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A willingness to work: New superintendent wants to make equity more than a buzzword

Charlottesville City Schools officially has a new superintendent as Royal A. Gurley, Jr. officially began his tenure Monday, kicking off a new era for the school system.

“It is an honor to be joining such an amazing team,” Gurley wrote in a letter to the school community. “I have already seen first-hand the labor of love that goes into ensuring the success of students and the school division. I want to assure you that as your superintendent, my goal is to propel us to even higher heights.”

On Monday morning, Gurley’s family, School Board members and division officials were on hand to watch as he took the oath of office administered by Llezelle Dugger, clerk of the Charlottesville Circuit Court.

Over the next 100 days, Gurley plans to review data and policies as well as meet with division officials, principals, teachers, students and community members to learn the inner-workings of the school system.

The former Dinwiddie County administrator arrives in Charlottesville as the school division is gearing up for a $75 million school construction project, grapples with persistent achievement gaps and continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Gurley also will have to fill a handful vacant senior-level roles such as the director of human resources.

He brings with him an experience largely rooted in special education, starting with his mother who taught students with disabilities for 42 years. Over his 19-year career so far, Gurley has taught special education and directed the department in Chesterfield and Dinwiddie counties. In Dinwiddie, he also was the principal of the division’s alternative learning center before becoming the assistant superintendent for academic services in July 2017.

“I’ve always loved working with children who pose the greatest challenges because those are kids who really need us,” he said in a recent interview. “All kids need us, but it’s easy for people to kind of push children to the side who don’t respond immediately. I’ve always been one who gave a little extra love to those kids who people were turning their backs on.”

Working in special education taught Gurley the importance of tailoring instruction to meet the specific needs of the students, he said.

“As an administrator, I use those same exact skills,” he said. “It’s about personalizing students’ experiences and personalizing teachers’ experiences.”

That sometimes meant working alongside teachers rather than just telling them to do something.

“They don’t want you to just tell them to do something; they want to know that you can do it,” he said. “I feel like that’s the same way I will be even as the superintendent. I don’t want you to just think that I’m telling you to do something because I want you to know that I can also do it or that I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to mop the floor. I’m willing to stay after work to ensure that students get what they need. That’s really how you advance an organization that you get the most for students.”

His 100-day plan outlines how he’ll get up to speed in four focus areas — culture of care, equity, student achievement and safe schools. Each focus area includes a sort of to-do list for information to review and gather as well as people to meet with. For example, under culture of care, Gurley wants to review the recent school and district climate data and convene an advisory group to hear feedback on how information is communicated and shared in the division.

He considers culture of care to encompass creating an environment where everyone feels welcome, included and affirmed.

“Communication is a key element of a culture of care,” he wrote. “It is essential to the success of any organization that stakeholders understand where to get assistance and resolve concerns.”

Under student achievement, Gurley focused on ensuring students have access to quality reading instruction. Improving reading skills of elementary students has been a focus of the School Board, and in Dinwiddie, Gurley helped to support efforts to increase the number of students reading on grade level by third grade.

‘A great person’

Gurley, 41, signed a four-year contract with the School Board and will make $180,762 a year to start. The Sussex County native is the first Black man to serve as superintendent as well as the first openly gay man. He’s already made an offer on a house in Charlottesville and will move here this month.

Charlottesville hasn’t had a new permanent superintendent in more than a decade. Rosa Atkins led the division for 15 years before stepping down and taking a job at the Virginia Department of Education. Jim Henderson has served as acting superintendent since June.

In a series of surveys and focus groups this summer, the Charlottesville community said it wanted a superintendent who is visible to the public, a strong leader and transparent, according to the leadership profile created as part of the search process.

Mary Benjamin, chairwoman of the Dinwiddie County School Board, said that Gurley is knowledgeable about the education and needs of young people and a great listener. He also always returns phone calls and emails.

“I like that about him,” she said.

Benjamin said that if there was anything the school division could to make things better for students, “Dr. Gurley was right on it.”

She added that he had a great partnership with the school system’s superintendent, Kari Weston.

“… I think the School Board almost forgot we needed to do our jobs because we had such a good team,” she said. “By the same token, I’m happy for his success and for your city. You are receiving a great person who what we say about him is the truth because it’s what he did. … Best wishes to Charlottesville schools. You are in for a great time of learning and innovation and I’m looking forward to hearing about it.”

Gurley, who started his career teaching special education in Surry County, said he didn’t always plan on becoming a superintendent because he wanted to work closely with children. He credited his career path to great mentors who helped him along the way.

In September, when he was named superintendent, Gurley said he was drawn to the job description and the community’s values such as the focus on equity and creating new pathways for students.

In his 100-day plan, Gurley wrote that equity should be at the center of all decision-making to ensure that students and employees have access to the resources and support they need to do their best.

“CCS will create measurable indicators to ensure all stakeholders understand equity is not a ‘buzzword;’ rather it’s an action with qualitative and quantitative measures,” he wrote.

The division already has several efforts underway related to creating a more equitable school system including an equity policy. Gurley wrote that he plans to meet with the division’s Supervisor of Equity to learn about the current initiatives and programs. He also wants to ensure that a diverse range of voices from the division have been included in conversations about equity.

Additionally, he plans to hear from a student advisory group about their perspectives on equity and race in the school system. That student advisory group also will be asked to weigh on their academic experiences in the division, per the plan.

Priorities and pathways

Charlottesville community members said in the surveys over the summer that expanding career and technical education pathways should be one of the new superintendent’s priorities. Other priorities were including English language learners and LGBTQ students in the equity efforts, retaining diverse staff members and creating a strategic plan with measurable goals and outcomes.

Dinwiddie County doesn’t have as many English language learners as Charlottesville where that group of students make up 15% of the division’s overall enrollment. About 3% of Dinwiddie’s students are English learners, according to state data.

Gurley said in September that the English learners were concentrated at one elementary school that required “considerable attention” from the division. He said they worked to ensure they and their families had what they needed. That included partnering with community groups to provide fresh food for families and connecting them with other resources in the area.

“We’re not just teaching students,” he said. “We are supporting our entire community. Education is not just about the children who sit in the seats. We are working with the families. I always say that our families send the best that they have to us, each and every day, and so that’s who we work with. … We treat everyone who walks through our doors with dignity and respect.”

Regarding the CTE pathways, Gurley said that schools have to let students know that they don’t have to go to college.

“It’s OK if you want to be employed after school,” he said, highlighting the current need for skilled workers such as plumbers and electricians.

In September, he said that getting students to graduation is important but not the only goal. Schools need to ensure that students are “life ready,” he said.

“That they can be employed or they can be enrolled in college,” he said. “Just making sure that our students have options when they leave us.”

In Dinwiddie, he helped to create a workforce ready program that focused on ensuring students had the skills they needed to succeed in the workforce. Students who hit certain benchmarks such as attendance, enrolling in advanced classes or completing a CTE pathway would receive the Workforce Ready Diploma Seal. Those students also would be guaranteed an interview with area employers.

Those efforts were recognized in his final week at Dinwiddie when the Virginia Department of Education named the school system one of five “School Divisions of Innovation.” The recognition goes to school divisions that are finding different ways outside of traditional practices to improve student learning as well as promote college and career readiness and good citizenship.

“But those are some of the things too that can happen in Charlottesville,” he said. “We can be a school division of innovation as well.”


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