Brian Betts, a 1989 graduate of UNCG, became in recent years one of the most innovative educators in inner-city Washington D.C.
The principal at Shaw Middle School in Washington had been hired to revamp a school that had been through great difficulties – including a reorganization required by the No Child Left Behind law – and was in the process of turning the school around.
For that, he had been the subject of several stories in the Washington Post and had also been interviewed by 60 Minutes and PBS.
Dr. Kate Barrett, a Board of Trustees member and professor emerita of exercise and sport science, knew Betts when he was a physical education major studying to be a teacher. “I worked extensively with Mr. Betts during his junior year and then as his University Supervisor during student teaching. He had a special way with children, a special gift, that was evident right from the start.
“Following graduation I kept up with Mr. Betts especially since I had recommended him to Pat Barry of the Montgomery County School System and wanted to know how he was handling his first job. I believe Ms. Barry [a UNCG alumnus] played a critical role in Mr. Betts’ development as the educator he became.
Women’s basketball coach Lynn Agee also knew Betts well when he was a student and cheerleader. “Brian was Blue and Gold through and through. He obviously was a tremendous educator, which is evident in all the things he’s done as a principal. It’s a great loss obviously in that area,” Agee said.
“As a Spartan, he followed his teams everywhere. He’d show up in the middle of a snow storm when women’s basketball was playing. He supported every event as a cheerleader. He was very active. He was one of the most dedicated and fun-loving Spartans that we’ve had involved in our program.”
For several years, Betts had brought a group of his middle school students to the UNCG campus for a “College Connection Weekend.” The last two years, Betts had his group of students follow members of the men’s basketball team around for two days – to classes, to meals in the dining hall, to practice, to study hall – to see the level of commitment it takes to play college athletics, while maintaining a commitment to academics. In past years, Betts brought his cheerleading squad to campus to go through similar functions and they would perform at a men’s basketball game.
Barrett said that when he and his students came to campus, “We always arranged a time to visit and for me to meet his children. He always introduced me as ‘his’ teacher!”
Two years ago, Barrett saw on PBS’s News Hour a report on his and others’ work to help reform the Washington schools. “I talked with him several times to learn how his school was progressing and to tell him how proud we were of his work. What he was doing was exciting and daring, but I knew [D.C. school system] Chancellor Rhee had picked the right person and that he would be successful. We had thoughtful conversations about what he was trying to do and what he dreamed for the children in his care … His belief that all children have a right to learn never waivered – he started living that belief right from the start and never looked back.
“He was a fiercely loyal person who was a dear friend/mentor to all,” she added. “When I spoke with his mother at the visitation [last week], and had told her my connection with her son, she lightly touched her heart, and told me, “We buried Brian in a UNCG T-shirt as UNCG was closest to his heart.”