Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Okay, Let’s Talk About Schools (Part I)

The rather emotional responses to my post “Shrinking Richmond” (click on “Comments”) tells me that we are dealing with an issue that is very sensitive in Richmond. The subject of Richmond Public Schools involves issues of taxes, race, and economic class that are difficult to discuss without possibly offending someone. Perhaps the fear of offending is the reason that we only deal with this issue at its perimeters. I think we need to get to the heart of the matter.

I am a great supporter of public schools. They are the basis of our American democracy. I was poor as a child and, without the quality public-school education I received in New York, I would not have achieved anything. All three of my children also benefited from a quality public-school education here in Virginia.

In the nearly three years I have lived in Richmond, I have noticed a very strange demographic pattern. About half the people in my neighborhood are empty-nesters like my wife and me. Most of the rest of my neighbors are young couples, either without children or with pre-school-age children. When children in my neighborhood reach school age, their parents do one of three things: 1- they move out of Richmond to Chesterfield, Henrico or Hanover counties; 2- they send their children to private school; or 3- they home-school their children. I think that the only children who attend public school are those whose parents cannot afford any of the other options.

Two days each week, I tutor at Westover Hills School. In the classes I work in, all the children are African-American. In fact, almost all of the children in the school are African-American. I have looked at the statistics on the Richmond City Public Schools website, and I find that in most of Richmond's public schools African-Americans constitute 80% or more of the student body. My experience, and those statistics, indicates to me that although more than thirty years have passed since the end of "massive resistance," Richmond still has segregated schools. This segregation is not the result of the law but of the perception by those parents who can afford other options that their children cannot receive a quality education in Richmond public schools.

What I find particularly troubling with regard to Richmond's segregated schools is that no one seems to talk about them. I hear a lot of talk about building new school buildings or how many children are passing SOLs. But nobody talks about whether children can get a quality education in segregated schools. Nobody talks about how to overcome the perception by middle class parents that keeps them from sending their children to Richmond public schools.

So where does this perception that Richmond has low quality schools come from? We could start with His Excellency Mayor Doug. In his ongoing vendetta against the School Board and the Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Wilder is continuously issuing vision newsletters indicating that Richmond Public Schools are inferior to those in the surrounding counties. In his newsletter for July 9, for example, Mr. Wilder says:

With a dismal, worst-in-Virginia graduation rate – only 47% of our children make it all the way through high school – there is plenty to be concerned about.
* * *
Today, if our students are ill-educated and ill-prepared to enter the world beyond secondary school, we cannot blame it on a lack of money. Richmond Public Schools spends almost 60 percent more per student annually than any of the surrounding jurisdictions, while lagging far behind in critical measures of student achievement.
* * *
Richmond's dropout rate in 2005 was four times that of Hanover and almost twice that of Chesterfield and Henrico. In fact, of school systems with 10,000 or more students, Richmond had the highest dropout rate statewide

How can anyone in the City have any confidence in RPS with a cheerleader like Mayor Doug? Mr. Wilder’s statements are equivalent to the CEO of Coca Cola advising customers to drink Pepsi because it tastes better. Is it any wonder that families leave the city looking for better schools?

In addition to our cheerleader-in-chief, advertising by the counties and real estate listings support the idea that the counties have better schools. The listing for sale of a house in the counties will almost always include “near to high-quality Chesterfield (Henrico, Hanover) schools.” Have you ever seen a listing for a house in the city that mentions that there is a nearby school?

Anonymous, one of those who commented on my earlier post (not to be confused with anonymous and anonymous, who also commented), takes issue with the idea that Richmond Public Schools are inferior. He attended public school in Richmond from kindergarten through high school. He says,
I know so many graduates who are becoming teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, and many are in school getting graduate degrees from great schools.
Anonymous himself is planning to go to law school.

So, who is correct? Is it Anonymous, who has been through RPS and knows that many of his fellow graduates are very successful? Or is it Mr. Wilder, who asserts that Richmond’s students are ill-educated and ill-prepared to deal with the world.

When asked about the mayor’s vision newsletter, School Board Chair George Braxton acknowledged that less than half of students who enter the 9th grade graduate from high school four years later.
Some earn a GED, some are held back a year sometime during their high school career, some are incarcerated, and some drop out (reasons range from working to pregnancy). We can work on much of this, but a great amount of it comes from the social problems faced when a large percentage of your costumers are at-risk.

Mr. Braxton also provided the following statistics concerning the 2007 graduating class:

Class of 2007 Statistics (As of June 30, 2007)
Continuing Education Plans
Four Year College - 48.7%
Two Year College - 24.5%
Military - 1.3%
Work Force - 19.6%
Apprenticeship - 1.8%
Voc./Technical Training - 3.8%
TOTAL 99.7%

Students in the Class of 2007 have been accepted into 127 colleges & universities. The states represented in the acceptances are Alabama, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Washington, D.C. and of course, Virginia. To date over 860 acceptances have been recorded.
Because Richmond has so many students who are at-risk, it is very difficult to compare our schools to those in the counties. We spend more because these students have greater needs than do middle class students. Many of our students do not succeed because of the problems they face at home and in their neighborhoods.

On the other hand, Anonymous’ experiences are consistent with the statistics about graduating students. More than 70% of this year’s graduating class plans to attend four year or two year colleges. Despite Mr. Wilder’s assertion that our students are ill-educated, they are being accepted at colleges throughout the country.

I intend to continue this discussion of Richmond Public Schools until I am satisfied we have fully addressed all the issues. I hope you join me by clicking on the word “comments” below. (If you don’t want to reveal your identity, please use an alias. We already have too many people named Anonymous.)


Anonymous said...

Like many City residents, I don't have any children, but I am also a big supporter of public education.

From what I can tell, the big problem with RPS is the state of the facilities. There are some beautiful buildings that have been allowed to deteriorate, at the same time, there are a few schools that should have never been built where they are in the first place and are real dumps. Richmond citizens should demand better, like Wilder is doing.

On the other hand, where are the computers and equipment needed for competitive modern schools? Both the City's civic and political leadership have ignored the needs of RPS students in favor of wasteful downtown development for nonexistent tourists. Instead of spending $100s of millions on a white elephant convention center, why not spend $10 million carefully on a muni-wifi network for Richmond citizens and students and chip away at the Digital Divide? (A wireless network would also save on wiring old public school and municiple buildings.)

Where are the green schools that promote energy and resource saving? Where are the solar schools that will allow students to know something besides the antique, filthy fossil fuel grid? Where are the school buildings that will serve not just as points of pride for neighborhoods, but also as vitally needed disaster recovery centers?

But perhaps the biggest failing is allowing schools to go on without proper ADA access. It leaves the City open to more costly lawsuits, and more importantly, it tells kids that no, we don't live in a society that values equality and access to a good education, we live in a society that is turning its back on civil liberties that older generations fought for.

Jennifer C. said...

Firstly, I'm "anonymous" 2 and 3 (I wasn't thinking about the attribution issues when I commented, I just didn't wanna sign up for yet another web ID). I was also the commenter on the school-board audit post.
I'm the second generation of my family to deal with the city school situation. My parents lived in Fernleigh in the late 60's and early 70's - I was born when they lived on Cheyenne. My brother started school at Fisher in 1970/71, which was right around the time of the annexation and busing. He did not have a positive experience, and my parents chose to move into the county after his first two years of elementary school.
You comment on the success of the graduates, but I want some idea of how much parental involvement there is in OUR school. You don't have kids in the system - how many folks that do are volunteering with you? What's the PTA like?

pagalina said...

Just a minor correction to say that I know many parents send their kids to RPS, but with open enrollment they generally end up going to Fox, Mumford or Fisher. WIth the change in transportation rules, some of this may change.

Your points about the mayor's "contribution" to the situation are good ones.

ce said...

As a teacher in RPS, I know exactly what everyone is talking about. I encounter many things that have been discussed on a daily basis.

The one thing that stands out to me most is that the open enrollment at Fox, Munford, and Fisher is unfair.

That allows children from my neighborhood to attend one of those schools instead of attending their home/neighborhood school. Maybe that is why our city schools appear to be segregated? Less diverse?

Until we have parents, community leaders, and school board representatives involved in changing the their own home school, then we will continue to have less diversity and more of the same in our classrooms.