Dr. Aaron Spence has served as Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) for five years, appreciating his everyday opportunity to work with and for children, while helping to grow a stronger community. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he received a master’s degree in secondary education and a doctorate in educational administration and supervision. His past positions include chief high school officer, chief academic officer, director of curriculum and instruction, principal, and a French and photojournalism teacher. He has lived in three states throughout his career in K-12 education but has a special place in his heart for Virginia Beach, as it is where he grew up. He says it is a pleasure to be back in his hometown to serve the community that means a great deal to him.
Year over year, the focus of Dr. Spence’s goals consists of growing students academically. He wants to transform their learning experience in many ways, including a push for deeper understanding. This means that how students learn has a direct impact on the expectations that the workforce will have for them, so they can be prepared upon graduation. Dr. Spence notes this is an exciting goal because he and his team must keep up with the changing times of the current workforce and collaborate to decipher what skills and knowledge all students need to learn. They then take the next step to discuss how VBCPS structures their systems to ensure learners gain the best possible education.
His second goal is how to look at the whole student; this entails building strategies that create academically, socially, and emotionally safe environments for learning, so students can truly become their best selves. As superintendent, Dr. Spence wants VBCPS students to thrive in and out of the classroom while learning to be self-managers and advocate for themselves. He continued by saying that when students know how to resolve and deal with conflict they become resilient in the face of many challenges.
At VBCPS, Dr. Spence says there is more than just a sole focus on curriculum. In addition to caring about teaching reading, writing, and math, the district must care about doing it in a way that makes learning meaningful and purposeful for the world beyond its doors. This leads to a third goal of ensuring students are college & career ready. Instructors are responsible for teaching students not just a set of content, but how to apply that content in meaningful ways, allowing students to dive into the process of problem-solving.
Dr. Spence says one of his biggest accomplishments is the creation of the Entrepreneur and Business Academy at Kempsville High School. The program is a model for exemplifying what it means to put kids together in a collaborative, problem-solving environment. Teams of freshman and sophomores create business plans, pitch them out to the community, and then start businesses that carry on through their junior and senior years. He is also deeply invested in sustainable practices and how VBCPS thinks about the environment, especially since Virginia Beach is a water city. He and his staff help students grapple with environmental challenges, such as runoff and sea-level rise. They have started a community partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to build a new classroom and further create an environmental studies program. In the program, students in their junior and senior year can dive into these issues by working with scientists and policymakers. The district is additionally constructing green buildings as teaching spaces so students can learn how the buildings lower carbon footprints and have branched out into areas like transportation and renewable energy vehicles, along with food sources and garden to table initiatives.
“Helping them understand what the daily impact is on the environment is an important part of who we are as a city, and it’s a part we often don’t talk all that much about.”
Dr. Spence takes pride in leading district efforts to address equity issues, as he says it is key that VBCPS openly and candidly ensures that all students in Virginia Beach, no matter economic status or race, receive the very best possible experience every single day. He is also incredibly proud of his VBCPS team, noting they are a committed group of educators and teachers, making a great effort to learn how to integrate digital learning and technology into classrooms.
“The heart of our district is the teachers that are really engaged and want to help other teachers learn,” Dr. Spence says. “I’m certainly proud of our team and staff here.”
The University Instructors (UI) team has had the privilege of working with VBCPS for over a decade, providing interventions during the school day. Through the partnership, UI provides an Algebra Readiness program to make sure students understand problem-solving, and reasoning and communicating mathematically. Together, both teams analyze the pre-assessment of where students are and then build an individual plan for those students, working with them to help fill the gaps of knowledge. Dr. Spence recognizes that with the help of UI interventions, the district has moved to all schools being fully accredited consecutively for the past three years. He believes a targeted understanding of students’ strengths and how to leverage those strengths to accelerate their learning is key to boosting student achievement.
“The work that we’ve accomplished, and the partnership, has been long, positive, and professional,” says Dr. Spence. “The schools that are working with tutors love the work that our tutors are doing, and we appreciate that. It makes a difference.”
The UI team would like to thank Dr. Spence and the entire VBCPS team for this long-lasting partnership.