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Brian Betts--a great loss for D.C. schools

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.

By Jay Mathews  | April 16, 2010; 10:49 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Brian Betts, D.C. Teacher a great loss for D.C. Schools, Shaw Middle School are Garnet-Patterson  
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Jay - you should Rhee's statement about Betts - it was lovely and honest. She didn't use his death as a means to tout her reforms.

You should read comments from former students on the Post report - they are moving and personal and give you a true feel for what kind of teacher and person he was.

Posted by: efavorite | April 16, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

thanks efavorite. I am still 3,000 miles away, but will get to those. What you said doesnt surprise me.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 16, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

How terrible that he was murdered. I'm sorry for his loss.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 16, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

From what I've read, Mr. Betts was an outstanding educator. My condolences to his family and to the DC education community.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 16, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

mr efavorite you can't even let the passing of perhaps one of the brightest employees of the school system pass without a stab at ms. rhee. you should be ashamed! this is a time for prayer and reflection on the potential that brian brought into the lives of a whole lot of young people's hearts. what have you done for a young person lately.

stop bashing and start acting like an adult...go out and volunteer in a school, clean up a playground, or do something good for a random young person...that is the adult behavior that brian exemplified to his students...

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Posted by: itkonlyyou12 | April 17, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

It's terribly sad when a good person is murdered like that, but since you paint this awful crime as a "great loss to DC schools" I have to take issue. According to the article in the Post this morning, his kids' test scores actually *decreased*. You seem optimistic about this year's results. We'll see. Even if there's improvement, though, Mr Betts' exceptionalism means that there are few implications for the school system at large. If his (hypothesized) success came precisely because he was so wonderfully unique, that would suggest it cannot be easily replicated.

Posted by: qaz1231 | April 17, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the thoughtful column, Jay. I read the story online at about 11:40 pm last night. I was just heartbroken. I met Brian when he won the Agnes Meyer Award in 1999. It was my first year at twp. He was the speaker that spoke on behalf of the group and he was exceptional. I've followed his career and been so impressed and amazed. This is just so so sad.

Posted by: Cmorsedc | April 17, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Mr Betts worked hard in the public schools and was murdered.
Barack Obama stopped Black students from going to private schools by eliminating vouchers for DC Black students.
Mr. Betts absence will harm 30 students.
Barack Obama's thuggery will harm thousands of students and Black voters are so dumb they will vote for him again. Hope and Change from a Mulatto has meant the murder of many DC public school Black students success in school.
Criminal in the White House born in Mombasa, Kenya according to his grandmother, Sarah Obama who was there in the delivery room. Obama was 16 inches long and his footprint is on his Mombasa birth certificate.

Posted by: mascmen7 | April 17, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I worked with Brian for a short time. He truly was excellent at what he did. This is a shame for DC public education and how sad that his reach will not go further and touch others.
Your column was an appropriate tribute of many more to come by many others, I am sure.

Posted by: concernedparent4 | April 17, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Hey mascmen7...seems like your "masc" is that of a Klu Kluxer. Take your conspiracy theories and go home.

Posted by: RobRoy1 | April 17, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

"talent rich" in Montgomery County? Surely you don't mean the MCPS-trained robots who only care about managing children and boosting test scores? Many MCPS principals have forgotten (if they ever knew) what it means to use all assets and talents available to develop the whole child rather than just push the kids to bubble in the right answers on the MSA tests.

Posted by: willoughbyspit | April 17, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Dear mrspeepchuck - perhaps in your grief, you didn't notice that I said the Rhee's response to Bett's death was "lovely and honest" and I complimented her on NOT "using his death as a means to tout her reforms."

If so, I forgive you for wrongly accusing me of bashing Rhee.

Posted by: efavorite | April 18, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

20 years ago I taught with a very good teacher, Robert Leslie. Like Mr. Betts, he respected his students and they in return. Also, like Mr. Betts, he died young, during the school year.
Mr. Leslie went in for back surgery during Christmas break, but died on the operating table.
I imagine that if you were to find his students today, they would relate their love for his class, remembering it as what is referred to nowadays as a "safe and inviting environment."
Rest In Peace, Mr. Betts and Bob.

Posted by: edlharris | April 18, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

This is very sad. My condolences to his family.

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Posted by: itkonlyyou16 | April 19, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

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