ROANOKE, Va. – The city of Roanoke will have a new superintendent soon after Dr. Rita Bishop spent the last 12 years heading up the school system.
When she started in 2007, the graduation rate was at less than 60 percent and it’s now at 90 percent.
“This job has to be always about students number one,” said Bishop, who has decades of education experience. “Being a superintendent is a tough job. You can’t please everybody. Just try a snow day, which is, of course, my least favorite part of the job. I think people by and large will cut you a break if they know that you care about their children."
She’s been a teacher, principal, guidance counselor, and director of HR. She came back to Roanoke in 2007 to head up Roanoke City schools and not soon after got a phone call on a Thursday when school had been closed all week.
“This little voice says ‘Lady, are we going to have school tomorrow?’ I thought, ‘I wish I knew’. I said, ‘I’m going to go drive and figure it out’. His comment was ‘Please do. I’m so hungry’. I’m glad it happened early on because that child changed everything for me. It is the Seminole story of my whole career. It made the whole plight of not having food very, very personal,” remembers Dr. Bishop, who said it’s very painful.
That grew to lunch centers when school is closed so students don’t go hungry and buying coats or getting them donated so students aren’t cold.
Graduation rates went from less than 60% when she took over to 90%. The rise is thanks in part to Forest Park Academy, which she says is her favorite project during her time as superintendent. More than 1,200 students have graduated from that program.
“I think Forest Park Academy is one of her great achievements. It gives students another way to graduate who have tough personal circumstances. I think that full accreditation is another one of her legacies. We’re now in our second or third year of complete accreditation which is a rare thing particularly in an urban district and we’re just delighted with the way she’s leaving things as she retires,” said Mark Cathey, Roanoke City School Board chairman.
Her commitment to the arts also stands out to Cathey.
"She understands kids come to school for a lot of different reasons and one of them is the fine arts or athletics.
“There’s a level of sophistication, there’s a level of brain development that happens because of the arts. The arts are for everyone and I think we’ve been able to make that happen in Roanoke City,” said Bishop.
Students start playing in elementary school and by high school are playing at Carnegie Hall with their classmates.
“The talent that you see elementary through high school is amazing,” said Bishop.
Her years of dedication to schools earned her the 2020 Red Cross Education Hero award but Dr. Bishop says she’s not the hero.
“I consider myself a team leader of a bunch of heroes. I have some incredibly fine people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with here,” said Bishop.
Dr. Bishop said she’s not going to stop working when she leaves the school system on June 30. She’s been asked to write a couple of things but says you wouldn’t believe some of the stories in public education. Bishop already has a job lined up but can’t talk about it. She also plans on spending time with her grandchildren as well.