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Higher Expectations

The new head of the Richmond’s secondary schools on what led him here and why he thinks he can bring about change.

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Abe Jeffers joins Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden's new administration with one of the toughest missions: to oversee the turnaround of the city's struggling secondary schools.

The former Fairfax County high-school principal has worked in eight districts across the country, including in Tennessee and Ohio.

"This is a system that a couple of years ago, I probably wouldn't have thought about coming to," says Jeffers, about a month into the job. "But when the School Board hired Dr. Bedden and he was charged with improving our school system, he's bringing in people who share that vision."

Style asked Jeffers about his impressions of a changing school district and where he sees himself fitting in.

Style: Why wouldn't you have considered working in the Richmond Public Schools a few years ago?

Jeffers: Richmond is an urban system. It's a small urban system, but it still has all the problems of entrenched poverty that an urban system has. Until people are willing to confront those issues — why would you come in if you're not going to change anything?

How does Richmond compare with the other school systems you've worked in?

South-Western City Schools in Columbus, Ohio, would be the closest. I was a principal there. We had four regional high schools and a regional trade school. We had similar levels of poverty -- one of the nation's largest public housing developments was in our attendance area. Population-wise it was similar. ... It was a suburban system but it had poverty like you see here.

My hometown, Oneida, Tennessee, was 1,200 students in the entire system but it was at 80 percent poverty. In that way, that school system was very similar to this. But when you have a different kind of environment — rural Appalachia versus urban — since everybody was poor you didn't realize you were poor.

Coming from Fairfax, what was your first impression of the physical landscape of Richmond's school buildings?

They're beautiful structures, but very old structures and we have to do a better job maintaining them or embark on serious building programs. You want a place that is welcoming to our students — a hallowed place of learning and a place you prioritize. You take care of something you prioritize. The grass wasn't mowed at most of the schools. … You wouldn't have your own lawn looking like that. You start asking questions like "How do we take care of the grounds?" It was odd finding metal detectors at the schools.

That's new to you?

Yeah. I've never worked in a school that's had metal detectors. ... The school I just left had 1,738 students and we had three security people in our building. That would be unusually low for schools here. They're very nice, professional people, but when you walk in and see security, that's an interesting thing. How does that impact a student or a parent when they walk in — "Welcome to our school, please step through this metal detector." But one of my priorities as a principal was how do you keep a safe and secure environment. If metal detectors are the way to do that, that's probably what we ought to be doing.

But if students are bringing guns and knives to school, what's the root cause of that? That's a bigger question that we all struggle with. It really does take a village. One of the things that struck me coming to Richmond was how warm and welcoming the people are. People seem very genuine here. They want to have good schools. No one takes a job and says, "I want to be mediocre." We want to provide an atmosphere they can thrive in. Another big shock coming from Fairfax is there aren't the resources here that you might have. School counselors here are doing administrative assistant jobs. You want school counselors working with students.

Another challenge would be SOLs. You're going from a system with top scores to one at the bottom.

One thing I found that's striking about coming to Richmond is that there are more community resources. There's an incredible amount of resources being put in by community partners and mentors because they want to help our kids. You don't see that in Fairfax.

So SOL results — there are schools here doing well. Our goal is to have some gains. You look at where we were last year — 30 percent passing English 8. That's terrible, but the goal is to improve so if you can go from 30 to 40 we can say, "All right, what did we do right there?" That's still only 40 percent passing, but we have to get people believing we can have higher expectations and the scaffolding to help students get to them.

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