By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
No one could have predicted that Portsmouth Public Schools would be in a better place when the district’s superintendent and staff welcomed thousands of students back to the classroom in mid-April 2021, during the pandemic.
As its one year reopening anniversary approaches, this is a great time to reflect on a line by motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.” This is how motivational speaker Zig Ziglar put it long before PPS reopened during the pandemic. The point is Dr. Elie Bracy began to serve on Jan. 1, 2022, as the president-elect of the Urban Superintendents Association of America (USAA).
Next year, on Jan. 1, 2023, he will automatically begin his tenure as president of USAA, which is an educational association with more than 13,000 educational leaders, as well as 150 public school superintendents and school leaders who serve in mid-size urban districts, according to its website.
“(I am) excited to serve in this new capacity,” Bracy said in a recent email interview with The New Journal and Guide. In (this) role he hopes to continue to advocate for the unique needs and opportunities of urban school divisions as well as provide meaningful professional development for superintendents and school leaders, he said.
Bracy puts a human face on thousands of public school superintendents who reopened schools at a time when many COVID mandates were fuzzy, extremely political and ambiguous. Specifically, Bracy and PPS educators rolled up their sleeves, transitioned students from remote-to-in-person classroom instruction, after local school board members overwhelmingly voted to reopen schools. Bracy and thousands of PPS educators welcomed students in grades pre-K-6 back to campus for two-days of face-to-face instruction on a hybrid schedule, (starting April 12-26, 2021). High school students continued to study remotely, according to press reports.
But before students began to slowly return to class in mid-April 2021, Bracy launched a hiring incentive program. District officials said that all new bus drivers, school nurses, food services staff and teacher hires would receive a $1,000 new hire bonus. PPS employees who referred them would receive a $750 referral bonus. However, those with ongoing recruitment and hiring responsibilities would not be eligible for the program.
It is important to remember that Bracy launched PPS’ new sign-up bonus program at a time when many schools nationwide had employees who were either quarantined or deliberately staying at home to avoid the virus.
For example, a record-high of 44 percent of small business owners said they had job openings they could not fill in April, according to a monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). In July 2021, Amazon, Disney World and Dickie Jo’s Burgers in Eugene, Ore. said they had vacant jobs that they could not fill.
But, Bracy was determined to fill vacant positions in PPS. Explaining the impact that his district’s hiring incentive program would have on staffing shortages at the time, Bracy said in a recent email, “At the beginning of the school year, the Portsmouth Public Schools Department of Human Resources unveiled a new way to bring high-quality candidates into the PPS workforce by providing new and current employees a chance to take home some extra money,” he said.
“At the time, through the program, all new bus drivers, school nurses, food services staff and teacher hires received a $1,000 New Hire Bonus and the PPS employee who referred him/her received a $750 Referral Bonus.”
Bracy said, “There was no limit to how many people an employee could refer, and the program was in place through the start of school. Throughout the run of the program, the division received 132 applicants. Again, just as a reminder, the program did end shortly after the start of the school year.”
The point is PPS is not only approaching its one-year reopening anniversary but it can also pat itself on the back for safely transitioning PPS students from remote to in-person classroom instruction during the pandemic. Its efforts shed light on the pandemic’s worst months.
Records show Portsmouth had at least 11,505 (overall) COVID cases, 860 hospitalized, 216 deaths on Sept. 20, 2021. During the same period, Newport News had 18,715 (overall) cases, 711 hospitalized, 263 deaths. Norfolk had (overall) 22,426 cases, 1,377 hospitalized, 296 deaths.Virginia Beach had 46,033 (overall) cases, 2,395 hospitalized, 471 deaths. (According to the Associated Press, the COVID death rates are 12 percent for African Americans, 18 percent for Hispanics, 60 percent for whites and 6 percent for Asians).
After you sort through the area-wide COVID records, notice another fact. At least 70.3 percent of all Portsmouth residents received at least one vaccine dose.
This is the point. Before Bracy recently assumed office as the president-elect of USAA on Jan. 1, 2022, or helped thousands of PPS students return to class on a partial basis in mid-April 2021, he clearly expected the best, prepared for the worst, and capitalized on what comes, as Zigler once said.
For example, Bracy also launched a program that aimed to help more PPS students gain access to a personal computer before and during the pandemic.
Bracy said in his recent email to The New Journal and Guide, “In regards to technology, Portsmouth Public Schools had begun work in previous years to become a 1:1 school division (meaning there would be one digital device for every child in the school division). “This was one of (his stated) objectives when he joined the division in 2015,” he explained.
“This was achieved through strategic budgeting and expansion of technological infrastructure,” he explained. “That said, this plan was fast-tracked in the summer of 2020 due to the ongoing needs of the pandemic, specifically in regard to virtual learning.”
So, when in-person classes resumed in April 2021 more PPS students had access to a computer.
According to census data, Portsmouth is a majority-minority city. This means 52.87 percent of the city’s residents are African American, while 16.8 percent of all households are low income, and the average household earns $52,175. Still, each student in the city’s public school system could access school computers when in-person classes resumed in April 2021.
Quick question: Has Bracy successfully steered thousands of PPS teachers and students through the worst of the pandemic? You decide. PPS recently announced a partnership with The Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s SOAR Program. It connects PPS music majors with local symphony professionals who have performed locally, regionally and worldwide.
About a year after PPS students and teachers returned to class in April 2021, U.S. News and World Report recently recognized Churchland Elementary School and Churchland Academy Elementary School as “Best Elementary Schools” in the country. It is the first time that the U.S. News & World Report magazine has ranked elementary schools. For two consecutive years, Churchland High has been named a Best High School honoree, according to recent news reports.
“To qualify for “Best Elementary School” honor, schools had to place among the top 30 percent in the state,” a recent PPS press release noted.
Bracy assumed office in 2015 and manages a public school system that has about 14,000 PPS students and 2,100 staff members. The veteran educator earned an undergraduate degree at Kentucky State, a master’s degree from North Carolina A&T. He earned a doctoral degree at Nova Southeastern University.
Bracy, a former teacher and principal, previously headed Weldon City Schools in North Carolina.
Portsmouth Public School’s graduation rates have improved under Bracy’s leadership. About five years ago, eight of the division’s 19 schools were fully accredited, up from six the year Bracy was sworn in, according to news reports.
After Bracy began working for PPS in February 2015, the Virginia PTA elected him as The State’s Top Superintendent two years later, in 2017. He has also served as the 2021 Virginia State Superintendent of the Year. He serves as the Region II chair of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents during its 2021-22 term.