When Rodney Robinson got to the Virgie Binford Education Center in 2015, the walls of the hallways were nearly bare.
He couldn’t stand it.
So the social studies teacher did what he’s trained to do: turned it into an educational experience.
Now, the painted concrete hallways of the juvenile detention center on Oliver Hill Way have pictures of Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson. They are lined with quotes from black men in history, like the one from Obama reminding students that “your voice can change the world.”
“I just made it a point to try to cover every inch of this building with motivational material and something to inspire them,” he said. “Even though [the students’] situation is bad, it’s a reminder that their minds can still wander and when you get out, your mind can still take you places.”
The hallways are what Superintendent Jason Kamras uses as a model for the city school system, encouraging other teachers to go visit the school and see Robinson’s work.
His decorating ability is far from the only thing that has caught the eye of school leaders, though. School and state officials have applauded his ability to connect with students, his efforts to train other teachers and his passion for helping incarcerated students.
In November, he was named the 2018 Richmond Public Schools Teacher of the Year, beating educators from across the city for the title of top teacher. On Thursday, it went a step further.
Robinson was named the teacher of the year for the Richmond region, an honor that will pit him against seven other teachers across the state for Virginia’s highest teaching honor and a chance at National Teacher of the Year.
“Mr. Robinson represents everything we stand for in RPS,” said Kamras, who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005. “I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
The 19-year teacher thought an early morning assembly Thursday was going to be a standard school gathering — a time to motivate the students who have been assigned to the center through juvenile court. He set up the sound system and greeted students with his signature big smile and a fist bump.
Then he saw his wife, Summer, who teaches gifted students at Oak Grove and Elizabeth Redd elementary schools, and knew something was up.
First lady Pamela Northam, a former high school biology teacher, announced him as the Region 1 Teacher of the Year and gave him a letter from her husband, Gov. Ralph Northam. Region 1 consists of 15 localities: the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, Powhatan, Prince George, Surry and Sussex, plus the cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Petersburg and Richmond.
“It’s my passion,” Robinson said after the ceremony. “To be honored for your passion is everything you want in life.”
Robinson became a teacher because of his mother, who grew up in the segregated South and dreamed of teaching kids but had limited opportunities because of her skin color.
“I’ve always felt it was my duty to fulfill her dream of being a teacher,” Robinson said when he was named the school system’s teacher of the year.
As a black male teacher, Robinson is part of a group that represents only 2 percent of public school teachers in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
He graduated from Virginia State University before becoming a civics and economics teacher at Lucille M. Brown Middle School. After a year there, Robinson spent two years as a world geography and U.S. history teacher at George Wythe High School.
In 2003, Robinson moved to Armstrong High School, where he taught government, history and geography. He now teaches social studies at the Binford Education Center, which is part of the Richmond Juvenile Detention Facility.
“They deserve a good teacher just as much as anybody,” Robinson said about the school’s population.
He will find out if he has been named the top teacher in the state Sept. 14 during a ceremony at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
He’ll miss Armstrong’s home football game against Churchland High School of Portsmouth — he normally serves as the public address announcer. That’s just fine with him.
“I have better things to do now,” he said before quickly following up: “I still love Armstrong though.”