School community works to stay the course of slain principal Brian Betts

Police made an arrest Monday in connection with the April 15 slaying of Brian Betts, a principal at D.C.'s Shaw Middle School. Betts's death has drawn an outpouring across the D.C. area.
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson had been making big strides toward academic success before the slaying of the man who was leading the charge. Now students, teachers and parents are wondering how to keep up the pace he had set.

Brian Betts, the school's principal of the school, was found shot to death in his home April 15. Since then, the Shaw community has worked while it mourned, setting up memorials and also administering the DC-CAS exam, the annual standardized tests that measure academic progress.

Now some parents are concerned that Betts's special touch -- reaching the high-performing students and the ones who sometimes acted up -- could prove difficult to replicate.

"It's going to be a long, hard road" for the school, said Tanya Bey, mother of three Shaw students.

Betts arrived at the long-challenged school at 10th and U streets NW in 2008, armed with a corps of energetic but inexperienced teachers and a broad mandate from D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to do what he thought was needed to turn the school around.

He quickly forged deep relationships with students and parents, using a mixture of new-style data analysis and old-fashioned pavement pounding to figure out what each student needed.

Most mornings, Betts would stand in front of the school and dish out hugs to students as they arrived from all corners of the city. In his office, he put a student-sized desk alongside his so children who were misbehaving could have a quiet place to do their work as he did his. And he worked late hours mentoring teachers and running extracurricular activities.

His efforts drew the praises of the school community, and outside attention, too. When Rhee was asked for an example of where her reforms were going right, she would often point to Shaw.

But with success came risk. When a reporter asked Betts last year whether he was worried about hiring an inexperienced staff, he said that as long as his teachers were dedicated and passionate, he could help them through the rest.

Now the school is left to make its way without its leader.

Rhee said in the wake of the slaying that she would run an ordinary principal search to replace Betts. Although she said that internal school candidates would help preserve continuity, she also said that she didn't plan to confine herself to the community in the search.

Bey said she and her husband were impressed enough by Betts to make him their children's godfather. But she thinks it will very difficult to find another principal who had his deft touch with the students. "Mr. Betts had a way where he got the parents involved, got the students involved," Bey said.

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