CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jason Kamras is an amateur photographer. On Saturday, as the incoming superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, he gave one of his photos to each member of the School Board.
It featured the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.
“Race matters in this world, in this country, in this district. And we’re going to talk about it,” said Kamras, formerly a leader in the D.C. school system. “I want us to be comfortable talking about race.”
King’s birthday will be celebrated Monday as a federal holiday. Leading into it, at a School Board retreat at the Virginia School Boards Association headquarters here, Kamras vowed to promote equity in Richmond’s majority-black school division.
To start the day, he had board members read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in August 1963 — the same letter Kamras referenced in his interview for the position in 2017.
“The work we’re going to be doing here in RPS is undoing the 400 years of injustice,” Kamras said.
School Board members, five of whom are black, shared personal experiences of racism and their efforts to promote a more equitable division.
“No matter where I go, or what I do, I have to overdo,” said Cheryl Burke, who represents the city’s East End in the 7th District. “You’re seen one way. I live this every day.”
Burke, the retired longtime Chimborazo Elementary School principal, said that when she was in high school, her teacher refused to cast her as Helen Keller in a school play because Burke was black. Burke spoke up — and the teacher canceled the play.
“You’re making us have conversations, and we can be a model for many others,” Burke said to Kamras.
About 9 in 10 RPS students are students of color, including a 71 percent black population.
Kamras, a former National Teacher of the Year, has stressed improving opportunities for RPS students in his brief public remarks since being named superintendent in Richmond. While he does not start for a few more weeks, he has made clear his intent to work with the School Board on improving equity.
“My hope is that we can be extremists for love and extremists for justice,” he said Saturday, referencing part of the MLK letter that board members read.
Board members agreed that more work needs to be done.
“We’ve been sold a narrative that these battles are over, but it’s just completely clear — the resources are different, the standards are different,” said Scott Barlow, who represents the city’s 2nd District.
The rest of Saturday’s retreat focused on board policy and its goals for the first quarter of 2018. Kamras added that the division will soon be entering a strategic planning process. During his first 30 days as superintendent, he said, he will visit all 44 schools in the division.
The retreat came as the school system enters a big year. The School Board has parted ways with a superintendent and hired a new one, and it has passed a facilities plan aimed at improving failing infrastructure issues.
Now, it must fund the plan and improve student achievement, as fewer than half of RPS schools have earned the highest level of accreditation from the state.
The King holiday on Monday means RPS offices are closed, and the School Board will meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. in its boardroom on the 17th floor of City Hall.