Parents, teachers question Holton elementary’s leadership, environment

Holly M. Rodriguez | 2/23/2023, 6 p.m.
When Richmond’s Linwood Holton Elementary School opened in 1999, it did so with the intention of reflecting the philosophy of ...
Mr. Kamras

When Richmond’s Linwood Holton Elementary School opened in 1999, it did so with the intention of reflecting the philosophy of its namesake, former Gov. A. Linwood Holton, who supported civil rights and school integration.

Yet today the school, located at 1600 W. Laburnum Ave., faces the very problem that the former Republican governor fought to reconcile, according to Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras.

In a letter to Holton’s families, teachers and staff dated Jan. 3, 2023, Mr. Kamras said he believes “some of the variation in satisfaction [at the school], though certainly not all, appears to be correlated with race.”

His conclusion followed a town hall meeting with the Holton community in December following an emergency drill that did not follow protocol at the school and a division-wide teacher satisfaction survey that was taken last fall.

Of the teachers who completed the survey only 16 percent said they felt respected by Linwood Holton’s administration; 16 percent felt teachers were trusted to make sound professional decisions about instruction; and 16 percent felt that overall, Linwood Holton was a good place to work and learn. Just 9 percent of the teachers who took the survey said they felt comfortable raising issues and concerns that are important to them with school administrators.

Mr. Kamras’ statement in the Jan. 3 email caused enough pushback from the community that he followed up with another email just three days later, clarifying his stance: “Based on numerous conversations over the past month, I have observed that — in general — Black faculty members and families at Holton tend to be satisfied with Dr. [Nikea] Hurt and her leadership. I have also observed that most of the individu- als who are unsatisfied tend to be White; and that many Black faculty members have felt disrespected by some White members of the Holton community.”

He also said that outside facilitators will be brought in to help the school confront the issue and help the community “ultimately heal.”

Dr. Hurt is Black and has been principal at Linwood Holton for four years. David Hudson, her predecessor, is also Black and is now principal at RPS’s Franklin Military Academy.

During a meeting in Holton’s lunchroom on Feb. 9, several people in the audience of about 150 parents, teachers, and staff adamantly disagreed with Mr. Kamras’s claim, saying a racial issue has never existed at Holton. Instead, they blamed teacher dissatisfaction and the exit of 53 teachers and staff — Black and white — on “being bullied” and pushed out by the principal.

Sequoia Ross, an African-American parent who has had several children attend the school, also worked as an instructional assistant for four years under Dr. Hurt. In the Feb. 9 meeting she said there has never been a known racial problem at Holton.

“Can you explain to me where this narrative that there is a racial problem is coming from?” she asked the superintendent. She added that a discussion on race is a distraction from the real issue of Dr. Hurt bullying teachers and forcing them to leave.

“We were one of the families during the earliest day of Holton, and it has always been like a family — we always had each others’ backs.”

Ms. Ross became a substitute teacher at Holton in 2016 and was later hired as an instructional assistant. She said she started to notice favoritism and unequal treatment of teachers, including punitive measures taken against some teachers, while others did not face the same consequences. There were some teachers who were so dissatisfied about how they were being treated that they started to meet with the Richmond Education Association. Ms. Ross said she fell out of favor with Dr. Hurt when she also began meeting with the REA.

Ms. Ross left Holton in 2021. “Under Dr. Hurt’s leadership, every year the school was less and less the Holton that I remember,” she said. “This narrative of a racial problem is creating a problem where there isn’t one.”

Another former teacher who reached out to the Richmond Free Press but asked to remain anonymous said, “When Mr. Hudson was in charge, . . . the culture in the building was a unified one.”

Several parents spoke off the record about their concerns regarding teachers leaving and the impact on their children. But none were willing to go on the record, citing fear of retaliation from Dr. Hurt toward them or their children.

Dr. Hurt did not attend the December meeting or the Feb. 9 meeting, and has been absent from Holton for several weeks. In the Jan. 3 letter, Mr. Kamras said she would be returning at the end of January. But, in an email exchange with the Richmond Free Press, Mr. Kamras revised that statement, and said she is returning on Feb. 27. He would not elaborate on the cause of Dr. Hurt’s absence, saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t comment on personnel matters.”

The Richmond Free Press reached out to Dr. Hurt who agreed to speak with a reporter, but later declined to comment for this article.

During the Feb. 9 meeting, Mr. Kamras repeatedly referred to “about 30 conversations” that he’d had with people in the Holton community, African -American and white, that led him to to the conclusion that there was a racial problem. But he would not reveal names or races of specific individuals.

At the same meeting Kristin Tam, a white teacher at Holton, stood to share her shock about the superintendent’s claim as well. “I was scared to talk to other white teachers, for fear of turning off my Black co-workers,” she said. “I was not aware of the race issue here.”