Richmond Schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden said he hopes the chorus of Richmonders calling for him to stay put when he was a finalist for the top job in Boston will be just as vocal in working to improve the school system in the coming years.
“I would say it was encouraging, because the reality is, quite often in this job, what you get more often is what’s wrong,” he said Tuesday in his office during his first extensive interview since he withdrew from the Boston search March 3.
“We don’t get a whole lot of time to celebrate or appreciate the good things.”
Seeing nearly 1,000 people sign the “#BetterWithBedden” petition, he said, was a good thing that has the potential to become a lasting thing.
“They’ve shown they can have a united voice,” he said. “But how do we have a united voice with some key challenges we’re facing?
“I would like them to stay engaged in the process and pay attention to what happens as we march down this track of building a better district.”
Several School Board members said they, too, were encouraged by Bedden staying and by the support Richmonders offered him.
“I think this has been building since the election in 2012,” said Vice Chairwoman Kristen N. Larson, one of seven newcomers elected to the nine-person board that year. “It has been a slow, uphill rise. I think the support he got, I think that really is a sign of the improvement our district is making.
“How quickly that support was expressed was a big thing.”
School Board member Jeff M. Bourne, also one of the seven newcomers, said the support is part of a citywide demand for better schools.
“We need to harness that interest as we move forward,” he said.
“I think some people understand that Bedden and his team are making great progress, and we need to get behind them, particularly on budget issues. I would love to see that level of support at a City Council meeting.”
During the 45-minute interview, Bedden talked about changing the culture of the city school system, working in an occasionally charged political environment, and the need to take a deliberate approach to fixing everything from morale to buildings.
“I hope we can get on the same page and look at the greater good of the system, not individual districts,” he said. “And the greater good of the city, I think, is rooted in public education.”
Talk of Boston aside — and Bedden used every question about it to talk more about his team and the work it’s doing than himself — the timely topic, he said, was improving schools and having a plan to do it.
“It’s better to have a steady, deliberate process of programmatic and organizational improvement than to wait until you have a crisis and have this big, huge request for funds,” he said. “But what we’re doing is playing catch-up.”
Playing catch-up, he said, was evident in a number of areas.
On staff changes at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School: “We know that’s a very challenging school, and you have to have the right mix of players on the team to get progress,” he said of the decision to look for new teachers in all core subjects.
Half of the teachers at Richmond’s long-struggling Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School coul…
He said he and other top-level administrators had spent more time there than nearly anywhere else in the city, talking, observing and even serving lunch.
“There’s no silver bullet, but I don’t want anybody to be able to say we’re not trying,” he said.
On improving other middle schools: “For whatever reason, people are saying, ‘Why are you doing just that one school?’ It’s not about a cookie-cutter approach. It’s not like we’ve just done one thing.”
He pointed to program changes at Binford and Brown and a turnaround plan at Thompson as proof that improving middle school performance was underway at places other than MLK.
It’s not often that a man gets a second honeymoon so soon after a public flirtation.
The news that Richmond School Superintendent Dana Bedden is one of four finalists to head Boston’s school system jolted the reform-minded and a Richmond School Board whose investment in Bedden cannot be measured by his $231,750 salary.
“The academic improvement plan is a whole-system approach,” he said.
On the idea of “right-sizing” the school system: “Right-sizing is not just closing schools. It is looking at your boundaries, your feeder patterns. It’s a conversation about closure, modernization of buildings and/or building of new buildings, that’s really the complete conversation about right-sizing. It’s not just, ‘Which one are you going to close?’ ”
He said it was the job of his administration to present options and the job of the School Board to figure out what the community wants.
“We need an informed decision about what type of schools you want,” he said. “Do you want to continue with small schools? If you do, you’re going to have a lot of buildings.”
No matter the size, he said, it’s imperative to act now.
“Right-sizing done well takes 18 to 24 months by itself. The longer we wait to have (the conversation), we’re pressing ourselves into a really challenging situation to be successful.”
On the importance of having modern schools: “The longer we wait, the more critical the challenges become. It can negatively impact academic progress, because environment influences attitude.
“Attitude can have an impact on how well a student does: a parent’s attitude, a student’s attitude, a teacher’s attitude. If you have teachers having to work in less than stellar conditions, I’m not sure they’re always able to be on their ‘A’ game. They work hard to try to overcome it, but at some point, it wears on you.”
On using money for a new Overby-Sheppard for a new middle school instead: “My job is to give an estimate of needs and articulate the needs to my board, and it’s for them to have conversations about how they’re going to respond to that.”
On a coming School Board Facilities Task Force report on the cost of modernizing school buildings: He said he has not seen a draft of the report but that based on information from previous reports, he’s not expecting good news. “My assumption is, not much is going to change because all you did was get older, more outdated facilities.”
On life in Richmond’s political environment: “Should we keep using the past as a reason to not move forward? That’s what’s crippling us. That, and a lack of trust.
“People look for reasons for you to fail at times. Again, that’s why that whole movement was encouraging. If nothing else, it gave me hope that people really are looking for reasons to celebrate success. But I want them to measure success by progress.”