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D.C. school community mourns loss of Principal Brian Betts, its anchor

As classes resumed Monday at Shaw Middle School, teachers and students remembered slain principal Brian Betts. Ninth-grade student Daamontae Brown said, "He was something like a father to me."

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By Michael Birnbaum and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Until last week, Brian Betts stood in front of his school every morning to dispense hugs and greetings to his students and their parents as they arrived.

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He wasn't outside Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School on Monday morning. And the hugs between students and staff were grief-stricken. As class was held Monday for the first time since Shaw's beloved principal was found slain last week, the question was: Who can carry on the charge?

Betts was D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's anointed symbol for her reform efforts -- someone who was making unconventional educational choices to turn around a school that had been struggling for years. He hired a staff of mostly young, mostly new teachers, saying that dedication was more important than experience. But with so much resting on one man's shoulders, concerned community members wondered what will happen next.

"Whoever takes that job is going to have some big shoes to fill," said Kevin Bey, a parent at the school who became close friends with Betts.

Rhee said that Betts built a strong enough team at Shaw that she's not worried about the basic functions of the school.

"Are there people in the building who can carry on the structures? Yes. Can one of these people fill Brian's shoes? That's a different question," she said Monday night. "I wish I had a lot of Brian Bettses in my pocket, but I don't."

For now, Assistant Principal Kimberly Douglas is in charge, Rhee said. She plans to run a search for a principal, and although she said it would be good for continuity if the eventual choice comes from the school, she won't confine herself to it.

Many teachers have said that they went to the school because of Betts -- and he said that he would take care of the training as long as they took care of the passion.

"I can be very forgiving of the errors of youth," Betts said last year. "If you love kids and believe they can learn with motivation and support, I can help you through the bumps of being a first-year teacher."

Now those new teachers are left without him.

Meredith Leonard, an English teacher who got her first teaching job from Betts, said she couldn't imagine the school without him.

"But being around the kids makes it easier," she said. "He would have wanted us to keep moving. It'll be okay."

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