Click Here to Play Audio

Newport News Superintendent Michele Mitchell will start the new school year with the shadow of Jan. 6, 2023 hanging over the district's head.

That was the day a 6-year-old shot first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner at Richneck Elementary. In the wake of the shooting, teachers told the school board they were concerned about how district leaders seemed to dismiss discipline issues.

James Graves is a high school teacher in the district and the president of the Newport News Education Association.

He said Mitchell has been out in the schools listening to teachers since she was installed as interim superintendent in January.

“The teachers and staff are going to give her a chance to get our district school district moving forward,” Graves said.

WHRO sought an interview with Mitchell for this story. School officials said she wasn’t available before press time.

The district has implemented new safety measures, including equipping schools with weapon detection systems, restricting all students to carrying transparent backpacks and hiring 45 additional security officers and a district-wide security director.

But cultural concerns persist.

Cindy Connell is an English teacher at Gildersleeve Middle School. She’s been outspoken about issues facing teachers in Newport News, particularly since the Richneck shooting.

“I was hopeful that we would get someone from outside of Newport News Public Schools, so that they could see everything with a fresh perspective,” Connell said. "I know that a lot of people were hopeful that we would get someone who had experience being a superintendent in a large school division.”

Mitchell has been a top-level administrator in Newport News for more than a decade and spent nearly 30 years in the district.

Despite that, Connell said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about Michell and hopes the new superintendent keeps a focus on safety, which is top of mind for many teachers as the school year starts. 

Photo courtesy of Newport News Public Schools 

Cindy Connell speaks at the Jan. 17 meeting of the Newport News School Board, 11 days after the shooting of teacher Abby Zwerner at Richneck Elementary.

Connell said she’s skeptical of some of the safety measures put in place, like the rollout of transparent backpacks. She feels safety has improved where she teaches at Gildersleeve, but she doesn’t think that extends to every school.

For instance, she said new weapon detection systems don't cover every door at some high schools. Questions to the district about this were not immediately returned.

“I definitely don't think it's enough because we've just really begun the process of implementing all of these things,” she said. “But I think it's a step in the right direction, so I feel better than I did when the shooting occurred.”

She hopes Mitchell will keep safety at the forefront as the school year progresses.

Despite the outpouring of frustration at that school board meeting in January, most teachers are reticent to speak out for fear of “pushback,” Connell said.

But an annual school climate report by the Virginia Department of Education shows Newport News classroom instructors consistently rated their district worse than both the state and regional averages in categories like “working conditions” and “overall staff climate.”

Newport News teachers are also leaving their district at a much higher rate than other places in the state – 10% said they were leaving to teach somewhere else versus about 3.6% regionally.

They also reported higher rates of retirements and leaving to work in non-education fields.

Every single respondent said they were burning out and had one or more symptoms of burnout, such as physical or emotional exhaustion. That mirrors a 100% burnout response for the region, while just 53.1% of teachers around the state said they were burnt out.

Many of the teachers who spoke at the school board meetings in January cited student behavior and a lack of disciplinary action from administrators as one of the biggest problems for Newport News educators.

In 2021, the most recent year for which state discipline data is available, Newport News had 50% more discipline cases than Norfolk, a comparable school district of the same size.

NOTE: Newport News Public Schools is part of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which owns WHRO’s broadcast license.