In the Principal's OfficeThis is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.
This piece has been edited for length and clarity
Growing up in Charlottesville and experiencing discrimination in his youth, coupled with the turmoil that rocked the town two years ago, has led Buford Middle School Principal Jesse Turner to feel like the city has been divided.
Turner, who has nearly three decades in the education field, said he gained enough experiences to feel that the time was right to come back to the Charlottesville City Schools to make a difference with the youth.
The 1989 Charlottesville High School alumnus said he’s passionate about young people doing well in life, and that he’s an example that people’s addresses shouldn’t determine who they become in life. His goal is for the youth to see him as a trailblazer who succeeded in life, he said, without having to become a drug dealer, a rapper or a ball player.
He said his childhood influenced the man that he is today thanks to his dad, Jesse Turner Sr., who was a “strong father figure.” Although Turner’s father worked rigorous schedules, his presence was a major force in his life, he said.
Q: What’s the biggest advice your father gave you?
A: He told me to work hard and to do that at everything. And he modeled that. Sometimes, I wouldn’t see him for two days straight because of work. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to be where I am because I believe hard work and determination and commitment can make a difference.
Q: The last time you came back to live in Charlottesville was right after college. At the time, why did you come back?
A: I was 22. I came back home because it was home. My plan was to come back. I’m the only child. My parents mean everything to me. When I graduated college, I really didn’t have any intentions of going around the world. I wanted to come back. I did leave again. I took a job at Front Royal, probably six years after I graduated from Virginia Union.
Q: What inspired you to go into teaching?
A: After working with young people in Richmond and volunteering for the YMCA, I realized there was a need for Black role models. I made the decision to go into teaching my last year in college. My first teaching gig was as an instructional assistant at Greenbrier Elementary School, which was a great experience.
The transitions don't give us an opportunity to address some of the academic concerns that we may have. I want parents to understand that [fewer] transitions will allow us to provide their children with better opportunities for success. Sixth graders are not too young to be with the eighth graders. That's a good mix of children.
Q: You’re leading the school at a critical time. Reconfiguration has been in talks for years. What do you want parents to know?
A: I want parents to know that the sixth through eighth grade model is a very successful one that’s used all throughout the country. Bringing sixth grade here will help educating them because they’ll have fewer transitions.
The transitions don’t give us an opportunity to address some of the academic concerns that we may have. I want parents to understand that [fewer] transitions will allow us to provide their children with better opportunities for success. Sixth graders are not too young to be with the eighth graders. That’s a good mix of children.
There are too many transitions. From an academic standpoint, it can impact children in a negative way. If we can eliminate some of those, we can have a more consistent pathway to schools into high school.
Q: Have you done any project similar to reconfiguring a school?
A: Our superintendent and the board have put a lot of trust in me. I really appreciate it. I have not, through my career, either been involved in building a new school or reconfiguring a school. I’m very thankful for this opportunity. I have a lot of middle school experiences. I was a middle school assistant principal for almost seven years.
Q: Your role here began July 1. What should parents expect from you?
A: My vision is to improve academics for student achievement, the climate and the culture. And we want to put programs in place that will allow us to reach those goals. We had a tough year last year, and we’re trying to rebound from that. The charge that I’ve given the staff are these three things, and we’re keeping those at the forefront of what we do.
Jesse Turner said growing up he had a strong male figure in his life. On a recent morning, he shared a moment with his son, Jesse (right), and a classmate, Jesaun Johnson.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow
Q: Any examples of these changes?
A: We have a wonderful garden program here at the school. The population of students who participate in the program do a fabulous job. And right now, urban farming is a big deal. One of the things that I’ve talked about with my superiors is having an opportunity for our children who participate in that class to be able to earn a high school credit before they leave here.
You can earn a credit in algebra one, geometry, world language and earth science here, prior to going to CHS. But I also think that if we can provide an opportunity to earn a credit through gardening, that’s a big deal. Plus, it could allow them to continue and get a sequential elective at the high school level.
There’s a passion that a lot of children have around that work; and maybe it will set them up for life after high school. Leadership here has to continue and look for ways to embrace the children and to promote what they’re passionate about on a daily basis.
Q: An architectural firm is expected to oversee the Walker-Buford reconfiguration. What has been your involvement with the planning so far?
A: I’ve mostly met with [Superintendent] Dr. Rosa Atkins and other central office personnel. We’ve talked about spaces, like different learning spaces. Doctor Atkins has been really kind and gives me the opportunity to share what I think will be great at the school. I’ll probably meet with the architect after the winter break. That’s sort of the timeline.
We can really start talking at this point because, if this building is totally reconfigured, then we really ought to figure out how we’re trying to do that and still have school. This building was built in the ’60s. … There’s a lot that will need to be done here to bring into present day, where we have the type of spaces that connect with what children need.
Q: Will you tear the Buford building down?
A: I don’t know. That’s going to depend on what we decide in terms of what will be provided. It always comes down to money. I don’t know what would be easier. This school used to have sixth through eighth. But when I look around, I feel like we could put the children in here right now, but the class sizes will go up, or more so, we might have more teachers not having their classroom because we’re putting an entire grade level in here.
Q: Records show you’ve been successful at serving all children, specifically Black children. Speaking of the performance of Black students on SOL this year, what are your strategies to assist Black children in your building?
A: One of the things we’ve talked about as I came onboard was improving instructions. We talked a lot about going back to the basics, in terms of reviewing the curriculum. We want to make sure that we’re addressing standards. That’s the way we want to teach.
The town has extra problems with that because, socially, they're not a lot of opportunities and activities for the young minority employees. So, they go to Richmond or other places with more to do. Sometimes, you might not feel like driving out of town for a comedy club. We have some issues there in terms of the town trying to meet young minorities halfway.
Q: Industry experts have said when students have people who are role models to them, they perform well in school. I know that the division has developed many strategies to attract Black teachers. On a micro level, what do you think you can do to not only attract new teachers but keep them here?
A: I reach out to many of historically Black universities. I know people have friends who work at some of these schools now. I try to do my own recruiting. I’ve done that for years. Hiring Black teachers is the easiest part, although some people don’t think it is. The easiest part is getting them to apply, interview and hire them. Keeping them can be a struggle for a number of reasons.
Opportunities like mentoring programs can help with retention. I’ve witnessed those strategies work at other places I’ve worked.
The town has extra problems with that because, socially, they’re not a lot of opportunities and activities for the young minority employees. So, they go to Richmond or other places with more to do. Sometimes, you might not feel like driving out of town for a comedy club. We have some issues there in terms of the town trying to meet young minorities halfway.
Q: What can the city do?
A: The city could allow, or be more open, to Black people opening up their own businesses, like a club. I’ve been here all my life. When you stop and think about it, I don’t know a Black person who owns a comedy club or a dance club. I don’t see any of that. If you go to Richmond or Washington, D.C., you see it.
Q: You worked as a young professional here. How did you cope?
A: The only reason I’ve been able to be stay is just because of my family. I have an instant connection and a support system. I still have friends I grew up with. I didn’t have to drive to Richmond on Friday nights. I had connections, so I knew what was going on in town.
That’s what’s tough about here. I would like to see us as a city maybe move away from expecting for everyone to assimilate. Some minorities need more than going partying on the Corner, or the Downtown Mall. That’s not their thing.
Historically, these two places haven’t had a lot to offer young minorities. When these people are preparing to graduate from college and are looking for a place to work, they’re looking for a social life, as well. What’s the draw to Charlottesville when they can go to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or even Richmond? They’re looking for places they can start their career and have a personal life.
Q: You’ve worked for Monticello and Albemarle high schools. In your years in the education field, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
A: The biggest challenge for me has been to figure out ways to help struggling students — which I’ve seen an increase in since I got into this industry in 1993 — whether they’re not reading at grade level, or they’re dealing with personal issues.
That probably has been my biggest struggle all these years. It’s difficult for children to learn, as they’re facing these challenges.
I lived very close to Venable Elementary School, but I was bused all the way to Greenbrier because they needed to make sure there were Black children at that school. I should've gone to Venable.
Q: You’re from Charlottesville. How do you think education has changed in the city?
A: I’ve been in and out of the city. This is my first time back working in the city after 20-something years. I really feel like the city schools have made a huge effort to see diversity — to desegregate and integrate.
I lived very close to Venable Elementary School, but I was bused all the way to Greenbrier because they needed to make sure there were Black children at that school. I should’ve gone to Venable.
I’ve seen real growth over the years. I probably never thought that that there would have been a Black superintendent. There was not one when I went to school. In fact, there was not a Black principal the whole time I was in school. And that’s changed. I think the city has really recognized that it’s important for everyone to be seen.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about education. Let’s shift gears a little. What do you do for fun?
A: I’m married, and I have two children. They’re 11 and 13. I have things I have to do with them. But every chance I get, I love to detail cars. It’s like therapy [Laugh]. I take into consideration how I spend my money. I detail my own cars. It’s a stress reliever. It’s therapeutic.
Jesse Turner became principal of Buford Middle School over the summer.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow
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