A Sad Goodbye to A Great Educator And Local Hero

22 Apr

This is one of those that just makes you want to sit down and cry.

Young teacher who grew up here in the region and was making a big difference…

Successful, beloved D.C. principal found fatally shot at his Montgomery home

Until Brian Betts mysteriously failed to appear at work Thursday morning, this is what his many admirers knew about him: He was the energetic new principal of a long-troubled urban school and, within a D.C. school system desperate for heroes, a superstar.

But by the end of that day, a group of worried colleagues had found him shot dead in his Silver Spring home, and the upbeat narrative of Betts’s two decades of work had become a tragic tale.

The celebrated educator is now at the improbable center of a murder mystery. His blue Nissan Xterra is missing, as is some property in his home. But there was no sign of forced entry into his two-story brick colonial, and it was not ransacked. A source close to the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said police theorize that Betts was killed by somebody he let in.

Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said, “It’s still possible this was a random killing, but right now we don’t think so.”

Betts, 42, worked on the front lines of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s campaign to reform the D.C. schools. In only his second year on the job, he was emerging as one of the school system’s most innovative principals. Lured away in 2008 from the better-performing school system in the suburbs of Montgomery, Betts was given a new staff at a reconfigured school and unusual freedom to hire and fire, train and teach.

Betts hired a group of inexperienced teachers at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. He eliminated homeroom and recess, deeming them a waste of time, a bold pronouncement from a former physical education teacher. Students liked him so much that Rhee approved an unprecedented request for 100 of them to remain at his middle school for ninth grade.

“It’s unreal. It’s devastating,” said Carol Cienfuegos, the instructional coach at Shaw, who followed Betts to the school from Montgomery schools.

D.C. schools were closed Friday for Emancipation Day, but as word of Betts’s death spread, students and staff members gathered at the school. A group of five teachers walked in, laden with boxes of tissues for mourners. Sobbing students clutched each other in front of the building.

Some, including Rhee, wondered how Betts’s school would carry on without him.

“With him, potentially more than any other principal in this city, these children are going to be devastated because they have such an intense relationship with him,” she said. “I never talked to Brian at any point where he didn’t have kids with him.”

Betts grew up in Manassas and attended Stonewall Jackson High School and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although he once wanted to be a marine biologist, he instead became a Montgomery physical education teacher and administrator. In 1999, he was a winner of The Washington Post’s Agnes Meyer Award, given to teachers.

“He was beyond creative. He was maniacally creative in his thinking and his idea patterns and just the way he looked at things,” said Dawn Ellis, who hired Betts at Neelsville Middle School in Germantown when she was principal there. “My nickname for him was Wonder Boy.”

Betts went to Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring in 2005 to create a magnet program for the new school. Part of his job was to drum up applicants from across the county. He held coffees with groups of parents and drew enough inquiries to fill the program three times over.

Since becoming principal at Shaw, Betts had made the school into a popular stop for journalists and dignitaries eager for a best-case-scenario glimpse at Rhee’s controversial campaign of urban education reform.

One of the few white faces at a school of African American and Hispanic children, Betts forged a close bond with his students, reaching across race and class, especially with some children who did not have close relationships with their fathers.

“Every time he saw me, he said I was one-third his,” said Tresean Wilkins-Bey, part of the group who petitioned to stay at Shaw. “I was a little immature. He straightened me out. He kept in my hair about everything when I did something wrong.”

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Posted by on April 22, 2010 in American Genocide


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