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Looking back on his 47 years in Charles County Public Schools in the weeks leading up to his retirement, former superintendent James E. Richmond said he fell into a teaching role and accidentally became superintendent.

After leaving college, Richmond looked for a government job in the Charles County area. At that time in the 1960s, there were no positions available and a government employee recommended teaching for a year while waiting for a position to open up. On that advice, Richmond took a teaching job at La Plata High School.

When an opportunity came for Richmond to accept the government job he had been waiting for, “by that time, I was so enthused with what I was doing that I wasn’t going to leave it.”

Richmond said he discovered he loved teaching.

He began his career in 1966 as a social studies teacher at La Plata. He served as a vice principal at Thomas Stone High School before being named principal of Stone in 1973. He was principal until 1985, when he was appointed director of school administration. Richmond was regional administrator from 1994 to 1996, when he was appointed interim superintendent.

Bob Carter was superintendent in 1993 and served for three years before he resigned on May 24, 1996, because of what the school board reported at the time as “philosophical differences.”

The vice chairwoman of the board of education at the time Richmond came on board was the current principal of St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, Sharon Caniglia.

Caniglia said Richmond started as superintendent “at a time when Charles County needed healing, and he did a great job.”

She said that what she will remember about Richmond was that he “always put children first.”

She said Richmond always made sure that whenever people were making important decisions that would impact students, they knew that children were the important factors in the decision.

Charles County Board of Education member Donald M. Wade said he appreciated Richmond’s work in helping provide opportunities for children.

“Thank you for your vision,” he said at a recent board meeting.

In his 17 years as superintendent, Richmond opened five new schools and started several programs. He was named Maryland Superintendent of the Year in 2003 and has received numerous awards and recognitions.

Richmond oversaw the school system during many important moments in the county, including the 2002 sniper attacks and the 2002 tornado that hit La Plata, among other events.

One thing that has improved through time, Richmond said, is communication with the public.

Richmond said that the sniper attacks were one of those things one never forgets. Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad struck 15 times in fall 2002, killing 10 and injuring three around the Washington, D.C., area, including attacks outside schools. Richmond said that the first call he received was from then-sheriff Fred Davis saying that the Charles County Sheriff’s Office had the school system’s back.

He recalled Davis telling him to operate the schools and that the sheriff’s office would be patrolling the schools but staying out of sight. Richmond said that the communications staff relayed information to parents and the public quickly and Richmond sat down with principals to discuss heightened security.

He said that parent participation also has been increasing over the years.

Reflecting on his first years as a teacher in the school system, “I was terrible my first year or two,” he said.

Richmond came to the school system with a major in political science and was hired on a provisional certificate to teach history at La Plata.

He said he taught every subject within history that someone can teach to public school students. Richmond also taught evening classes at Charles County Community College, which is now the main campus of the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata.

“It was like a drug,” he said of teaching.

Even as superintendent, Richmond said he was still a teacher.

“This whole system is like a classroom.” he said.

Closing the gaps in achievement in test taking among minority groups, raising standards in the system and putting in reading recovery programs are examples of Richmond teaching in his “one big classroom.”

Through a partnership with the Charles County Department of Health, Richmond took the school system from having four nurses to cover all the schools to having a nurse in every school. Partnerships with the sheriff’s office resulted in having a school resource officer in every middle and high school, with officers assigned to cover elementary schools near their designated school.

The school system partners with universities to provide more rigorous activities and lessons, and an emphasis on boosting the system’s science, technology, engineering and math programs resulted in a strong partnership with the National Space Foundation.

Richmond also brought telepresence into schools, allowing for exchanges over video monitors with other area schools, instructors from other states and even classes from other parts of the world.

For his efforts in space technology education, Richmond won the 2011 National Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award, named for Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard.

Richmond did not take credit for his accomplishments. He pointed to his staff and teachers. He said his job was to provide resources that teachers need. When any new idea came about, he said, he made sure teachers were involved first. When it came to his executive staff, he made sure each member knew what all the others were doing so that everyone was on the same page and took an active role in supporting student success.

“Our educators know and appreciate that [Richmond] always understood that students benefit by having quality educators, and he has made it plain that he supports our members and understands the hard work they do every day,” Education Association of Charles County President Elizabeth Brown said at a recent board of education meeting.

Among Richmond’s many visions for the system was to keep the focus on reading.

Richmond said that getting a child to read and comprehend the material is the key to student success.

He said that if a child could read, she could be an active participant in class.

“If I had my way, I’d have reading programs all across the country free to every student,” he said.

At a recent recognition for Richmond held at North Point High School, students in C. Paul Barnhart Elementary School’s reading recovery program stood before an audience and read out loud.

“That’s as good as gold,” Richmond said. “That’s the best compliment I could get.”

Richmond said that words could not express how excited he was to hear children read for the first time.

“We want to make sure all elementary kids come out of elementary grades reading and reading above grade level because that sets the stage for them in high-level thinking skills in middle and high school,” he said.

Richmond said he believes every student also needs a uniform, something that ties them to the school, such as a sports team, band or club.

As superintendent, Richmond started the strings program at the schools and helped get Junior ROTC programs at all of the high schools. Senior Army instructor at Stone, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. David W. Reilly, said Richmond always has been a strong supporter of JROTC in Charles County and that he remembers when there were only three programs in the county. Richmond would often visit the Stone program to talk to cadets, explaining how happy he was to see the program in the schools and what a great opportunity it was for students.

Another initiative Richmond reflected on was working with multiple agencies to help provide for homeless students, an issue Richmond sees as a growing concern.

Through partnerships with agencies such as the nonprofit La Plata-based service provider LifeStyles, the homeless population continues to get lunches and other services during and after the school year.

Richmond said he also is proud of the partnerships with United Way, CISCO, and many other agencies and companies.

He said he didn’t know what he would do after he retired but that he hoped he could put the same amount of passion he had for education into whatever it is he does in the future.

“This has been my career for 47 years, and I thank the public and I thank all of the teachers, our children and everybody. It’s been my honor to serve them. ... I didn’t do any of it by myself,” he said.

gphillips@somdnews.com