Jason Kamras moves through classrooms and City Council chambers like a rodeo cowboy gearing up to ride Bodacious, the baddest bucking bull the rodeo world has ever known.
But while the cowboy's trying to stay on the beast for eight seconds without getting killed, Richmond's new school superintendent, Kamras, says his goal is to stay in this job at least five years to fulfill an ambitious promise: to get every school accredited.
Superintendents aren't known for hanging around long — an average of five to six years, according to a study by the American Association of School Administrators. The Brookings Institution says it's even shorter, citing three to four years as a typical stay.
On top of that, Richmond is notoriously hard on superintendents — just ask Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Yvonne Brandon or Dana Bedden.
- Scott Elmquist
- As of May 11, Kamras will have made through his first hundred days on the job.
Those former superintendents enjoyed relatively peaceful honeymoons after taking the reins. They also maintained stoic faces and stiff upper lips when they stood next to School Board members to announce that they were parting ways.
Such departures are painful and costly for the public, staff morale and municipal checkbooks. Even worse, parents become angry and suspicious when they can't get answers when they ask why. It doesn't help when School Board members refuse to disclose what really happened. A shroud of secrecy still surrounds the most recent and abrupt departure of Bedden.
How can Kamras have staying power — or at least meet his five-year goal?
"He needs to do his homework and not waste time worrying about whether he is being liked," says Kimberly Gray, a Richmond Public School graduate and former School Board member who serves as the councilmember for the 2nd District.
"If he can bring accountability and honesty to a school system that has been so secretive for so long, if he can manage that, he will be universally loved," says Gray, who's also the parent of seven current or former Richmond students.
As of Friday, May 11, Kamras will have made it through his first hundred days — and nights — on the job. So far it's been a whirlwind tour.
Kamras, who started Feb. 1, is a 44-year-old transplant from the intensely political public school system in Washington.
Since arriving in Richmond, he's been inside each school, met students, read books to children and even taught a couple of math classes. He's talked with teachers, principals and parents across the city, attending sporting events and community forums in the city's nine districts.
He's spoken with single mothers in the housing projects, grandmothers in the West End, police officers, firefighters, judges and business leaders. He's met with janitors, kitchen staff and bus drivers, as well as elected city, state and national officials.
He's been wined and dined in the city's best restaurants and finest homes and has eaten more than a few school lunches, too. He's also returned phone calls — not only to reporters or elected officials — and answered emails while finding time to tweet.
- Scott Elmquist
- Kamras was named the national teacher of the year in 2005.
And already he's attended School Board meetings and contentious City Council meetings to lobby for more money, setting an unusual activist tone.
Through all of it, he speaks softly and smiles broadly.
During his first week on the job, Kamras faced media questions about a breaking federal investigation into accusations of cheating and fraud involving teachers and principals at his former employer, the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Kamras says he isn't under investigation and no documents pertaining to the investigation mention his name.
Some teachers and principals in the nation's capital are accused of falsifying attendance and graduation records, pressured, they claim, by a controversial teacher evaluation program known as Impact that Kamras created for the school system after he was hired by its former chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Kamras acknowledges that the system had flaws but denies knowledge of any wrongdoing.
"Blaming their actions on the Impact system is a bit like someone who gets caught cheating on their taxes and then blames it on the IRS tax code," he says.
But it wasn't soon after leaving Washington that he found himself dealing with other record-keeping controversies at his new post.
Recently, because of a frustrated parent contacting his office and posting about the problem on Facebook, Kamras and his staff have been trying to untangle a byzantine bureaucratic mess. It involves Richmond Public School officials who failed to record key information concerning course credits and attendance.
- Scott Elmquist
- Kamras takes time for a selfie with Mayor Levar Stoney before addressing a crowd at Mary Munford Elementary School.
As many as a third of graduates next month could have been denied their high-school diplomas because employees failed to implement a policy approved in 2012.
Kamras understood the issue and the board corrected the immediate problem by waiving the policy. He also called for an audit of all transcripts for high-school students.
The policy predates the tenures of Kamras and his immediate predecessor, Bedden, but it's now Kamras' problem to fix.
And it's an understatement to say that he and School Board members were flummoxed and frustrated by the news.
School Board member Cheryl Burke, who represents the 7th District, calls the problem "unforgivable." Second District School Board member Scott Barlow notes that the failure "just feels so wrong."
Richmond blogger John R. Butcher, who covers education and city government issues, outright accuses the former and current Richmond school boards of flagrantly violating state law.
In the face of such criticism, Kamras remains forthright and philosophical. He's heard about the infighting but insists that everyone must work together.
Kamras is no pushover, and he comes across as someone with quiet confidence and the ability to inspire others. He says that he believes, most of all, in the kids and teachers. He has hope. He listens. And that's a good thing — because this ride is only going to get rougher.
"I fundamentally believe in the African proverb that when the elephants fight, the grass suffers," he says. "And our kids have been suffering for far too long. … My guiding principle, upon learning of issues, is basically name it, claim it and fix it. We are all in this thing together."
To tackle the issues facing the Richmond Public Schools, Kamras receives a handsome salary. His base pay of $250,000 makes him the highest-paid superintendent in the school system's history. And then there are such benefits as a car, housing allowance, moving allowance and deferred compensation.
Kamras came into the job swinging. He fired the entire executive cabinet, including the facilities director and the chief of finance.
Then he notified the School Board that he wanted to hire his own people in those positions — and that he would need to be pay them significantly more than their predecessors and what they'd earned in the Washington public schools. All but one School Board member, 3rd District representative Kenya Gibson, approved.
Kamras also took heat for hiring cabinet members without posting their jobs.
There's a genteel notion in Richmond that superintendents should refrain from actively politicking. Kamras shocked some people when he came out as a firebrand on behalf of Mayor Levar Stoney, calling for an increase in the meals tax to raise money to begin fixing some of the district's most dilapidated school buildings.
- Scott Elmquist
- During his tour of Westover Hills, Kamras observed several classes and even danced with a group of children.
That action led some education activists to suspect that Kamras was in league with Stoney to take over the school system and turn it into a privatized mess of charter schools — an accusation, so far, without foundation.
When 5th District City Council member Parker Agelasto unsuccessfully led an effort to increase the tax on cigarettes for schools, some people wondered whether Kamras would support the effort with the same kind of energy as he had for Stoney's meals-tax increase.
Had Kamras remained silent, it might have offered some evidence that he'd been brought in to do the mayor's bidding. But the naysayers were surprised into silence when Kamras stepped up to the microphone to urge City Council to pass the cigarette tax.
Kamras told the standing-room-only crowd in City Council chambers that he sees it as part of his job to advocate on behalf of the students and families of the Richmond Public Schools. He supported the proposed cigarette tax because it would provide much needed revenue for the operating and maintenance needs of the schools.
Stoney's budget allows for only $1.5 million for maintenance, a sum that's far too small to provide necessary upkeep of the system's 44 school buildings.
Kamras came to Richmond as a bit of an education rock star.
He was named the national teacher of the year in 2005, largely for creating a new way to teach math using photography. That earned him an invitation to the White House, where President George W. Bush gave him a medal as the first and only teacher from the District of Columbia Public Schools to win the honor.
Kamras served as an education adviser to President Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign and on panels with such education heavyweights and policy wonks as Jonathan Kozol and Pedro Noguera. He's been interviewed on CSPAN, CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS, and by the likes of Charlie Rose and Bob Edwards — twice.
But becoming a teacher wasn't always a given.
Born in New York but raised in Sacramento, California, Kamras says his father was a physician and his mother was a teacher who frequently taught in challenged schools. The middle brother of three boys, Kamras recalls that he always thought he'd become a lawyer and fight for civil rights and justice issues.
His decision to become a teacher didn't happen until after he tutored young people in Newark, New Jersey, while working on a public policy degree at Princeton University.
"I know it sounds corny," he says, "but I became a teacher because I wanted to make the world a better place."
At Princeton, the professor he recalls best is activist and author Cornell West. That class may account for why Kamras uses the word "equity" as much as he does, and why he understands it. "West truly inspired me to become a change agent for social justice," he says.
After college, Kamras spent six months at a think-tank in Jerusalem that works to promote political reform and further democratic objectives.
- Scott Elmquist
- Kamras stands on the steps of the State Capitol during the March for Our Lives gun violence protest March 24.
Then he applied to Teach for America, a controversial program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved school systems in rural and urban communities. He was paid $27,000 in 1996 when he was placed at John Philip Sousa Middle School, located in a rough neighborhood of Southeast Washington, with a student body that is 99 percent black and 1 percent Latino.
So how did Kamras, a skinny white guy who barely looks old enough to be out of college — much less to have earned a master's degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Education — thrive as a teacher in such an environment?
Wendall Jefferson, a former student from Kamras' first math class at John Philip Sousa Middle School, can barely stop laughing at this question — saying the school was "definitely in a bad neighborhood."
"You are right," he says. "We didn't know what to make of him at first. He kind of stood out, if you know what I mean."
Kamras earned trust because he was always at school early — around 7 a.m., when Jefferson was there for basketball practice, he says: "And he was always there at the end of the day, too. Always. You could count on him. It didn't matter that he was white."
Jefferson called back after the interview to add more: "I forgot to tell you one more thing that made him great — he was organized. Crazy organized. He always knew where his stuff was and that was really a big thing that helped me, helped us. And he didn't judge us. He was our teacher, but he was more than that. ... He helped us all be better."
Jefferson went on to graduate from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in electrical engineering. He now works at Northrop Grumman where, according to Kamras, Jefferson makes more money than he does.
Hearing that, Jefferson laughs and says: "That's not true. Close, but not more."
After being named teacher of the year,Kamras spent a year touring the country, talking about public education. At a recent community meeting at Mary Munford Elementary School, he likens the experience to what happens to women who are crowned Miss America, but without the roses.
"You get recognized for being a great teacher and then they take you out of the classroom," he says. "I loved being in the classroom."
But being superintendent is the perfect job for him, Kamras says in his office on the 17th floor of Richmond City Hall.
He's a self-described social justice warrior. An early indication is that he wants to rename J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School in honor of Oliver W. Hill, the noted civil rights lawyer and longtime Richmond resident who helped bring about the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A framed poster in Kamras' office highlights the Bolling v. Sharpe case, decided on the same day as the Brown decision. "Did you know," he asks like a teacher, "that Bolling case involved the school where I taught, John Phillip Sousa Middle School?"
- Scott Elmquist
- Kamras observes a moment of silence before classes at Westover Hills Elementary School.
More than 50 years after the historic Brown decision, most public schools in Richmond — and other inner cities across America — remain racially and economically segregated.
Jonathon Kozol, a national expert on public education and the author of several books, sums it up: "If you took the typical class that I visit in any of our major inner cities, that photograph would look exactly like a photograph of a class of black kids in Mississippi 50 years ago."
The biggest change in public education since the Brown decision is that the country has replaced de jure segregation with de facto segregation.
Richmond's history in race relations makes the need for healing and reconciliation critical, says Kamras, the first permanent white male superintendent of the Richmond schools in more than 35 years.
Being the only white guy around was never a problem, he recalls of his experiences.
"What I found is children and parents in the community are most interested in a teacher's dedication to children and to learning," he says. "Once you demonstrate [that], most of those other factors fall to the wayside."
There is much work to be done. A big challenge will be cultivating a professional environment for teachers, says Spencer Turner, a Richmond Public Schools graduate, former teacher and parent of a student in the school system.
"If the school [system] wishes to attract and retain the most talented, solutions-based educators," he says, "administrators need to support middle management, most of whom are classroom teachers."
Kamras isn't a fan of traditional professional development for teachers or an over-reliance on Standards of Learning testing. He wants to create small learning communities where teachers can work together weekly, practice their lessons, get feedback, even videotape themselves to find ways to improve.
He wants teachers to be treated like true professionals and says he refuses to allow test scores to be the only rubric used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. "Children and teachers are more than a test score," he says. "We need to aim higher."
School Board member Liz Doerr says the question we should be asking is not so much what Kamras can do for us, but what we can do for him and the children.
"The superintendent needs to communicate, communicate, communicate," she says. "If he does that, if he is transparent in all his dealings, people will trust him and then he can make miracles happen."
Kamras' two sons and his wife will join him soon in Richmond. When asked what the best part of his first 100 days has been, he doesn't hesitate: "Oooh, that's an easy one — the kids. The kids. The kids." [pause] "Seriously, the kids."
And the worst part?
His smile disappears as he ticks off a laundry list of items and issues that would cause even the most experienced of educators to blanch. School buildings are in disrepair, there's low teacher morale, some schools overflow with too many students and others with too few — critically, 42.6 percent of children in the city live at or below the poverty line compared with 13.9 percent statewide, according to the latest census data available.
Foremost, he stresses the need to raise the academic achievement. To that end, he's been meeting with the Virginia Department of Education concerning a memorandum of understanding crafted by state officials and Richmond's former superintendent that lays out a plan to lift division performance. Schools need to improve the academic achievement to be accredited by the state.
"I've committed to full accreditation in five years and I believe that is absolutely doable," Kamras says. "I welcome the accountability. All I ask [of the state] is to give me the latitude to do my job to help us get there. I hope we're in a reset of the relationship."
He adds that Richmond needs more resources from the state, having not reached pre-recession levels. "I go to schools and a counselor has 500 kids to work with," he says. "You don't need to be an educator to know that's just crazy."
As always, he must confront the abject poverty packed into so many of the city's housing projects: drugs, alcohol, crime, violence, mass incarceration of children and adults. None of this is new for Kamras. And for him, improving public education is a civil rights issue. S
Editor's note: Carol A.O. Wolf is a former reporter and current blogger and freelancer who served on the Richmond School Board for six years, from 2002 to 2008.