Betts set a standard for learning that will live on

Jay Mathews
Friday, April 16, 2010; 11:32 AM

It is difficult to adjust to any 6 a.m. phone call, but the one I received this morning was particularly jarring. Brian Betts, one of the most energetic and enthusiastic educators I have ever met, had been found dead in his home in Silver Spring, just months before what I expected would be good news about his relentless efforts to raise achievement for students at the Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson.

Only 42, Betts was a rising star among D.C. school principals. He had been a successful teacher and assistant principal in Montgomery County. D.C. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was able to steal him to help turn around one of the city's worst schools because Betts was impatient to be a principal, and didn't like waiting for his turn in the talent-rich Montgomery system.

What impressed me most, when I wrote a series of columns in 2008 and 2009 about the effort to revive Shaw, was Betts' fearlessness.

He was a white man in a predominantly black community, and had no qualms about asking parents of his students what they thought about that. He had an opportunity to hire almost an entirely new faculty and did so, despite concerns that so many new people might take some time to adjust to a school going through so much change. He abolished recess and homeroom periods as a waste of time that could be used for instruction, even though many traditionalists were fond of both.

Most daring of all, when some of his eighth graders asked if he could create a ninth grade so they could spend another year at Shaw rather than go on to high schools, he took the idea seriously.

Keep in mind these were 12- and 13-year-olds making this outlandish suggestion. Betts knew the principals of the high schools that these students were trying to avoid would be insulted. He knew that even some of the students' parents weren't sure it was a great idea. And it would pose a potential headache for Rhee, the person who had given Betts this job he loved, at a time when she really didn't need any more headaches.

But like all great principals, Betts looked at issues from the perspective of students rather than adults. He thought even if the kids' idea was rejected, it would be a great learning experience for them. So he arranged for them to meet with Rhee and shared, I suspect, the surprise of many, including me, when she bought the idea. The experiment worked so well that this year Rhee approved adding a 10th grade at Shaw to keep that same group of about 100 students at the school next year.

There was no greater measure of Betts' devotion to the job than his reaction to the news that his first year test scores were not much better than the previous year. He kept at it, helping his teachers find the right formula for learning for every child and encouraging them to work together to raise achievement for all. I am pretty sure there will be significantly more improvement revealed when the scores are released this summer.

I am sad for Betts' family, and his students and members of his education team. He will be hard to replace, but in less than two years he has set a standard for learning at Shaw that will last a long time. That is something to be thankful for, and to keep his memory alive.

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