Roanoke County Schools convocation

Cindy Klimaitis, principal of Oak Grove Elementary School, cheers along with her staff during Monday’s convocation at the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre as slides from her school flashed across the screen on stage.

Teachers rang in the new school year with cowbells and cheers Monday morning during the first convocation in at least 25 years for Roanoke County Public Schools, the largest school division in terms of enrollment west of Richmond.

Educators from all 27 Roanoke County schools packed the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre in Roanoke. A motivational speaker from Texas, Jonathan Grant Brown, related his story of how school teachers helped him through hardship.

The educators cheered loudly at times, especially when the name of their school flashed on the big screens.

Superintendent Ken Nicely told the teachers the ceremony’s main purpose was to thank them — the division has approximately 1,200 teachers — before classes resume. Nicely discussed his vision for a safe and positive learning environment in the school system, and ensuring students are ready for new opportunities after graduation.

School board Chairman Don Butzer pledged the board would continue working to improve salary and benefits for teachers and maintain a culture where employees feel valued.

On a somber note, Butzer said he felt compelled to speak on the most recent mass shootings in the U.S., in Texas and Ohio.

“I think there’s too much hate speech in this country today. We experienced a tragedy in El Paso, Texas, that was directed toward a particular group,” Butzer said. “And I just want to make sure that no child who walks into our schools — that no Jewish child, no Muslim child, no Indian child, Asian, Hispanic or African American child — should ever be on the receiving end of any hate speech at all.”

Three Roanoke County students — Miley Moses, J. Vincent Phelps and Abby Smith — also spoke before the audience on how they’ve benefited from devoted teachers.

Brown focused his speech on how teachers refused to give up on him. At times, Brown blended humor into his story, but didn’t hold back on relating painful memories.

As children growing up in a small Texas town, Brown said, he and his brother never met their father, and were abandoned by their mother when Brown was 6 years old. Brown said he lacked stability throughout childhood, bouncing from one foster home to the next.

He said he felt the only thing he could control was his behavior. He often caused trouble to send a message and found himself in detention.

He’d spent so much time in the front office to see the principal, Brown said, that he renamed it after himself.

But Brown was never sent to alternative school. Principals never followed through on ultimatums.

In high school, Brown said, he realized a pattern. The teachers, coaches and administrators were “systematically interrupting my life,” he said.

They stuck up for him and encouraged him, even when he misbehaved. They told him he had great potential and urged him to take advanced classes, despite his trouble making.

One of his high school teachers talked to Brown “about this place called college.” He said he realized that he wouldn’t have to keep his secret — that he was in foster care — any longer if he moved to a college.

“She told me, ‘[colleges] have dorms, they have places to sleep, to eat … this is a magical place. You can become whoever you want to be.’ So I had to get to college,” Brown said.

He eventually graduated from high school with honors. His most recent host family chose to adopt him before he went to college at University of Texas of the Permian Basin with a full scholarship.

“Years later I found out the district made a choice for kids to have opportunities,” Brown said. “I found out they decided to focus on, how can we engage this student to maximize his energy and intelligence?”

Roanoke County educators applauded Brown before performing arts students from the Burton Center for Arts and Technology sang a rendition of “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Students return to classes in Roanoke County on Aug. 12.

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