Year of ‘empowerment, reflection’ awaits Rappahannock schools community

New superintendent Grimsley sets goals, priorities

In her first meeting with school staff directors as the newly appointed Rappahannock County Public Schools Superintendent, Shannon Grimsley congratulated everybody on their new roles and responsibilities, only to add: “You are now promoted to the bottom of the totem pole.”

“That’s how we’re approaching this,” Grimsley explains in an interview. “This is not the ivory tower of mentality. This is, ‘I’m at your service, what do you need from me?’ We are customer service oriented.”

And that includes the superintendent, a team building player who signs her office memos, “At your service” and “My office is always open.”

Rappahannock County Public Schools Superintendent, Shannon Grimsley. Photo by John McCaslin

Unlike her recent predecessors, the 34-year-old Grimsley, who is in her eleventh year with Rappahannock Public Schools — from teacher to executive director of Academic Services — was familiar with most everything she inherited on July 1.

“I have the privilege of . . . having that indigenous background. That’s very helpful in this role,” she notes. “So I’m not going to spend much time learning everything there is to know about the culture here, and how we got to where we are . . .

“That vantage point helps me direct our priorities,” Grimsley continues. “The way I like to do that is through a collaborative nature. This is going to be a year focused on reflection about who we are and what makes Rappahannock special to us a family, as a community, as a school team. A lot of that has to do with mindset, retraining our minds to have a positive outlook . . . and how we promote an atmosphere of trust and respect.

“That’s a major focus for me with my team,” she says. “I’ve already had meetings with my executive leadership team, and they are poised and ready.”

If her first month on the job is any indication, Grimsley will be acting swiftly but surely on a wide range of issues confronting the school system, both internally and externally. Already she’s completed an administrative revamping of both Rappahannock County Elementary School (RCES) and Rappahannock County High School (RCHS), with county native Karen Ellis leaving the principal’s post at RCES to become RCHS principal.

“Karen’s proven leadership in instruction, assessment, school administrative protocol, and procedures will be invaluable at the high school as we work to continue to cultivate a safe, orderly environment for student learning,” Grimsley wrote in a memo to staff, praising Ellis’ “skillset [as] a perfect match for current needs at the high school.”

Former RCHS principal Mike Tupper, meanwhile, has become executive director of Student Support Services in the central office, overseeing transportation, alternative education, attendance, truancy, crisis management planning — and now, we learn, he will have other significant responsibilities.

“As you know, the departure of Cathy Jones to Madison County as assistant superintendent and my appointment to superintendent has left two key vacancies,” Grimsley states. “I have decided not to fill those roles, and instead my team will take on additional duties, myself included. Mr. Tupper’s experiences at central office and as a secondary principal will be key in the central leadership of this division, and I look forward to working with him in this capacity.”

Becoming principal of RCES is Ben Temple, who spent 16 years as an educator at the elementary and high school levels in Culpeper County, and most recently was an assistant principal in Wythe County.

Carol Johnson has become Grimsley’s assistant superintendent: “As such, she will be my designee and go-to person if I am unavailable. Her many years of varied experiences will be invaluable to me as I take on this new role.”

Jimmy Swindler, among several who applied for the superintendent’s position following the resignation of Donna O. Matthews in January, will remain assistant principal, but also take on the role of director of Career and Technical Education.

“He is thrilled at the opportunity to help guide this very crucial time with new graduation requirements along with additional career/job-training opportunities for our students,” Grimsley states. “I am sure he will continue to be an ambassador for our programs, continuing expansion of the networks with regional and community partnerships that are essential to creating the new high school experience aligning with the state’s Profile of a Virginia Graduate framework.

Former interim Superintendent Dr. Gary Blair, meanwhile, will continue as a part-time human resources director/contractor.

“He will continue to help us with our personnel and licensure department for the 2017-2018 school year,” the new superintendent notes. “His experience in HR and his dedication as interim superintendent during a very climactic spring has made this decision a simple one. I look forward to his leadership in HR and his guidance/mentorship as a veteran superintendent as I learn the ropes of this new role.”

As Grimsley alluded to, when Blair was the interim superintendent earlier this year a high school student was arrested after court records stated he threatened to carry out a violent attack on his school on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. The student, a juvenile, was recently released from custody, according to sources.

In other moves, Crystal Smith, currently a third grade teacher at RCES, applied for and was recommended for the instructional technology resource teacher (ITRT)/testing coordinator position.

“This area was identified as a major need as we are advancing our usage of technology in the classroom and I am thrilled with the interview committee’s selection,” says Grimsley.

Of particular advantage to the Rappahannock News and its readers, Grimsley additionally announces: “I will also be setting up a communications/PR team to help us with communications and branding of our system. This takes the form of regular community updates, social media, press releases, and timely announcements. I am working out the particulars of whether this takes on a part-time or full-time capacity.”

From her experiences, she points out, other “thriving schools and superintendents have had that relationship with the newspaper, and they have had a PR department, or a person that’s in charge of that. We have positive things . . . that happen here and I really want to do a better job of letting people know how amazing this place is.”

Other focuses of Grimsley center on recent directives from the state level, which “is very much like drinking from a fire hose because it’s coming at us so fast,” she observes, citing in particular the scaling back of Standards of Learning (SOL) testing.

“It’s not going away all together, of course not, they still need that accountability system,” says the superintendent. “But it’s going to be different — it’s more emphasis on performance based assessments, more authentic learning, real world experiences.

“And a real big goal of mine,” she adds, “is to help create networks in the community to provide more hands-on learning and workforce training. And giving our high school students more internships and the ability to gain those skills that are so essential, and maybe they don’t want to go to college but go right into the workforce, and that’s OK. The jobs are there.”

That said, Grimsley says she will be “expanding” RCHS’s academic relationships with Lord Fairfax Community College and RappU in Sperryville, “evolving our dual enrollment offerings to provide early college credit for those who are college bound and are looking for that route to get some [credits]. My ultimate goal would be to get the associate’s degree by the time they graduate, and we’re getting there. The path is clear, I think we can get there.”

Another area of focus: early literacy.

“I was an English teacher,” she says. “The reading skills are so important. We’re going to be evaluating and really taking a hard look at our early literacy programs and interventions to be sure those kids are reading by the time they end second grade. And for the most part we do real well there but there’s always room for improvement, and I want to do a lot better.

“We’re seeing the ‘digital natives’ coming up,” Grimsley describes the changing student body. “And I’m a millennial, so I can bridge that gap. I understand it very well. The skills that were innate for parents — we knew reading was super important and we knew you had to sit down and read with your children, that it helps development. But now with the digital age it becomes so easy to put some learning games on an iPad and give it your child and they’re entertained for hours . . . . We’re going to do a lot more early outreach with parents to [help them] understand the importance of still picking up that book and reading.”

Another advantageous goal of Grimsley’s is continuing the recent push for Rappahannock teachers to earn master’s degrees.

“We value expertise in education. So we need to model that. And we’re one of the very few, if not the only school district [in Virginia] that really creates these connections with universities to provide master’s programs for our teachers at kind of a cohort cost model. So right now we’re getting ready to start one — I have 10 teachers going through a master’s cohort together. Eight teachers got [master’s degrees] this past year . . .

“It going to be an awesome year, we’re very excited,” she concludes. “A year of empowerment, reflection, and defining what we want out of this school system, and they will all — [students, parents and teachers] — be a part of that.”

Central office staff:

Shannon Grimsley: Superintendent

Carol Johnson: Assistant Superintendent

Mike Tupper: Executive Director, Student Support Services

Robin Bolt: Executive Director, Administrative Services

Stacey Whitt: Chief Financial Officer

Dr. Gary Blair: Part-time HR Director

Mandi Grove: Commit to be Fit and Food Service

Amy Rogers: Clerk

Fran Krebser: Pupil Services Secretary

Peyton Payne: Central Office Secretary/Payroll/Data Specialist

About John McCaslin 448 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at