Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Shrinking Richmond: Goodbye to Don and Clara

We met the Thompsons when we moved to Richmond three years ago. They are a great couple. They have two kids; Eric aged 5 and Danielle aged 3. In our neighborhood, where the population is split between empty-nesters and young couples with pre-school age children, the Thompsons are one of the few younger families that I and my maven-ess have been able to be friends with. Usually, it’s hard for younger and older families to find much in common. But it’s been different with Don and Clara.

Well, the bad news appeared last month with a “for sale” sign in front of the Thompsons’ house. I waited until Clara brought the kids home from daycare, and then ran to knock on their door.

“Clara, are you guys, moving?”

“Yes.” Clara didn’t look me in the eye. It was clear she wasn’t happy about this.

“But why and where are you going?”

“We found a place out in Chesterfield County, west of where Hull Street Road crosses 288. We’re moving ‘cause Eric is starting school in the fall.”

“Okay, Eric is starting school in the fall. What does that have to do with your moving? There’s a public school three blocks from here. Besides, I thought you loved this neighborhood.”

“We do love this neighborhood. And we love you and our other neighbors, but we want Eric to go to a good school. Everybody knows the schools in Chesterfield are better than the city schools.”

As we spoke, Don drove up and got out of his car.

“What do you mean, everybody knows? How does everybody know the schools are better in Chesterfield?

Don joined the conversation. “We don’t think that Eric would fit in in the city school; he would be different from everybody else.”

“Is this a racial thing?” I asked.

“No! We are not racists! It’s just that so many kids in that school are poor. They don’t have the academic skills that Eric has. He will be pulled down by them.”

“Have you ever been in the school? I volunteer there. Believe me; those children are getting a good education. They have great teachers. Eric would do fine there.”

“We’re not willing to risk Eric’s future on an experiment. We know the schools are better in Chesterfield. If he goes to city schools he might have trouble getting into a good college.”

“He’s not even six years old,” I said. Then I added. “You realize you’ll be giving up a ten-minute commute to work. And you’ll have to pay tolls on the Powhite.”

“Hey!” He said.
“These are our children. If I have to have a longer commute or pay tolls so that Eric can go to a quality school, I’ll do it. Besides, maybe I can find a better job in the county.”

It was clear I was not going to win this argument. Don and Clara were going to move.

You know, some day academics are going to be studying the Henrico-Chesterfield metro area. One will ask the other about the large vacant space in the middle of the area. “Didn’t the City of Richmond used to be here?” “Yes,” the other will reply, “but it was abandoned years ago.” “But why?” the first one will ask. The second will reply—

“It was the schools, dummy!”


Anonymous said...

I happened to see this topic on a link from another blog, but I found this conversation fascinating. I'm a 23-year-old male from Richmond, and I attended Richmond Public Schools from K-12. I know so many graduates who are becoming teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, and many are in school getting graduate degrees from great schools. They worked hard and all of them are not rich (including myself). I am going to law school myself in two years. There are good schools in the city, but for this woman to say that poor students would bring down her son's academic performace is ridiculous. Poor does not equate with stupid, as some people would like to say. I don't know what school you are talking about, but if you are talking about Holton or Munford schools, they are wonderful schools. There are great schools in the city, but unfortunately (fair or unfair) many white parents think the school is "bad" if there are "too many" black students in the school. Schools in the Richmond area so very racially divided in my opinion, unlike in other parts of the state where it is less of a concern. Schools in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are much more diverse, and the schools there have more to offer as a result. This woman and her family can move wherever they want because it is their individual right, but to say that RPS graduates are stupid or do not get into good colleges are an insult to me and so many others who are trying to make a mark in the world. Not every Henrico or Chesterfield school is perfect, but unfortunately some people (black and white) think their kids are too good to sit beside someone who may be just as bright, but just isn't up there economically. Honestly, I think the school is better off without a parent like that there...because so much good work can be done with positive parents and teachers who believe in children instead of labeling them at such an innocent age.

I am not saying Richmond Public Schools is perfect because it is not, but the blanket labeling is a reason why there is so misunderstanding in the Richmond area. Some Chesterfield people come into downtown to work in cushy jobs, use the city roads, and then go back home and trash the city. Some Richmonders think everyone out in Short Pump is rich, but many are struggling under debt and mortgages just like everyone else. There is so much to learn from people different than us, but most people do not give themselves any chance to do this.
Thank you for this interesting posting!

pagalina said...

There are indeed good schools in the system, but this does not mean that every school is right for every child. Both the writer of this blog and this comment don't have children to place in RPS, and therefore are not faced with the struggle of not just getting their kids to school, but trying to make, in every instance, the right decisions. From what food to feed their children, to what entertainment they watch, parents aren't just picking the most available resource but the BEST possible resource.

If every parent had the choice between westover hills or mumford you could bet your lunch money for a year that they'd select mumford, regardless of their race or economic standing. Mumford has the superior reputation with fewer of the social challenges that WOH faces. The academic standings alone would point to choosing Mumford or Fox over westover. Here are the SOL's scores for respectively math and reading in third grade:
Mary Munford Elementary School 97% 95%
Westover Hills Elementary School 68% 71%
William Fox Elementary School 92% 88%

Which school would YOU choose?

I think you both are simplifying the issue of poverty here. It is not that affluent kids will mix with poor children, but that schools with a higher level of disadvantaged children need to spend more money on providing meals and social services than they may be able to spend on academics. Some schools can afford to offer spanish or music and art classes, some cannot. Wouldn't you rather your prospective children or grandchildren have a wide range of course offerings?

RPS and chesterfield are struggling, with the spector of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Most schools in RPS right now seem more focused on raising the scores of the lowest scorers. How can these same schools provide superior education if they're so focused on merely passing?

And another very real issue to consider is that compared to the other counties, Richmond citizens pay much higher taxes. So to stay, and NOT be able to get into one of the better public schools means sucking up to pay for private school on top of these already higher taxes. Wouldn't that money be better spent saving for college?

And I'll be blunt and address the race issue here. Westover hills has 11 white children. Eleven. This does not even begin to reflect the racial make up of the CITY which is about 65% black. A little diversity would be a very good thing. I don't think there's a black or hispanic parent who wants their child to be the only one in the class who is different. It should not matter if you are black, white or yellow, but if you are so totally different from everyone else, how can you be comfortable? To say that this is total racial intolerance is like saying that a cold is the same thing as spinal meningitis. Most of the folks I know appreciate diversity, if there was any to speak of at our local schools.

Although it may be vexing to you and the commenter that people do not want to go to RPS, with so many people having these issues, they can't just be brushed under the rug. They are very real issues, despite your distaste and belittling of them.

Anonymous said...

I really don't care what the kids in my sons' future school look like - I just want them to have parents that participate. I went to a couple of events at the Waldorf school near my house, but I don't feel comfortable sending them there because of the almost entirely monochromatic student body.
I *want* a varied school culture for my children, but I do *not* want them in with a bunch of kids whose parents don't care how they act, don't participate in their education, and expect the school staff to do their parenting for them.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and it's not just the schools that may drive people out. The four of us use approximately 4-5 CCFs of water every month. Our water/sewer bill is about $70/mo. My parents live in Bon Air, in a 3600sqft house, pay about $500 more per year in property taxes, and THEIR water bill is $60 every OTHER month. Killing me. Kil-ling. ME.

Anonymous said...

Pagalina--I was the first respondent who wrote on this topic. You make very interesting points. However, I take offense to the fact that you said I am belittling people who have to choose where to send their kids in RPS, or what decisions they will make regarding the matter. Since I actually ATTENDED the schools for 12 years (and have good parents who sent me), I think I would have a pretty good perspective on where the system is headed and what needs to be addressed. My future was important to me before I started elementary school. As someone who would like to live and raise children in the City of Richmond, I will have to face this issue in a few years. When I was in high school not too long ago, most of the schools were not passing the SOL's, and now that they are, people still complain about the schools. Fairfied Court ES has many poor students, but their students scored in the 90th percentiles on the tests this (2006-07) academic year. There are not people moving to the area and sending their kids there! Richmond is 57% black and the school system is 91% black. I have been in all-white environments after RPS and having white and black friends at my RPS schools made me be able to adapt to that environment where I could appreciate the perspectives from everyone. However, some other racial groups do not ever feel like they have to put themselves in the same shoes--or they will do absolutely anything to prevent it.

I can understand where you are coming from, but since I actually went through the system, and based on my own success through my own hard work, I succeeded. I received a great education, and in my high school 98 percent of the graduates attend a four-year university; in my graduating class it was 100 percent. I just get tired of people who talk a good game about diversity, but when push comes to shove, they will get nervous, call certain school environments "experiments", and shun the school system. It is condescending and the reason why in the Richmond area, everyone is only concerned about what happens near them. There is no regional views, just Richmond, Chesterfield, etc. That is why so many of the successful people that I know do not want to move back to this area, and most of them have not. I cannot totally blame them either, as much as I like Richmond.