Remembering D.C. Educator Brian Betts

There are remarkable educators toiling in our public schools who most of us will never meet or hear about. Their influence on kids and their community can be profound, but they'll never be the subject of a movie or a book. Brian Betts, a middle-school principal in Washington, D.C., was one of them. Betts was found slain in his home last week. He was 42.

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There are remarkable educators working in schools all over the country. Most never get the attention they deserve, even though their work is nothing short of heroic. Such as the story of Brian Betts, a middle school principal here in Washington who was found murdered a week ago today.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this remembrance.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Brian Betts was a rising star in one of the toughest urban school systems in the country: Washington, D.C. By all accounts, he was a creative, tireless principal who loved kids, especially those who others had given up on.

Mr. BRIAN BETTS (Educator): Every child has a button, every child has a switch. And it's our job as educators to find it.

SANCHEZ: That's Betts, who NPR featured twice because of his work at Shaw Garnet-Patterson Middle School. When he took over in 2008, six out of 10 students there could barely read. His impact on children was, well, let's just put it this way - last year, eighth graders so wanted to stay instead of going on to high school they successfully petitioned officials to add ninth grade to their school. Kids loved Betts and worked hard not to disappoint him.

Still, some did struggle. Betts often said kids can be absolutely horrible in one teacher's class and angelic in another because they have formed a relationship with that teacher. So, Betts provided coaching and training to help teachers develop that relationship. The youngest teachers, though, looked to Betts because he led by example.

Mr. NICHOLAS FIORELLI (Educator): He was just gifted. I mean, it was just incredible to watch him work with students.

SANCHEZ: Nicholas Fiorelli was one of 28 young teachers Betts handpicked for his school because they believed what he did, that teacher success should be measured by their students' success. It wasn't just a slogan, says Fiorelli.

Mr. FIORELLI: He believed that with every bone in his body. And it's just - I can't even put into words what it's like losing that. And I think that was just so hard to realize that he wasn't going to be there again for the kids or for me.

SANCHEZ: Fiorelli says the sense of loss is unbearable. You can see it on kids' faces.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. BETTS: You've reached the voicemail of Brian Betts. I'm unavailable to take your call at this time, so please leave your name, number and a brief message and I will get back to you shortly. Thanks for calling.

SANCHEZ: That's Betts' cell phone. He didn't mind giving his number to reporters or to his students, especially those he counseled or consoled when they needed it. I wonder how many tried to call him, hoping against hope that the tragic news of his death was not true, that he'd pick up and reassure them, as he often did, don't worry, everything is going to be all right.

Brian Betts was buried today in Manassas, Virginia, where he was born. He was 42.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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