I have worked for Richmond Public Schools for 21 years. I have seen and experienced a lot, both positive and negative in those years. In my first 7 years, I had a different principal every year. I was a teacher during the controversial Armstrong/Kennedy High School Merger. I was here when the entire school system was kicked out of city hall, putting essential records and documents in the street during the middle of the night (yes that happened). I, like other veteran teachers, have survived the revolving carousel of leadership and superintendents over the past 20 years.
Jason Kamras came to the district in 2018. The chaos of my previous 18 years in the district made me skeptical. I was thinking here comes another leader, possible carpetbagger, with a vision that is going to be void of the actual needs of the students and community. However, I was wrong. Jason was the change agent this district has needed for years. He immediately held series of meetings with teachers, students, parents, and community members to help plan a bold new vision for RPS. Together, they created a document called the DREAM4RPS, a five year strategic plan that addressed numerous inequities, systemic racism, and other barriers to student achievement that has held back the Richmond community for years. Students and parents felt empowered and in control because they had a true partner in creating a better future.
Upon his arrival, teacher morale began to rise because they felt heard and seen for the first time. Teachers felt they had a superintendent who listened to their concerns and was committed to making changes in the relationship between teachers and central office. The reputation of RPS has become more positive. As I traveled the country as National Teacher of the Year, I had numerous conversations with educational leaders and teachers who had positive, admirable things to say about the bold DREAM4RPS plan. Most commented how they wished their district and community would stand up and tackle more systemic issues that plague their students.
Jason and his administration hasn’t always been perfect. They have made some stumbles along the way but that’s to be expected with a first time superintendent navigating the politics of the former capital of the Confederacy. Jason was also setback by long standing problems and unethical practices within RPS. He spent his first two years dealing with major scandals leftover from previous administrations. The Carver Blue Ribbon Scandal, the inflated graduation rate due to unethical practices, infrastructure that was in disarray, miscalculated GPAs which deprived students of scholarship and collegiate opportunities were some of the issues that kept him from focusing on the DREAM4RPS. In addition, he has been constantly handicapped and restrained by the memorandum of understanding RPS has with the Virginia Department of Education due to the issues of previous administrations.
Once his administration began to emerge from the scandals and setbacks of previous years that stymied his administration’s progress, the Covid-19 pandemic uprooted education. His leadership during the pandemic has been world class. He instantly transformed the RPS to a 1:1 student to technology district by uniting community resources to provide laptops, chrome books and hot spots for every student in need. The virtual learning platform RPS@HOME was the envy of other school divisions across the state. Millions of meals have been delivered to vulnerable families while keeping open lines of communication to address any problems that have arisen in the community during the pandemic. While other district leaders have been playing the politics of both sides, he has been upfront and honest in addressing systemic racism during the summer of racial justice by elevating students’ voices and experiences in RPS.
Jason Kamras is the leader RPS needs to navigate the problems of 21st century urban education. He deserves a full 4 year extension on his contract to continue uplifting the students and community of Richmond, VA. If he is not given a full extension, the goodwill and trust RPS has rebuilt with students, parents, families, and the community will be lost. I also fear a mass exodus of teachers from RPS. The teachers who stay will have to endure another administration change. Teacher morale will be lowered as the inconsistency in leadership becomes a barrier to student learning and achievement.
People and organizations have long lists of strategic coordinated talking points to justify to themselves and their organizations why Jason should not get a full contract extension. Most of these talking points fall apart with just a little bit of context and questioning. All talking points and personal feelings aside, it comes down to simple questions: Is RPS a better district today than in 2017? Do students feel valued and have better experiences in school? Are there equitable outcomes available to all students? And do parents and the community trust the direction in which RPS is headed? Thousands of students, teachers, and parents have said yes to these questions in social media, opinion pieces, and school board public comments. The school board should follow their lead and give Jason Kamras the full four year extension our students deserve.