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Outgoing Virginia Beach schools superintendent talks successes and challenges in final interview

The former "Virginia Superintendent of the Year" is leaving Virginia Beach City Public Schools this month for Loudoun County Public Schools.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It’s the first day of the last month for the superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Dr. Aaron Spence spent much of his life in Virginia Beach: as a student, a parent, and -- for the last nine years -- as superintendent.

But now he is in between jobs as he prepares to start his new role as head of Loudon County Public Schools.

In his final one-on-one interview with 13News Now, Dr. Spence reflects on his legacy and the biggest challenges facing his successor.

CHALLENGES: Teacher morale, Artificial Intelligence, COVID-19

Dr. Spence acknowledged some "real, existential issues" facing public education. 

“I think the greatest challenge my successor will face is the same challenge that all of us are facing in public education, which is how do we look forward in the next three-quarters of this century and define what public education looks like in such a way that community supports it, that we can fund it, and that we can keep teachers wanting to come into the profession and do great things for kids," he said. 

“I do know we have had some significant challenges," he continued. "People are telling us, ‘Look, I’m burnt out, I’m working really, really hard and I’m not feeling valued and respected.’ I think it’s our community’s responsibility to make sure our teachers feel valued and respected and loved and cared for.”

Dr. Spence pointed to the well-documented issues of school safety, state funding, and teacher shortages.

He also mentioned the lesser-known challenge of artificial intelligence, which he said he spends “a lot of time” thinking about.

"You think about artificial intelligence and the impact that's going to have on education, and I think we're going to have to wrap our heads around that pretty quickly so that we're responsive to the needs of our students, the needs of our communities and our parents, and at the same time making sure our children are well prepared to enter a world that looks nothing like any of us currently understand,” he said.

AI is just the latest curveball for leaders in public education.

Dr. Spence led students and staff through the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning, and now ongoing debates about what’s taught in schools, as social issues fuel political debate nationwide.

“We should be talking about these issues in age-appropriate ways, and we're not talking about them in ways where we're telling children what to think, but we are talking about them in ways where we are asking children to think for themselves,” he said. "Sometimes that means we have to talk about things we disagree about and we need to do that in really thoughtful ways."

Dr. Spence noted the curriculum in Virginia Beach follows the State of Virginia's standards of learning.

Florida has garnered national attention in recent weeks as the state’s curriculum will now teach students about skillsets learned in slavery.

We asked Dr. Spence if public schools are properly teaching Black history.

“I think Black history is American history that we’re talking about the impact of significant events in our country’s history on everyone who lived in our country... and you can’t do that without talking about slavery, and reconstruction, and Jim Crow,” Dr. Spence said.

Dr. Spence said he thinks he can help Loudoun County confront challenges similar to those in Virginia Beach.

"Anytime a superintendent leaves a school division, it's an opportunity for growth for both divisions,” he said.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Virginia Superintendent of the Year and community appreciation

Dr. Spence’s accomplishments earned him “Virginia Superintendent of the Year” in 2018. School Board Chairwoman Trenace Riggs called him the best superintendent in Virginia Beach history. 

Dr. Spence said he’s proud of improvements under his watch to school accreditation, mental health, and school safety.

“We’ve just taken a much stronger posture on safety and security in our buildings. And at the same time, we’ve also had other conversations about reasons we may not be as safe and secure as we need to be,” Dr. Spence said.

There were a number of threats to Virginia Beach City Public Schools this past year. Dr. Spence said he thinks that may be because of an increased awareness to take threats seriously, as the school system promotes “see something, say something.”

In terms of teacher pay, he acknowledged there is room for improvement. The starting salary for teachers this year in Virginia Beach is $51,965, which was the same starting rate for teachers last year. 

“No, it’s not where it needs to be,” he said of teacher salaries. “I think there’s a great opportunity to work with our governor, work with our general assembly to advocate for teacher compensation and make sure that teachers in Virginia are compensated as well as or better than other states, particularly in our region.”

Dr. Spence hopes his legacy here is that children feel a sense of belonging in the classroom.

He called his decision to leave bittersweet, and he leaves parents, teachers, staff, and students with this final message: “I love you,” Dr. Spence said. “I've enjoyed being Superintendent at Virginia Beach City Public Schools. It's been the honor of my career and it's meant so much to me. It will always be home and always be a part of my heart."

REPLACEMENT: To be determined

For the first time in nearly a decade, Hampton Roads’ largest school division is now searching for a new leader.

There is a nationwide search underway right now to find a permanent replacement for Dr. Spence.

Until then, Dr. Donald Robertson is serving as the acting superintendent.

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