging in age from 5 to 21 — had made popcorn that had exploded in the kitchen.
But as the house filled with smoke from the bullets ripping through the exterior walls, he knew it was a matter of life and death. Debris and plaster rained down onto his daughters, all of whom had been asleep in an upstairs bedroom.
One of the 20-some bullets that struck their home on Joplin Avenue in South Richmond hit his 12-year-old daughter, lodging in the back of her head. Rogers covered her body with his own, and felt the blood fall onto his arm.
He resumed his praying, which had been interrupted earlier: “If she dies, she goes back to you; if she lives, give her a full recovery. Don’t let her suffer.”
“This whole situation is a test of faith,” Rogers, who is Muslim, said Thursday. “I have to appreciate the good days and the bad days. She had a good day, that day. We had played and she knew she was loved.”
He said that the only reason he spoke about what happened is because “as a Muslim, God commands us to tell others of the blessings God has given us. And although the situation that occurred that night was evil, frightening, hurtful and sad, blessings and good were still received.”
Police responded to the 2300 block of Joplin Avenue, located about a block from Jefferson Davis Highway, after reports of random gunfire. The girl was taken to the hospital with an injury that was considered life-threatening. She’s still at VCU Medical Center recovering, Rogers said, but she’s awake and talking.
“She, more than any of my girls, is a fighter,” he said, thanking the well-wishes from friends and neighbors.
Doctors have been optimistic, Rogers said, though they are telling the family there still could be setbacks with speech. Had the bullet kept going, she would have died, Rogers said. It has shifted, though, which doctors told the family means surgery to remove it is a possibility.
“I don’t think they have a clue [who did it],” Rogers said of the police. He doesn’t believe he or his family was the intended target. “I don’t know who did this. I don’t need to know. I just want them to know they hurt my daughter. I just hope that person changes their ways. I can even forgive him. I’d tell him, ‘You got to do better.’”
Police haven’t released any suspect information or motive for the shooting. Several other homes were also struck by stray bullets that night.
Rogers hasn’t been able to go back into the house since the shooting. He stood outside Thursday counting the bullet holes that now scar the white paneling of the home they’ve shared for only a few months. The room upstairs remains untouched, his daughter’s blood still staining the sheets. A bloody glove is lying in the yard.
“We’re not coming back here again,” he said, but he’s not sure it’s safer anywhere else. While living in Georgia, a bullet struck their home there, too. “This stuff happens. It doesn’t matter where you are.”
He only wanted his daughter identified publicly by her household nickname — which is an Arabic word for “cure” — that she earned long before the shooting.
“I tell to her: ‘When I look at you, you cure me,’” Rogers said.
Anyone with information is asked to call Major Crimes Detective M. Gouldman at (804) 646-3915 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or at www.7801000.com. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.