Richmond School Board Chair has 'no trust' in superintendent as he begs board for no action on curriculum

Posted at 10:12 AM, Sep 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-13 10:12:23-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond School Board voted on tasking Richmond Public Schools (RPS) teachers with developing their own curriculum over the course of a year, despite warnings from Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras that such a move would send the district into "extraordinary confusion."

The vote failed with four members in support, four members in opposition, and one who abstained.

Monday night's school board meeting began with public comment from teachers, principals, and educators who turned out to voice their thoughts and concerns about the district's curriculum.

Out of more than two dozen total speakers, about two-thirds, including the principals of several East End schools, said they supported Richmond Public Schools' current curriculum and shared stories of improvement, growth, and gains while implementing the provided programs.

"We know these curricula are tools for our teachers to instruct our students, and we also realize they are not the end all be all, but they do provide structural elements, best practices, authentic experiences, and more for our students," Woodville Elementary principal Rickeita Jones said.

"We as teachers and parents and students have all worked hard to learn these curricula and these systems, and to throw them away without really thinking about how teachers want to use them and how they're affecting students would just create chaos," a Swansboro Elementary teacher said.

A teacher with Richmond Virtual Academy offered an opposing opinion.

"Scripted curricula takes away from teacher autonomy. I did not get into education to be a robot. I got into education for the students, and I did not get into education to be treated like I'm not an expert," the teacher said. "We have many teachers leaving the district, and I hope we can make that a priority. I think that curricula and teacher retention are connected."

Nearly all educators said they desire flexibility to adjust curricula and the autonomy to teach lessons the best way they see fit. However, there were inconsistencies between RPS teachers who felt empowered to go off script from the curriculum and teachers who said they have been given no freedom to do so.

One teacher suggested district leadership ensure instructors at all schools receive the same treatment saying, "I think the question we need to ask ourselves is, 'Why is that not every teacher's experience in RPS? Why are some teachers feeling they are loved and cared for and trusted as professionals and some aren't?'"

Following a public comment period, RPS central office staff presented the board with a lengthy analysis of curriculum updates and the district's academic performance.

The two-hour-long presentation included in-depth data, school by school, on SOL pass rates, growth rates, accreditation status, and how the district is addressing concerns raised about the curriculum.

Then, Vice Chair Kenya Gibson made a motion for the district to establish working groups of teachers to develop their own curriculum by the start of the next school year and phase out the current curriculum. It would also task the administration with providing initial recommendations and budgets by November 30, 2022, and immediately prohibit disciplining teachers who veer from the current curriculum.

Gibson made an almost identical motion during an emergency school board meeting in late August, but it failed 5-4.

1st District School Board member Liz Doerr responded to Gibson's motion with a series of questions including:

- Do we have the internal capacity to take this on?
- Is it even possible to get initial recommendations by November?
- What are the financial implications?
- Would we switch curriculum mid-school year?

Kamras said his internal team lacks the capacity to write new curricula in the timeframe laid out in the motion and did not know how much the effort would cost, but he added it would be "significant." He also questioned what "phasing out" the curriculum means.

"I think it would create extraordinary confusion for our teachers, our principals, our families, and so on," he said.

Kamras then begged the school board not to take any action on changing the curriculum.

"This is arguably the most important decision I think the school board has taken or will take, whichever way it goes, in my tenure as superintendent," he said. "We are just getting the wind under our wings coming out of the pandemic, and to make a tectonic change like this now, I think would be deeply disruptive."

The superintendent added a survey was sent out to teachers on Monday to poll their thoughts on the curriculum. He pleaded with the board to table the motion and wait to see the results first.

Board Chair Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed responded that she had no idea about the survey and was "disappointed" that the district did not alert the school board.

Shonda Harris-Muhammed and Jason Kamras.png
Richmond School Board Chair Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed and Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras

"When we ask to trust people, that works both ways," Harris-Muhammed said. "Because I become professionally upset when I'm not given the opportunity to know a survey went out. Why did it go out today when this conversation is not new? So, my mind goes to, 'what's the intent?'"

The board then voted on the motion. Harris-Muhammed asked to be the last to vote, and before doing so, declared she has no trust in the administration.

"I am very upset that I am placed in this position as a board member because I was not aware of the survey. I am very upset, and there is no trust. None. And I am saying that publicly," she said.

Harris-Muhammed abstained, saying she needed to see the survey. The motion failed.

Yes votes: Mariah White, Kenya Gibson, Jonathan Young, Stephanie Rizzi

No votes: Liz Doerr, Cheryl Burke, Dawn Page, Nicole Jones

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email to send a tip.



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