Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Fix Our Schools, Now

The 26 business leaders who wrote to the Mayor and City Council last week asserted that the condition of Richmond Public Schools is “an emergency situation that must be dealt with immediately and with bold action.” The Richmond 26 looked at three statistics in reaching their conclusion. They did not mention several things that provide a more accurate portrayal of the condition of RPS. As I indicated in a previous post, School Board Chair George Braxton has stated this with respect to this year’s RPS 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.”

Moreover, Mr. Braxton’s State of the Schools address this past winter indicated that in the past five years RPS has gone from five accredited schools to forty five, an increase of 800%. Further, the number of schools that meet the federal “Annual Yearly Progress” requirements has gone from twelve to forty, an increase of over 300%.

The condition of Richmond Public Schools is, in my opinion, closer to Superintendent Jewell-Sherman’s “Moving from good to great,” than the “emergency” the Richmond 26 have alluded to. However, the City of Richmond needs a world-class school system, not a good one. And we need it now. Planning for improvements to arrive over the next five to ten years will have no benefit on the thousands of children entering or returning to school next month. Therefore, we need to deal with Richmond Public Schools as if there were an emergency.

In my last post, I explained why I didn’t think that switching from an elected to an appointed school board is the solution to Richmond Public School’s problems. Nor do I think that the Superintendent’s so-called 2015 plan will be sufficient or soon enough to be the answer. We need to take action now.

We need the following:

1- Attitude: Everybody in the City, starting with the mayor, members of the City Council, members of the School Board, the Superintendent of Schools, the Richmond Public Schools administration, school principals, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and citizens must deal with the schools as if each action or decision they make affects the future of their own children or grandchildren. I don’t know how many members of the City Council, School Board or RPS administrators at headquarters or in the schools have children or grandchildren in the schools. However, if we are going to make the changes we need to make, everybody must abandon their personal agendas and concentrate only on what is best for our (not somebody else’s) children.

2- Demand Excellence: The Virginia 26 suggests that some of our children “begin their education destined to fail.” Other people, including members of the School Board, have stated that many children in RPS cannot handle a more rigorous curriculum. I say that we must abandon this attitude. We must set standards for all our students that push them to achieve the maximum of which they are capable. We must not be satisfied with SOL accreditation or passing federal yearly progress requirements. These are only based on students “passing.” We must demand, not that our students pass, but that they excel. At the beginning of every school year we must expect that every student in our school system will achieve A’s, not just C’s.

We must engage in best-practices studies to see what is working in other school systems. We must adopt those educational theories that have produced outstanding student achievement in other school systems.

3- Teachers: We must hold all teachers accountable for their students’ achievements. We must have a performance appraisal system that measures how effectively our teachers teach. We must do a regular evaluation of each teacher’s students to see how many are truly excelling. We must not accept as an explanation that “I used the same lessons last year and it worked with those students.” Although ultimately it is the student that learns, we must expect our teachers to prepare lessons that will enable each of their students to perform at their maximum capacity.

We must retrain all our teachers in new teaching methods. There have been many improvements in teaching methodology in recent years and we must make these developments available to all our teachers. We should not settle merely for teachers to be recertified periodically. We must insist that they constantly improve. Since many of our students are at risk because of their background, we must make sure that all our teachers know how to help these children.

4- Budgeting: I was disappointed this year that the School Board did not prepare a budget from scratch. Instead it took last year’s budget and tweaked it a bit. As taxpayers, who already pay much more in real estate taxes than our neighbors in the counties, we must demand that all unnecessary spending be removed from Richmond Public School’s budget. To do this I suggest that we adopt some form of zero-based budgeting. Under this concept, each office or program in Richmond Public Schools would have to come forward periodically and justify its continued existence. At least once every two years each department head must prepare budget justifications explaining in detail how the funds it received last year were spent and how this benefited the students in our schools. At the same time they would have to justify continued funding for that program in the next budget year. Based on these justifications, we would expect the School Board to allocate funding in the budget only to those departments or programs that are working. We would also expect the School Board to reduce staffing in those areas which currently are overstaffed.

5- Accountability: We are entrusting many people with the safety and future of our children. We must hold these people strictly accountable for their performance. If members of the City Council are irresponsible in their oversight and funding of the schools, we as citizens should vote them out at the next election. If members of the School Board are not demanding excellence from students, teachers and administrators, or if they are not adequately controlling the school budget, we citizens should vote them out at the next election. If the Superintendent of Schools is not effectively and rapidly steering Richmond Public Schools toward greatness, we should insist that the School Board replace her. If teachers are not teaching their students, we should demand that their performance improve or that they be replaced. Every person who has authority to spend school funds must be held strictly accountable for the money they spend.

The children of Richmond deserve a world-class education. We taxpayers deserve great schools for the money we pay. We and our children can settle for no less. We must demand that our elected and appointed public servants fix Richmond Public Schools now!

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