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Newport News teachers offer input during superintendent search

Though school board members welcomed everyone for their third public hearing Thursday evening, input from staff members took center stage.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Teachers in Newport News laid out what they want in their next superintendent at a public hearing Thursday evening at Warwick High School. 

It all comes during a time of limbo for the public school division. Some staff said they are reckoning with a post-COVID-19 and low morale environment.

And not to mention, the community is still healing from incidents of violence on local school campuses.

Speakers expressed common themes in their wish lists. However, there is one particular thing some teachers are divided about.

Only about 20 people went to the meeting at Warwick High School Thursday night. Just six of them spoke.

However, they all passionately shared the qualities they want to see in the next person who will run Newport News Public Schools.

"I want to see a superintendent that visible and vocal, not just hear but listen," said Carolyn Pope, a Woodside High School teacher.  

The vacancy comes nearly three months after school board members fired Dr. George Parker III. He and the division faced backlash, in part, for three shootings on school grounds within a span of 18 months.

That includes the January incident at Richneck Elementary, in which police said a 6-year-old shot his teacher in the classroom.

"The superintendent should understand what the culture is," said Warwick High teacher Conor Collins. "What is the crisis point that we have of violence throughout our district and throughout our community, and that's not just unique to our borders inside Newport News." 

Some teachers asked for more mental health days, a hard focus on academics and someone who can simply care.

"Somebody that goes out into the trenches, that understands what teachers, custodians, everybody goes through," Cherone Small, vice president of Newport News Education Association, told 13News Now. 

"Our boat's been sinking been sinking a little bit guys, we've been through COVID, scores are low, morale is low, let's put somebody in there who cares about us," said Irene Dethlefs, a Saunders Elementary teacher. 

Dethlefs believes selecting Interim Superintendent Dr. Michelle Mitchell would be the way to go.

"I can tell you firsthand, as a special-ed teacher, that I respect her," Dethlefs added.

But the issue of an internal versus external hire has some people split.

"It's going to be either or," said Collins.

"Maybe that person is not here. I would like to get someone who knows Newport News or knows Hampton Roads, but I don't know if the person is necessarily in our system right now," Pope said.

Furthermore, most people are weighing in with their thoughts through another format. Thursday night, School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law announced more than 1,000 people have filled out the online survey. The deadline is April 23. 

The last chance to comment in person will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at Heritage High School. 

School board members plan to set qualifications next week, according to a timeline disseminated earlier this month.

They will open up an application portal in May, and then hopefully make their pick by the beginning of the next academic year.

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