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Atkins to retire after 15 years at the helm of Charlottesville City Schools

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Rosa Atkins Northam

Gov. Ralph Northam walks with schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins during a visit to Venable Elementary School earlier this month. Atkins is taking a top job at the Virginia Department of Education after she steps down as superintendent in May.

The longtime superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools is stepping down, effective May 31, according to a division news release.

Rosa Atkins has two years left on her contract but is retiring from the division now because she said she feels the division is in a strong place. Her 15-year tenure is the longest since James Johnson retired after 36 years in 1945.

During her time at the helm, Atkins provided stability for the division after Superintendent Scottie Griffin resigned shortly into her tumultuous tenure. Atkins steered the school system through the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic and put programs in place to provide more enriching experiences for children, including the overhaul of gifted education.

“I’m so honored to have served the students, families, staff and community of Charlottesville,” Atkins said in a statement released late Thursday night. “It’s been a pleasure to serve and work alongside such tremendous people. I’ve actually postponed this decision for a while due to the pandemic, but I’m at a point where I want to spend less time as superintendent and more time as Nana.”

Students in preschool through sixth grade returned to school buildings for in-person classes Monday.

Atkins is the 14th superintendent of the division since 1909. Before her arrival, the average tenure for a city schools superintendent was 7.6 years. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the division had five superintendents.

“While it’s bittersweet to leave Charlottesville City Schools, I know my colleagues and board members will continue to provide great leadership,” Atkins said in the statement.

The School Board discussed her retirement in closed session Thursday.

“We thank Dr. Atkins for her calming presence, her bold work to promote equity and, above all, for her commitment to children,” board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said in a statement. “We especially appreciate her staying on to give a steadying hand this past year during the pandemic. We are sorry to see her leave, but we support her and wish her all the best in the next chapter. ”

Larson-Torres said the board will meet next week to discuss the search process.

Atkins’ contract was renewed in December 2018 and runs through June 30, 2023. Her annual base salary is $204,087.

In her announcement to employees, Atkins said the birth of her fourth grandchild in December was a catalyst for her decision.

“And so thinking about those grandchildren and thinking about all the work that we have done here in the school division and the journey that we’ve had here in the school division,” she said in the announcement. “Along with my husband, I have made the decision to retire at the end of this school year.”

She said her time in Charlottesville has been the highlight of her career.

“It has been a thrill to work with, learn from and to celebrate with each and every one of you,” she said. “You are amazing. I have enjoyed you. We have had wonderful times together and accomplished so much.”

Atkins said in the announcement that she uses the word “retirement” loosely.

“Because I know there’s another challenge that’s waiting for me just beyond that ‘R word,’ but as I start to make that transition, I will always hold dear in my heart all that we have done here, all that you have meant to me, all that you have meant to this community,” she said.

Establishing a locally supported preschool program for 3-year-olds, supporting social-emotional learning programs, investing in STEM and maintaining a commitment to the division’s fine arts programs were among the highlights of her tenure, according to the release.

In recent years, the division honed in on efforts to improve equity, such as by expanding unleveled classes and creating a supervisor of equity position.

The graduation rate at Charlottesville High School has been a feather in the division’s cap following years of focus on that metric.

In 2008, 74.6% of students graduated on time and 13.2% of students dropped out, according to division data. In 2020, 2.6% of CHS students dropped out and 94.5% graduated. The school set a record in 2019 when 95.7% of students graduated.

Suspension rates have fallen 80% in the division since Atkins’ arrival, according to the release.

However, the division continues to grapple with persistent achievement gaps. Atkins and others said prior to the pandemic that changes to gifted education, the reconfiguration of Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary schools and curricula redesigns will help to boost achievement. The division also has changed its approach to literacy instruction to help close achievement gaps.

Her successor will have to chart a way forward with returning students to school next school year and the reconfiguration project, among other immediate and long-term tasks.

Atkins is one of the longest serving superintendents in the state and has spent her entire career in Virginia. She’s currently leading the state’s work group that will guide efforts to help students recover from the pandemic. Recently, she also served on the commission that reviewed how African American history is taught in Virginia public schools.

In 2011, Atkins was named the state superintendent of the year, one of several awards and recognitions she’s received over the years.

“Dr. Atkins and her team have always been, during my duration on the School Board, thoughtful in their manner and what is best for the people in the CCS community to include the students and the staff,” School Board member Leah Puryear said at the board’s joint meeting with the City Council on Thursday.

Puryear was on the board when Atkins started in 2006.

When Atkins took over the division, key issues were school violence and the division’s achievement gaps, according to a Q&A with The Daily Progress in 2006.

“We will look to the past and take only from it that which will give us strength,” Atkins said in 2006 when she was selected.

She told the newspaper that the ingredients for a successful school system are passion and a common vision.

“Everyone knowing the vision and responding to that vision is what successful school divisions do,” she said. “We could list a number of activities that come along with focusing on the vision, but you have to have a clear vision in mind and articulated throughout the division and the community in order to be successful. You have to know where you are headed.”


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