Leader Spotlight:

with Rodney Robinson & Dr. Curtis Jones

This issue’s Leader Spotlight explores how America is delivering on the promise of education through the eyes of the superintendent of the nation’s sixth-largest school district and a tech entrepreneur turned computer science advocate.

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Leader Spotlight




Rodney Robinson is the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. He teaches social studies in Richmond, Virginia at the Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the city’s Juvenile Detention Center. Robinson teaches ages 10-18 using a social studies curriculum that he developed in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Forman Jr. of Yale University which centers on juvenile justice and the prison system. Robinson believes his students are the most vulnerable in society, and as a result, he has worked to create a positive school culture by empowering his students — many of whom have experienced trauma — to become civically minded social advocates who can use their skills and voices to create change in their communities.

What makes you hopeful about the future of your students and education overall?

I think kids today are amazing. They’re so much more resilient than our generation, and so much more caring, and so much more passionate. They give me hope for the future. They really care about the issues. They advocate for themselves. That makes me hopeful for the future.

Dr. Curtis


Dr. Curtis Jones is the 2019 National Superintendent of the Year. Dr. Jones began his career in education as a JROTC instructor after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army where he retired as a lieutenant colonel. After leading the Griffin-Spalding district for 18 years, Jones became superintendent of Bibb County School District in 2015. Leaning on his previous experience, he developed “Victory in Our Schools,” a strategic plan for the 24,000-student district. The plan, rooted in shared accountability and resource alignment, mapped out efforts to achieve five goals: increasing student achievement; increasing student and stakeholder engagement; increasing teacher and leader effectiveness; organizational reliability; and learning and growth.

I think we just need to get past this old adage that things aren’t as good as they used to be.

They are, and they’re better.

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Access. Your students may have an interest that you can’t nurture because they can’t get the tools.

This is really important, especially during this pandemic. It would be great to know how the pandemic has impacted the students in juvenile detention centers since many incarceration facilities have been hot spots for the corona virus and they already struggle to access the necessary tools.

When we think of resources we often just think about school supplies, but for incarcerated students, healthcare and medical supplies are also resources that many are lacking. Also, if we put more money into teaching incarcerated people, especially minors, we would see huge drops in recidivism. A large portion of incarcerated people come from low-income communities where they didn't have access to a quality education, so giving them an education while incarcerated would give these students access to an education that they probably didn't have access to prior to being incarcerated.

We ask teachers to wear too many hats.

This is a very true fact. Every teacher has to hear about what happens in a child's home and then figure out a fast way to comfort them. I remember being stunned when a child told me something about their home and I was speechless. I was not prepared for what I might hear even as a volunteer.

One of the main things that I try to teach them is how to process information. In the 21st century, learning information comes at you so quickly — you have information in the palm of your hand. I need to teach you to determine what’s a good source versus what’s a bad source, what’s bias and what’s propaganda.

I am so grateful that this is part of the curriculum that Mr. Robinson is using. He is choosing to teach more than just "basic skills" and is thinking creatively about how to best equip his students for the future. I do think as well that being able to discern reliable sources of information is critical in today's technology and content driven world.

We should invest in teaching programs. Teacher education programs are some of the least funded school programs in college

This reminds me of the conversation we briefly began last week in class about the program, Teaching for America. When I was at UC Berkeley, I was preparing to apply for this program with the hope of being a source of hope and light in communities in need of fresh leadership. However, one of the biggest concerns I was wrestling with, was the fear that I would be inadequate to deal with the issues facing the students in these communities given the lack of preparedness I was anticipating. While this should not serve as a deterrent for white, college-educated graduates seeking an opportunity to serve in these communities, I believe there is still plenty of progress to be made in terms of equipping these candidates with the support to thrive in the face of adversity, and (most importantly) stay rooted in these communities.

Do you have any thoughts about how we can give better support to today’s teachers and students?

Parents, whether they agree or not, are responsible for much of society's problems if they are not invested in their own children. A suggestion, of very tricky proportions , would be to provide nonmonetary incentives to parents, in some capacity, even if in the way of parental education.

For example, if you have a student who’s really into barbering or carpentry or something, I wish we could give them the hands-on tools they needed to get the license or to get that certification

Mr. Robinson's comment regarding access can go a long way toward making the educational system more applicable for many students, especially those looking to join a trade after High School. More opportunities for life-skills or specified job training could potentially keep students more engaged and provide them their first steps in starting a career.

Society is really focused on the here and now. No one’s really looking at the future. If we could get back to those values of looking out for the next generation, I think we will be a better society.

This reminds me of a concept we have discussed in Wade Graham's Environmental Regulation class where we have a tendency to think the future holds all of the answers and resources to fix itself, leaving us free of the responsibility in the present. Education is a powerful tool to equip students with the background to make meaningful change now that can benefit the future in the long run.

Especially today, when we’re dealing with a lot of 21st century problems, it’s important to have a sound educational background. Right now, there really are a lot of internal and external threats to our democracy and an educated population is the number one cure for any threat to democracy

I completely agree with this. I think that today we are faced with so much information and many different types of news that can make it difficult to wrap our minds around what is truth or not. Having an education or learning to approach this kind of information with a critical lens is very important.


Yes, this is just what I had mentioned previously about media. I recently watched the movie The Social Dilemma and experts explain how we are shown information according to what we like to hear and see on our feeds.

I believe the value of education is truly defined by where the individual is with their efforts to understand what’s happening around them. Education is a way people are able to improve their life, the way to understand the world that’s around them, and it is a way to influence the future not only for themselves, but for their families

I strongly agree with this statement. The eagerness to learn is often rooted from knowing and understanding what education could truly do for people; as Mr. Robinson said, "Education Changes lives. It opens doors of opportunity." If we show our students in the classrooms how truly transforming education is, they would automatically be motivated to succeed. A great way to start would be to show students the beauty of hands on learning, and how the things they learn in class must be applied to every-day life.