RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — As a teenager in south Los Angeles, Gerard Robinson thought his future spanned the length of a football field: make it through high school, play in college and head to the NFL.
Like many of his peers, he never aspired to higher education or considered the long odds against making it in the pros — college was just a means to an end.
"Everyone knew the game: Go to school, stay out of trouble, play sports," said the 43-year-old Robinson, Virginia's new education secretary.
The future he had envisioned, however, ended his senior year in high school when a 6-foot-5, 275-pound player rammed his helmet into Robinson's knee, cracking his fibula and ending his athletic career. The incident forced Robinson to come up with Plan B.
Far from a model student, he took a full-time job at a grocery store after graduating and attended classes at El Camino Community College. A chance conversation at the store with El Camino's dean of instruction — who ended up becoming his mentor — got him thinking he could shape his own destiny.
"He was the first person who really took an interest in me to say, 'Where you are today doesn't have to be where you can be tomorrow. Today you have this GPA, but that doesn't mean that tomorrow you can't be a CEO,'" Robinson said of Raymond Roney.
Roney, who has since retired, said that with some guidance Robinson took that advice and ran with it — and has returned the favor by going back to L.A. to speak to young people, especially black students.
"We both come from environments where some of us were the first to graduate from high school," said Roney, who grew up in a low-income area of Philadelphia. "We thought college was out of the question. And you have to reach back and say, 'Look, I was there, if I could do it, it's not impossible for you to do it.'"
After El Camino, Robinson headed to Howard University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and anthropology, because he was "interested in thinking for a living." He returned to Los Angeles to teach fifth grade and help with a program in Compton. He went on to receive a master's in education at Harvard University.
Robinson has focused his interests on charter schools and school choice, especially for urban black families, and is president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He also worked on Virginia's initial charter-school legislation in 1998 when he was on the staff of Del. Mary Christian, D-Hampton.
As education secretary, he will be advocating for Gov. Bob McDonnell's priorities of expanding college access to more Virginians; giving public teachers merit pay and incentives for good performance; and establishing more public charter schools, including securing federal Race to the Top funding to assist in that effort.
Charter schools are public schools but are exempted from many regulations, allowing them to operate more like private schools. Virginia has three — compared to more than 100 in some states — and McDonnell wants to grow that number by seeking legislation to make it easier to start such schools.
Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association and chair of a state coalition that includes the VEA, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the PTA and the Virginia School Boards Association, said she and Robinson have much in common, including their passion for providing Virginia's students with the best public education possible, but they disagree on some of the methods.
"For him it involves school choice," said Boitnott, who said she had a "very cordial" conversation with Robinson on Wednesday. "But I believe we should give more to the public schools so people don't have to flee to charter schools."
Robinson is aware he may be pegged as the "charter school guy" but stresses he is a strong advocate of public education, including traditional schools, magnet schools and after-school programs. He also wants to strengthen connections between K-12 and higher education institutions and start emphasizing the importance of college to elementary-school children.
There's a misconception that "when you support traditional schools, you're not a supporter of reform, or if you support private schools, you're against public schools," he said.
The main difference between a charter school and a public school is if students fail, the public school remains open, while charter schools would be closed, he said.
But Boitnott said students shouldn't be used as an experiment to test whether a charter school is doing its job.
Robinson also noted that Virginia's economic health is strongly tied to its residents' educational attainment. Better-educated people generally earn higher salaries, can pay more taxes and have more disposable income, he said.
"In order to turn the economy around, we need to stress the importance of education," he said. "Stress the importance of college, associate's and technical degrees to create jobs and support families," especially among students who would be the first in their family to attend college — as Robinson was himself.
But he starts his job at a time when Virginia is grappling with a $4 billion budget deficit that threatens to slice funding for K-12 and higher education, along with other core services.
While he largely sidestepped discussing layoffs, program reductions or other potential effects on local school divisions if taxes aren't raised, he said the state can still reach some of its education goals by being more entrepreneurial. For example, the state could look to corporations and private foundations to make up gaps in funding.
"We're working with less for now," Robinson said, "but we won't always be in that situation."