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Rita Bishop to exit in spring as Roanoke's superintendent of schools, lauded as 'a leader willing to try anything'

Rita Bishop to exit in spring as Roanoke's superintendent of schools, lauded as 'a leader willing to try anything'

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In her fifth year of teaching in San Jose, California, Rita Bishop had to convince her school’s principal to give her class a chance.

Bishop was instructing two high school English courses — traditional English and advanced placement. Early in the school year, she noticed untapped potential in the non-AP class.

“It hit me that in terms of classroom discussions, my class that wasn’t AP really had great ideas,” Bishop said.

She decided to write one lesson plan for both classes instead of two. By school year’s end, she said, she persuaded the principal to let the non-AP English students take the AP exam.

“And they did just as well as the AP class,” Bishop said, “with maybe one exception.”

For Bishop, motivating the class to break expectations lit a spark.

“That was my impetus,” Bishop said. “Everything I did was push, push, push, push.”

In a career that spans almost six decades, she never stopped pushing.

Bishop, 75, plans to retire as superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools at the end of the school year. From her corner office last week, she reflected on her time in Roanoke in an interview with The Roanoke Times.

She pointed to the school division’s accomplishments over the past 12 years and the lofty goals set by herself and the school board. She also responded to some of the criticism related to employee turnover and workplace climate during her tenure.

Reversing ‘downward spiral’

The Roanoke School Board installed Bishop as schools chief in 2007, but she already knew Roanoke and its school system inside and out.

She’d worked 10 years as the associate superintendent for instruction under former superintendent Wayne Harris. When Harris retired in 2004, Bishop accepted the superintendent’s job in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Bishop replaced Marvin Thompson as Roanoke’s superintendent. Thompson’s brief stint ended after he and the school board negotiated a separation agreement with two years left on his contract.

At Bishop’s return, Roanoke was struggling with accreditation in eight of its 28 schools, a sub-60% graduation rate, aging facilities and high teacher turnover.

“We were in a real predicament, a downward spiral when she started,” said Mae Huff, who served nine years on the school board beginning in 2006. “She came in with great speed to improve things. I think she was just what we needed.”

Bishop introduced a wave of initiatives that were, at the time, unorthodox in Roanoke. But, Bishop said, she never pitched anything without thorough research.

Launching RCPS+, the school system’s enrichment program to provide summertime instruction, and outsourcing transportation and other services to cut costs during the Great Recession were two unconventional ideas.

Opening the Forest Park Academy, Roanoke’s school of second chances, was another.

With one-third of Roanoke students failing to graduate, Bishop designed the school for students who had dropped out or fallen behind on credits. Forest Park was modeled after a similar program in the Pennsylvania school system Bishop led.

Total Action for Progress President and CEO Annette Lewis recalled Bishop’s early efforts to create Forest Park. TAP, the city’s community action agency to address poverty, aids thousands of children each year. The organization had operated a dropout retrieval program since 2000 to encourage the city’s youth to return to school.

Lewis said Bishop met with TAP officials early on to discuss the Forest Park concept. Once the school board approved Forest Park, school staff started calling homes and knocking on doors to find students to enroll in the school, with the help of TAP.

The alternative school opened in 2008 in place of Forest Park Elementary — a decision that sparked some dissent among parents and guardians.

Mayor Sherman Lea said creating Forest Park Academy required courage and vision.

“Anytime you close an elementary school, it’s not a popular choice,” he said.

Eleven years later, Forest Park has helped more than 1,000 students graduate and contributed heavily to Roanoke’s improving graduation rate, now above 90%.

Lewis, who served on the school board from 2010 to this year, said the creation of Forest Park demonstrates how deeply Bishop cares for Roanoke’s youth. She also pointed to Bishop’s efforts to make Roanoke a trauma-informed division, where employees understand the adverse experiences of many students.

In another attempt to ensure Roanoke students have the tools to succeed, Bishop orchestrated a sweeping policy centered on equity. It focuses on whether Roanoke’s schools and student subgroups, such as economically disadvantaged students, have access to the academic programs, facilities and qualified teachers they need.

“The horrible irony is that in many areas, the poorer section of town has really grubby schools, and maybe lesser materials. That’s just not true here,” Bishop said.

Huff said the school board and division realigned attendance zones, bought new books, assigned the appropriate staff to each school and ensured all facilities were up to date.

Former school board member Todd Putney said Huff led the board’s charge on equity, and Bishop “did an outstanding job” of executing the policy. Putney also pointed to the school system’s efforts to narrow achievement gaps in the past decade as crucial initiatives.

Putney, along with former board member Jason Bingham, cast the two lone votes against hiring Bishop as superintendent. Both have since called their votes a mistake.

“What she’s done for this school system is nothing short of spectacular,” Putney said. “She’s maybe one of the most influential leaders during her time here in Roanoke, and her time as a public servant.”

Bingham lauded Bishop for steering Roanoke’s school system at a pivotal time. In addition to redistricting closing multiple schools, school officials opted to outsource multiple school services during Bishop’s tenure, such as transportation, food and nutrition and student health.

“If you look back on it … what you had was a leader willing to try anything, who had enough experience to know which things to choose, and that connection to the community to enable change,” Bingham said. “Maybe the biggest thing she’s done is raised the expectation for performance. She believed from the beginning that our school system and our kids can perform as well as anyone.”

Means and ends

Past and present, many Roanoke officials credit Bishop for the improvements to Roanoke’s schools and, in effect, the city’s image, as a school system’s reputation can correlate with economic development.

When Bishop was first hired, Roanoke lacked full state accreditation in eight schools. Over the years, the status improved, but the state continued to rate some schools as accredited with warning, or accredited with conditions.

Now every school in Roanoke is fully accredited, a mark the division of about 13,000 students reached for the first time in 2018.

Roanoke’s high ratings came the same year the state introduced new standards of accreditation. Standards of Learning exams are no longer the main factor, but part of a larger set of “school quality indicators” determined by the state. Measurements also include achievement gaps, absenteeism, graduation and completion.

In 2017, before the standards changed, Roanoke received some criticism for retesting some students who had taken Standards of Learning exams.

State policy allows elementary and middle school students to retake the exams if they just missed passing and if local school administration deems they had “extenuating circumstances” that affected their performance.

Roanoke administered retests to 449 of 470 students under the guidelines, and most of the students who retested attended schools at risk of missing full accreditation.

At the time, current and former educators told The Roanoke Times that the central office exerted pressure to retest students at the elementary and middle school level.

Bishop defended the retesting, saying that the division does a “good and kind job” for students, including those who have been affected by trauma or have challenging home lives.

Following complaints about the retesting practice in Roanoke and other school divisions, the state tightened its retesting criteria for elementary and middle school students.

Bishop has also received some scrutiny for administrative and teacher turnover, from reassignments to other roles, to teachers leaving for jobs in neighboring school systems.

Although teacher retention has improved overall over the past decade, some educators and parents said Bishop’s management style and workplace culture had a negative influence, according to a 2016 Roanoke Times report.

A firm commissioned by the Roanoke School Board anonymously surveyed current employees in the fall of 2017 to help gauge opinion on the working climate. Among the results, six in 10 Roanoke school employees believe it’s “seldom” or “almost never” true that staff can disagree with leadership without fear of retaliation.

The school board has discussed conducting another climate survey next school year.

Last week, Bishop told The Roanoke Times she considers culture hard to define, but she’s always tried to treat others fairly.

“For me, it’s just about — every person who works here has to be kid-focused,” Bishop said.

“Absolutely kid-focused” is how Bishop described her management style.

“If it does not benefit students, then it doesn’t,” Bishop said. “I’m happiest for the people who are kid-driven. A lot of people say it, but I honestly believe our future rests in these classrooms.”

Bishop said educators in Roanoke face tough challenges, particularly because it’s an urban school system.

“Never underestimate it, this is tough. When we talk about being a trauma-informed district, it’s very difficult,” she said. “We have children who have seen things many of us have not seen in our entire lifetime.”

Although Roanoke has offered annual pay raises, another element to teacher turnover in Roanoke and nationwide is pay. Bishop said she’s glad the school system has offered annual raises, along with competitive salaries and benefits.

“I remember my first years of teaching. It’s exhausting. If the general public knew how hard it is to teach every single day: you’re a magician, you’re a comic, you’re an intellect, you’re a coach,” Bishop said. “The expectation of a good teacher — and they usually put it on himself and herself — are amazing.”

Next chapters

As a young teacher in mid-1960s California, Bishop said, she didn’t picture herself rising to the level of superintendent.

“I just wanted to be the best English and speech teacher I could be,” she said.

After a brief stint as a school counselor, Bishop climbed from vice principal to principal, then to central office administration in San Jose over the next 19 years.

Bishop said a vision for her son was a major reason she moved 2,700 miles to the Roanoke Valley.

Based on his interests, Bishop was certain the College of William and Mary was the perfect school for him.

“California is a great place, I suppose. It just isn’t my place,” Bishop said. “We moved, and my son took one look at William and Mary and said no thanks. So, what do I know about college counseling?”

Gordon Lawson III opted instead to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy, following in his late father’s footsteps.

Following her retirement, Bishop said, she plans to continue living in Roanoke, adding that she also wants to spend time with grandchildren. She also intends to keep working.

“I have a couple of possibilities that I can’t talk about right now,” Bishop said.

But before that happens, Bishop said, she wants to help the school system accomplish objectives. Namely, she wants to reopen Lucy Addison Middle Schools’ aerospace program that closed more than 10 years ago. Bishop said the project will require raising about $2.5 million.

Bishop, who broke her right leg in a fall last month, said she won’t coast to June.

“The truth of the matter, there are things I have to do. That’s probably what got me through this leg,” she said.

The search for Bishop’s replacement has not officially begun. School board Chairman Mark Cathey said the board will likely hire a firm to locate candidates, with input from Bishop.

“I don’t want ground to be lost. It will take energy — lots of it — and a commitment to Roanoke city. Whoever does this has to love this city, and I love this city. I really do,” Bishop said. “You’ve got to know instruction. You’ve got to be absolutely devoted to kids and it can’t be about you.”

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