Roanoke Superintendent of Schools Rita Bishop, a prominent figure in the city’s education system for more than a dozen years, will retire at the end of the school year.
Bishop, 75, announced her departure in an email Thursday afternoon, according to a copy provided by Roanoke City Public Schools.
“This has been a difficult decision, one that is made easier by two charming grandchildren, and has nothing to do with my recent injury,” Bishop wrote.
Bishop broke a leg in a fall at home early last month but returned to working in central office three weeks later. On Oct. 2, the Roanoke School Board held a closed door meeting to discuss the annual superintendent’s evaluation. Following the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Chairman Mark Cathey told The Roanoke Times the school board had confidence in Bishop moving forward.
Bishop was hired as superintendent in 2007. In the email to staff, Bishop said she appreciated the effort of everyone involved with the school system, before listing some of Roanoke’s accomplishments in her tenure.
Bishop implemented a series of wide ranging changes in Roanoke to improve the division’s academic standing. The school system had a graduation rate below 60%, and had never achieved full accreditation divisionwide. Roanoke’s graduation rate steadily improved and is now 90.1% with all schools accredited for two consecutive years, according to most recent data from the state. The Forest Park Academy, a school specifically for high school students who have struggled academically, started early in her admistration and played a key role in boosting the graduation rate and decreasing drop outs.
Amid nationwide concern about school safety, Bishop pushed for more funding for school officers along with a schools security chief position.
Bishop also was instrumental in launching Roanoke’s summer enrichment program, RCPS+. The program’s objective is to address “summer slide,” or a loss of knowledge learned between school years. Last summer, 3,400 students enrolled in the program, a record for the school system.
In her letter, Bishop also told staff she’s glad employee compensation has improved. “Urban education is hard work; hard work deserves good pay,” Bishop wrote. “I am happy that we have been able to give salary improvements to all staff each year.”
The superintendent also led efforts to outsource several student services, such as nutrition and transportation, as a means of cutting costs. Outsourcing has received mixed reviews, at times.
Roanoke and its current transportation contractor, Durham School Services, have faced scrutiny this school year for long busing delays and poor communication. The company and school division cite a driver shortage, though some critics are urging the division to end outsourcing altogether.
Bishop has received additional criticism for some of the division’s other methods during her tenure as superintendent.
In 2017, Roanoke administered retests on Standards of Learning exams to about 450 eligible elementary and middle school students because they were close to passing and determined by Bishop to have “extenuating circumstances.” At the time, test scores were the main factor in determining school accreditation.
Following complaints about the retesting practice in Roanoke and other school divisions, the state tightened its criteria for elementary and middle school students.
State accreditation is now based on several additional factors beyond test scores. The “school quality indicators,” include achievement gaps, graduation rates and absenteeism.
Roanoke gained full accreditation in all of its school for the first time in 2018.
Bishop has also faced complaints about workplace culture from teachers and administrators over the years. An employee survey made public in 2018, for instance, found that 6 in 10 employees surveyed believed it was “seldom” or “almost never” true that staff can disagree with leadership without fear of retaliation.
Prior to her stint as Roanoke schools chief, Bishop was an assistant superintendent in Roanoke for 10 years. She left the division in 2004 to head a school district in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before returning.
Cathey told The Roanoke Times the school board received word of Bishop’s decisions last week, and will miss her leadership.
“I think her achievements are unmatched. I think she was incredible,” said Cathey, in his fifth year with the school board. “The state the schools are in are fantastic. … Her tenure was 12 years when the standard [for superintendents] is more like four or five.”
Cathey said the board likely will seek to hire a search firm to help find Bishop’s replacement, with the hope of a smooth and immediate transition. Cathey said the board will look to Bishop for feedback on the final decision.
The school year officially ends June 30.
Bishop told staff her goal has always been to improve the lives of Roanoke each day.
“I hope you will continue this endeavor,” she wrote.
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