Jason Kamras stood for the hour and half that it took for more than a dozen parents of George W. Carver Elementary School students and community members to air their grievances about a state investigation he initiated into cheating there, and the blame being put on Kiwana Yates, the Leigh Street school’s now former principal.
Then he went into teacher mode.
There, between the wooden seats in the auditorium that holds a few hundred, attendees stood hand in hand with the 44-year-old, his administrators and School Board members. They vowed to support the city schools and to help Carver, a National Blue Ribbon school, recover from a scandal that’s called into question the legitimacy of its rise.
“I’ve been turning over a lot of rocks and I don’t always find flowers,” Kamras said in a recent interview, adding, “For every challenge we have, I’ve seen a great amount of goodwill on the part of the city, our community, our families and our educators to make things right.”
Since taking over as superintendent — the highest-paid one in the area at $250,000 per year — in February, Kamras has made bold promises: from declaring that every school would be fully accredited in five years (just 19 of 44 are right now) to pledging upgrades to every school bathroom (that work will continue into the school year).
Now, entering his first full school year, the focus is shifting to his initiatives.
The city School Board is set to vote Tuesday on a five-year strategic plan that will shape much of his work, including changes to the city’s high schools and middle schools and rezoning, among the 40 action items being weighed by the board.
As part of its back-to-school coverage, the Richmond Times-Dispatch interviewed each of the four area superintendents in advance of the first day of school, which is Tuesday.
Here are Kamras’ answers, in his own words, edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe your first seven months as superintendent?
Exciting, exhausting, inspiring, heartbreaking and invigorating.
Care to elaborate on any of those descriptions?
Every time I’m with kids I’m deeply inspired. I was with [a student] today at Ginter Park [Elementary School] and I asked her what it was like to go to school there and she said, “I love it,” and I asked her why and she said: “Because it feels like my second home.” That’s the kind of school culture that we aspire to have at every one of our schools.
It’s also been heartbreaking at times: From the shootings — we’ve lost a couple of students — to Carver to the depth of the challenges. I’ve been turning over a lot of rocks and I don’t always find flowers. Some of what I find, I think, borders on criminal. Some of the things that have been allowed to occur — and I’m talking about the adults, not the kids — it’s been heartbreaking.
I’m exhausted because it’s a big job and I’m trying to do a lot, but even though I may be bleary-eyed, I wake up every morning really happy and really excited because I really do believe in the potential of RPS and I am boundlessly optimistic about our future. Seeing the community come out for RPS Shines, people pitching in on the “Bathroom Blitz” and people offering to help tutor at Carver — for every challenge we have, I’ve seen a great amount of goodwill on the part of the city, our community, our families and our educators to make things right. So I’m excited.
Is being a superintendent what you thought it would be?
Yeah. It is everything and more. I love it. This is, maybe second to teaching, the best job I’ve ever had. It’s incredibly hard and forces me to stretch in lots of different and challenging ways, but I love the challenge. I love the opportunity to help move things forward and I feel very grateful and lucky to have this job in this city, in this time. I wouldn’t want any other.
What are the district’s biggest challenges heading into the school year and how do you plan on addressing them?
Well our scores came out [Aug. 22] and they were deeply disappointing. I know our kids are capable of so much more and we as a system have failed them.
Our greatest challenge is putting all the pieces in place to make sure they have the opportunity to demonstrate what they’re really capable of. That hits all five priorities of the strategic plan — it’s about school culture, it’s about great and rigorous teaching, it’s about our staff having the support they need, it’s about making sure our buildings aren’t falling down, it’s about having the partnerships with the community and families. That’s our greatest challenge.
Schools across the Richmond region continue to be segregated. How can Richmond help fix that?
They do continue to be too segregated and the best way for us to address that is by creating schools and programs that are attractive to students and families of all backgrounds. So part of the strategic plan — the very first item of the strategic plan — is thinking deeply about creating theme-based middle and high schools that are extremely rich and exciting for kids — an arts high school, a technology and engineering high school, a law and social justice high school.
In essence, turning all of our secondary schools into theme-based magnet schools so that we don’t have specialties and comprehensives, all we have are specialties. The idea being that if we can do it right — and I think we can because Richmond is the perfect size — we’ll create such exciting and rich programs that you’ll actually begin to move kids around the city and bring more families back in — black and white and Latino. That is our pathway to integration.
We have to look at rezoning and other measures like that as well, but the best way to integrate is creating attractive programs that will break up the neighborhood-defined racial segregation that exists.
Transportation becomes a huge equity issue when you try to pursue something like that, so that’s going to have to be a huge investment as we think about that going forward.
You said RPS would be fully staffed on the first day. Has that proved to be harder than expected?
I knew it was going to be hard, so I don’t think it’s harder than expected. But my job is to cut through the noise for the team and say this is what’s really important, and to me, being fully staffed is really important.
I don’t want my kids showing up and not having a teacher, so nobody should. We’re going to get really close, if not hit it.
Is there anything new that parents and students can expect this year?
I hope that they will see some excited teachers and I hope that they will get a sense of optimism about the future of RPS. I will be the first to say that we have a lot of challenges and I’m not going to sugarcoat them and they’re not going to be fixed tomorrow or even next year. It’s going to take a long time to make our way through all of these issues, but I hope — and what I’ve been hearing from our teachers, principals and families — is a sense of cautious optimism and I hope that they feel that.
Any regrets in the first seven months?
I probably would have started the capital funds reconciliation process earlier. I’m proud of the speed of which we did accomplish that feat, but having done that even earlier would have been helpful.
I’ve been turning over a lot of rocks — I regret that I haven’t had enough time to turn over even more, and that will be something that I will continue to focus on.
What is the biggest logistical challenge you face heading into the first day?
Getting all of our rising sixth-graders their immunizations. We’re working really hard at it, but it’s not an easy thing to have kids get shots. We’ve got to make sure that happens and we don’t have any wiggle room on that — it’s state law.