By Dan Morse and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 17, 2010; A01
Until Brian Betts mysteriously failed to appear at work Thursday morning, this is what his many admirers knew about him: He was the energetic new principal of a long-troubled urban school and, within a D.C. school system desperate for heroes, a superstar.
But by the end of that day, a group of worried colleagues had found him shot dead in his Silver Spring home, and the upbeat narrative of Betts's two decades of work had become a tragic tale.
The celebrated educator is now at the improbable center of a murder mystery. His blue Nissan Xterra is missing, as is some property in his home. But there was no sign of forced entry into his two-story brick colonial, and it was not ransacked. A source close to the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said police theorize that Betts was killed by somebody he let in.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said, "It's still possible this was a random killing, but right now we don't think so."
Betts, 42, worked on the front lines of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's campaign to reform the D.C. schools. In only his second year on the job, he was emerging as one of the school system's most innovative principals. Lured away in 2008 from the better-performing school system in the suburbs of Montgomery, Betts was given a new staff at a reconfigured school and unusual freedom to hire and fire, train and teach.
Betts hired a group of inexperienced teachers at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. He eliminated homeroom and recess, deeming them a waste of time, a bold pronouncement from a former physical education teacher. Students liked him so much that Rhee approved an unprecedented request for 100 of them to remain at his middle school for ninth grade.
"It's unreal. It's devastating," said Carol Cienfuegos, the instructional coach at Shaw, who followed Betts to the school from Montgomery schools.
D.C. schools were closed Friday for Emancipation Day, but as word of Betts's death spread, students and staff members gathered at the school. A group of five teachers walked in, laden with boxes of tissues for mourners. Sobbing students clutched each other in front of the building.
Some, including Rhee, wondered how Betts's school would carry on without him.
"With him, potentially more than any other principal in this city, these children are going to be devastated because they have such an intense relationship with him," she said. "I never talked to Brian at any point where he didn't have kids with him."
Police said Betts was found dead of "at least one" gunshot wound Thursday night after co-workers, concerned over his absence, visited his house on Columbia Boulevard and found the door unlocked. Manger said the homicide investigation is "wide open." The missing sport-utility vehicle could be important.
"With the vehicle, I think they'll find the person who did it," said Delbert Betts, Brian's father.
Betts's house has a separate tragic history. Erika Smith, 9, and her father, Greg Russell, were brutally murdered there by an intruder in 2002.
Betts grew up in Manassas and attended Stonewall Jackson High School and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although he once wanted to be a marine biologist, he instead became a Montgomery physical education teacher and administrator. In 1999, he was a winner of The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Award, given to teachers.
"He was beyond creative. He was maniacally creative in his thinking and his idea patterns and just the way he looked at things," said Dawn Ellis, who hired Betts at Neelsville Middle School in Germantown when she was principal there. "My nickname for him was Wonder Boy."
Betts went to Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring in 2005 to create a magnet program for the new school. Part of his job was to drum up applicants from across the county. He held coffees with groups of parents and drew enough inquiries to fill the program three times over.
Since becoming principal at Shaw, Betts had made the school into a popular stop for journalists and dignitaries eager for a best-case-scenario glimpse at Rhee's controversial campaign of urban education reform.
One of the few white faces at a school of African American and Hispanic children, Betts forged a close bond with his students, reaching across race and class, especially with some children who did not have close relationships with their fathers.
"Every time he saw me, he said I was one-third his," said Tresean Wilkins-Bey, part of the group who petitioned to stay at Shaw. "I was a little immature. He straightened me out. He kept in my hair about everything when I did something wrong."
Friends, relatives and colleagues of Betts's regarded his intense devotion to his students as the defining qualify of his life. As a physical education teacher, he taught a blind boy at Rock View Elementary School in Kensington to play catch by attaching a bell to a ball, said O'Neil McGean, who once co-owned a house with Betts in Shaw.
"And the worse the kids were, the more he wanted to teach them," McGean said. "It was all he talked about."
Betts often said he disagreed with the idea that poverty and broken families are unchanging causes of academic malaise. He saw himself and his staff as responsible for turning students around. He would cook dinners for his students and chew them out on the phone for missing homework.
"I will not let you be average," Betts told a group of seventh-graders he had assembled in the Shaw auditorium before lunch last spring. "You saw how few seventh-graders are on the honor roll."
Rhee held Betts up as her model principal, but it created expectations that he had trouble fulfilling. Math and reading proficency rates on the school's 2009 DC-CAS assessments, already low, declined again. Betts was disappointed, but Rhee said Friday that she was so impressed by the cultural transformation at Shaw, she told him: "We'll take care of the academics later."
In the morning, Betts would stand at 10th and V streets NW, with the school building at his back, looking out at the changing face of the neighborhood -- a vacant lot on one side, new townhouses on the other -- hugging students as they arrived, hurrying some along, chatting with parents and checking in on the latest news.
"He was like a watchman," said Tanya Bey, mother of Tresean Wilkins-Bey and two other students at Shaw -- all of whom had Betts as their godfather. "He watched out for the children and everything that didn't look right: drugs, guns, violence."
Staff writers Michael Birnbaum, Michael Alison Chandler, Mary Pat Flaherty, Paul Schwartzman, Bill Turque and Debbi Wilgoren and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.