Dallas Dance's 2nd act: How a rising education star reconciles with jail and his mother's death
August 27, 2019
Leatrice Dance’s son made very few mistakes.
The mishaps were few and far between growing up, normal teenage and young adult blunders replaced with a quest for excellence that started in his youth watching his single mother work several jobs and not wanting to let her down.
In her final days, Dallas Dance was Leatrice’s most frequent visitor. They shared stories and planned for the future - a funeral for her and college for her grandchildren - but Leatrice also had a simple message for her son.
“You get to a point where you try to be too perfect,” she said. “It’s OK to make a mistake.”
He needed to hear it.
Dance’s rise was quick: high school valedictorian in Richmond to youngest principal in Virginia history to 30-year-old superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, one of the country’s largest school districts.
But Dance, 38, is no longer in the spotlight, his stature decimated when his first major mistake in the public eye resulted in a four-month jail sentence for not revealing an estimated $147,000 worth of outside consulting work on his financial disclosure forms. He was released from jail a year ago Tuesday.
“It’s a life lesson that slowed me down,” Dance said. "Now it’s time to move on, but a part of moving on is exercising an extreme level of humility, grace and accepting responsibility. What people will have to do going forward is judge future actions to a higher standard I’m setting myself to."
He’s out of jail now and trying to rebuild the parts of his life that suffered in his rapid ascension to the national education stage. He climbed fast to make his mother proud. He's still pushing to meet Leatrice's standards; the ones she set working four jobs to support her two children and the ones she left him with in the week before she died April 9.
She challenged him to slow down, and he has, balancing the instinct to do everything with the desire to be a better father and person.
Rather than jump into a new job, he’s chosen consulting school leaders and districts, among others. A new video channel he runs comes out with a semi-motivational, semi-professional development video every week. He’s marketed a book he wrote before he went to jail.
“The promise is still there,” said Dance, who has returned to his hometown and now lives in Glen Allen. “A person’s character doesn’t change because they made a mistake.”
"Now it’s time to move on, but a part of moving on is exercising an extreme level of humility, grace and accepting responsibility."
Dallas Dance's legacy in Baltimore extends beyond imprisonment.
By the end of 2017, his last full year as superintendent in Baltimore County, there was no gap between the graduation rates of white students and black students, which is almost unheard of in education. He launched a one-to-one program to give every student in the county a laptop. Spanish started being taught in elementary schools.
“He’s a beacon of light in terms of helping students,” said Hope Mims, a Baltimore parent who Dance met when her son was going into high school. “He always showed an interest in the direction students were going.”
Awards flooded in. The White House, with another young black leader in office, named him a Champion of Change and appointed him to a Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. The Daily Record (Md.) named him the state’s top innovator, most influential Marylander and most admired CEO. National Life Group awarded him the LifeChanger of the Year Award.
“I was impressed by a young leader being so mature and successful,” said former Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “He’s the type of leader we need in education.”
The success had followed Dance since he was young. He earned honor or scholar roll every semester at Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond and was named his school’s best reader. At Mosby Middle School, Dance became the student government president and worked as a page for the state Senate, assigned to serve then-Lt. Gov. Don Beyer - the first, but not last, taste of the political world.
The experience made him want to go to law school, he said, and potentially pursue a career in politics. That was his vision when he started at Armstrong High School in 1995, where he started research on the process of becoming a corporate or criminal lawyer.
“It all basically started here,” he said in October 2018 as he drove past the school’s 31st Street site.
He played sports - football, baseball and track - but Dance’s main focus in high school remained academics. The weekly Wednesday night meetings between the family of three were often filled with Dallas’ accolades, Leatrice said.
Dance was one of 240 students in the U.S. named to the Presidential Classroom Scholars Program and listed among the Who’s Who Among American High School Students. His national profile had already started growing and Dance hadn’t yet graduated high school.
“He was bright. He was articulate,” said Harold Fitrer, a former assistant superintendent of Richmond Public Schools who worked with Dance when he interned in the city school system’s central office when he was a junior and senior. “You could tell he was going to go places.”
Dance graduated high school in three years with no intention of leaving home.
His 4.87 high school grade point average and valedictorian status could have taken him anywhere, but he wanted to stay in Richmond, especially when Leatrice was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The college credits he had taken at Armstrong gave him a jump start at Richmond’s Virginia Union University, a historically black college that changed Dance’s life trajectory.
It was at Union where the English major - using the time to prepare himself for law school - started tutoring high school students in Richmond. They were students from similar backgrounds - single-parent homes with too little money - but lacked the same ambition Dance showcased from his elementary school days. He spent two of his three years at Union tutoring the students and was hooked.
“I knew then that I wanted to go into education,” he said.
During that 2001 summer after graduation, he was hired to be a ninth and tenth grade English teacher at Highland Springs High School in Henrico County. Dance was 20 years old.
“The age never really bothered me. I was an English teacher, I was going to go in and teach English,” he said. “I fell in love with the fact that you can’t teach English, you have to teach kids. What you’re doing is you’re teaching content, but if you don’t teach kids, you’re going to miss the boat the entire time.”
It was that mentality that propelled him into school administration.
"What you’re doing is you’re teaching content, but if you don’t teach kids, you’re going to miss the boat the entire time."
In 2005, Dance became the youngest principal in Virginia history, tapped to lead Henrico's Brookland Middle School and its 1,200-student population. He was 24.
Math scores rose 23 percent while reading scores went up 12 percent. He didn’t stay there long, though, leaving Brookland after two years for central office jobs in nearby Louisa and Chesterfield counties, both in the Richmond area.
In his pursuit of perfection, he made state history. He raised graduation rates and test scores.
Then it all came tumbling down.
Leatrice Dance was scared of losing her son to the streets.
She’d have him go to the more rural areas of the Richmond region after school, eventually ending up on Church Lane in Charles City County. He’d play sports with friends he didn’t go to school with; watch "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" with his grandmother; and go to church every Sunday.
“I always tried to engage him in things that were positive and get him away from the negative,” Leatrice Dance said in a January interview.
On the morning of Aug. 27 last year, Dallas Dance made the drive for a different reason.
It wasn’t to go to play football in a park that remains unchanged or test his still-young brain with routine television. Instead he left the Henrico County Jail and made the normal route but turned right on Church Lane just before Little Elam Baptist Church and into its cemetery.
He made his way to a plot in the first row of the small burial grounds and found his grandmother – his counselor, mentor and friend. Hydelia Cotman’s presence had never left him – her portrait that sat in front of her grave tattooed on his left forearm – but now he was out of jail and had a message.
“I needed to apologize to her,” Dance said. “I needed her to know I was sorry.”
The pressure of being perfect - of being Dallas Dance - had gotten to him. He didn’t disclose consulting work he was doing as a side job during his time as superintendent, ultimately leading to perjury charges, a guilty plea and four months in jail.
“His flaw was trying to be perfect,” said Desiree Eades, a friend of Dance’s and Baltimore County parent.
Dance had spent a lifetime in the public eye leading schools and districts. No mistake had ever been this big.
His first interaction with SUPES Academy came in September 2011 when he was running middle schools in Houston, being paid by the district to be trained by SUPES, a private professional development firm. At that training he met Gary Solomon, who owned a two-thirds stake in the company, and Steve Kupfer, who worked for the company.
He was sought out by Solomon and Kupfer in 2012 when he was named superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, the school district for the county that surrounds Baltimore city like a wrench does a nut. Dance agreed to train principals for the company when, according to Maryland prosecutors, the Baltimore County Board of Education approved an $875,000 contract with SUPES to train aspiring county school principals.
Dance signed the district’s contract three days later. Two months later he submitted a financial disclosure form that did not mention the money he received from SUPES.
"Parents of Baltimore County Public School students should be able to trust that their superintendent of schools is carrying out his duties honestly, with transparency, and in the best interest of students and the schools," State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said in a January 2018 statement. "Any violation of that trust is intolerable."
Dance’s work training principals continued into 2013, when the School Board found out about its chief’s side job and questioned him about it. He told his governing board that SUPES had contacted him about mentoring aspiring leaders in Chicago and that he had just started, state prosecutors said, and he said he hadn’t been paid by SUPES.
The Baltimore Sun reported in April that an audit found that during Dance’s tenure, Baltimore County Public Schools staff and members of the school board didn’t disclose their personal financial information in a “timely way.” The audit, The Sun said, didn’t find any wrongdoing with how Dance’s administration administered contracts.
Dance stopped working for SUPES in December 2013, but told an ethics panel in January 2014 that he hadn’t been paid by SUPES while they were contracted with Baltimore County. He also didn’t include the SUPES payment in his financial disclosure form for 2013.
“I panicked,” he said. “I was human and I was wrong.”
Dance was indicted Jan. 23, 2018 on four counts of perjury. He pleaded guilty to the charges in early March 2018 and was sentenced the next month to five years in prison with all but six months suspended, two years of probation and 700 community service hours.
His actions were a far cry from the two main lessons Leatrice taught him growing up in Richmond: to always do the right thing, and if you see trouble, walk away.
Leatrice cried frequently over the news coming out of Baltimore, worrying about the pressure her son was under, the speed at which he was moving and the attention turning from academic success to potential criminal charges.
The Baltimore County school system is the 25th-largest in the country. Dance was working in Houston when consultants from Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates - an Illinois-based consulting firm - approached him about becoming superintendent of the district while they were at the Annual Superintendent’s Conference in the Texas city.
Dance applied for the job and was offered it in late March of that year. He was 30 years old and was hired to run one of the country’s largest school districts.
First he needed a place to live.
Eades was intrigued by the young Dance. She was involved in the parent-teacher association at her son’s school and offered to help Dance find a home. Eades would take him to see different houses, but she couldn’t get Dance to pay attention - he kept stopping to talk to neighbors about the school system.
Dance finally settled on a house with a special playroom for Myles, his now 10-year-old son and first thought when touring every house, Eades said. Now it was time to get to work.
The days - a minimum of six per week - were long, starting around 7 a.m. and ending no earlier than 10 p.m. Nearly two dozen times he didn’t make it out of his office to his house overnight. He’d sign a birthday card for all 21,000 employees and go to every high school graduation.
“He got swallowed up in the bubble of being Dr. Dance,” Eades said.
Dance abruptly resigned from his role as superintendent in April 2017.
He was in the first year of a four-year contract extension that paid him $287,000 per year. The resignation came weeks after the death of his grandmother, who he discussed his future in Baltimore with before she died.
“I took the organization as far as I could, and as a matter of fact, I gave everything I had to 110,000 students a year and I missed the most important kid I have grow up,” he said. “So I resigned so I could go back to Richmond, take care of my family and watch my son grow up.”
Months before his resignation, calls for his ouster had grown when he retweeted a tweet from Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.) Superintendent Joshua Starr after President Donald Trump’s election. The tweet read: “Educators: tomorrow pls show your muslim, black, latino, jewish, disabled, or just non-white St’s, that you love them and will protect them!”
The retweet prompted an Op-Ed in The Baltimore Sun from then-Board of Education member Ann Miller headlined, “Dallas Dance must go.”
Miller declined an interview request for this story but wished Dance “well in a non-education related career.” Glen Galante, the executive director of the Baltimore County Teachers Association, declined to comment.
Dance resigned less than a year after “Tweetgate” and within 17 months, he was headed to jail.
“It was like he went through the Olympics of criticism and hadn’t run any races to prepare,” said Eades.
He had experienced failure in the past - a divorce and time spent away from his son while working jobs out of state - but very few professionally and none to the magnitude of imprisonment.
Dance, whose motivation originated with pleasing his mother, asked her before she died if he had disappointed her. No, he was told, she was proud of him.
Originally set to fulfill his six month sentence at the Baltimore County Detention Center, he ended up serving it in Henrico County. Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Cox granted Dance the opportunity to fulfill his term locally to help care for his ailing parents.
Leatrice had congestive heart failure, hypertension and cancer. She also received two kidney transplants. Dance’s father, Roy, also has medical issues.
He was assigned work release, letting him leave the Henrico jail every day to work before being re-arrested every night - something, Dance said, helped friends and family but frustrated him to the point that he considered asking for an end to the work release.
He’d get out of the jail at 7:30 a.m. and had to be back at 9:30 p.m. On Saturdays he’d be out from 8-6 and was imprisoned all day Sunday.
Every seventh day, he’d circle the jail seven times before re-entering.
Dallas Dance awoke inside the Henrico County Jail the morning of Aug. 27, 2018, around 4 a.m.
He packed his things and exited two hours later the same door he entered four months earlier. The first thing he did was drive in circles.
While serving his prison sentence, the education prodigy read a religious book called “The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears” by Mark Batterson. The book talks about Honi Ha-Ma'agel, a Jewish scholar, who Batterson highlights for drawing a circle in the sand, standing inside it and telling God he would not move until it rained. It ended up raining.
Free for the first time in months, Dance drove in circles around the jail where he had been held, asking God for rain - in his case, what to do next.
“What do You want me to do?,” he repeatedly asked.
The forecast is still up in the air.
One thing is clear: Dallas Dance wants change.
"That does not define me. Was it a serious mistake? Absolutely. Did I accept responsibility for it? Absolutely.”
It’s been a year since he was released from jail. He’s taken the time to evaluate himself, something he frequently does in his office inside his Glen Allen home. Copies of several popular self-help books, including Joel Osteen’s “Blessed Through the Darkness”, “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday and Karen Salmansohn’s “Bounce Back!: How to Thrive in the Face of Adversity”, are featured prominently in his study.
"That does not define me," he said. "Was it a serious mistake? Absolutely. Did I accept responsibility for it? Absolutely.”
Dance was hosting some family and friends at his Henrico home for dinner when he saw his mom for the first time since getting out of jail. The two hugged, a mother’s presence comforting an apologetic son.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” she remembered telling him in the moment. “Just learn from that one.”
The work will come, Dance said. He’s still training principals and school leaders, work he did with SUPES but now through The DDance Group, his own consulting firm. There’s no desire to be a superintendent right now, he said, or to leave Richmond. He’s made it back home and has plans to stay.
Instead he sees himself trying to make the Richmond region - a place he experienced on his near-daily commutes between the city and Charles City - better. He’s done work with Capitol Area Health Network and consulted with Richmond Public Schools in 2017, which drew some backlash.
“Richmond has all the ingredients, not just the city but the region, to be a national model for education, for economic development, for workforce development and training,” he said.
“There’s no reason why we can’t set that national model and that’s what I want to do.
“I’m going to wait patiently to figure out how I’m going to go about doing that.”
A year out of jail, Dance's biggest supporter is no longer here.
Leatrice Dance died April 9. She was 63 and is buried seven spaces away from her mother.
Most of her celebration was already planned by the time she died, her son spending every moment he could with her before she died - recounting stories from his childhood like the time he checked out 25 books from the library at once to establishing the funeral program.
Part of that program included a speech from Dance.
The sharply-dressed Dance - a week away from his 38th birthday - couldn’t stand to be there as they closed Leatrice’s casket. He went to a back room in the small church before re-emerging, sunglasses still on and face still strong.
“That’s not my mom,” he reminded himself. “This is just the body. Her spirit is in a much better place.”
Dance made his way to the pulpit, Myles, who is now playing baseball like his father did when he was young, right there beside him. After a short address from the grandson, it was time for Dallas Dance to share a few words.
He took his sunglasses off but they quickly found their way onto Myles’ head - a son imitating his father. There, in front of a crowd of friends and family, Dance pledged his commitment to slow down after years of being on the go 24/7 and encouraged others to do the same.
“I’ll continue chasing success, but what I will do is do it with balance,” he said.
As Dance remakes his life, he’s trying to give back.
He stays in touch with five Baltimore County students who are at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Union University or Virginia State University.
One student, Jordan Woods, was set to go to Temple University to play football. The defensive back, though, didn’t score high enough on his SAT and had to go to a division two school instead, winding up at Virginia Union.
On a January morning this year, Dance met with Woods inside the library at Union, making sure his former student was doing well in his second year at Dance’s alma mater. Woods credits Dance with making him think more critically about his college experience and the issues facing both campus and the world. He’s also rebuilt his relationship with his father with advice from Dance - “Forgive but don’t forget.”
The two share a similar story: They were raised by single mothers. They were destined for great things - one on the football field and the other in education. Yet they both faltered and are trying to recover.
Dance’s advice to Woods has been to keep moving forward and make the most of your situation. In reality it’s advice Dance is giving himself as the young prodigy who chased perfection looks at a blank slate.
“We all fall down, but we get up,” Dance said. “While this is a part of the legend, it definitely won’t be the legacy.”