Friday, November 30, 2007

Richmond Public Schools are Pretty Damn Good

Let me be the last person in the River City area to talk about the Crupi report. I thank the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce for laying out the big bucks to pay for Dr. Crupi’s study. I also thank the Richmond Times-Dispatch for providing a copy of the report to all its readers.

I will not mention the amazing coincidence that a report paid for by the business community came back with the observation that only the business community is able to save Metro Richmond. Some people might be suspicious about the self-serving nature of the report. Not this maven. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “I guess they’re just lucky.”

I will also not mention that this report deals with a nonexistent Metro Richmond. Oh, of course, it exists on census maps. But lets face it, some of us live in the City, some live in Midlothian, some live in Mechanicsville, some live in Short Pump. But none of us respond to “where do you come from?” with “I’m from Greater Richmond.”

What I will talk about is the part of Dr. Crupi’s report that deals with the Richmond Public Schools. We are all used to hearing how bad Richmond Public Schools are. The Richmond 26, in their letter to the mayor in July, indicated that the state of RPS was an “emergency.” Our leading cheerleader, Uncle Doug, is constantly telling us how our schools are failing and that the School Board and RPS administration are wasting millions of dollars. So it is not surprising that Dr. Crupi in listing Metro Richmond’s weaknesses included “Weak City Public Schools.”

However, before I can agree with all the critics of RPS, I need to look at the facts. In 2003, only 19% of Richmond’s schools were accredited under the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning (SOL). Also in 2003, only 23% of Richmond’s schools were meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. By 2006, however, 86% of Richmond’s schools were SOL accredited and 84% of the schools were meeting AYP requirements. That doesn’t sound like an emergency situation or a failing school system to me. Perhaps the Richmond 26 and the mayor are looking back at 2003 statistics in making their assessments. I see RPS making exceptional progress. It is clearly not a failing school system.

Let us go back to Dr. Crupi’s report. In discussing the City of Richmond and its public school system, Dr. Crupi points out these facts about the city:

•19 percent of the population lives in poverty – rates that are over twice as high as Henrico, ten times as high as Hanover and four times as high as Chesterfield.
• 25 percent of its children (0-17 years) live in households at or below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level [i.e. below $20,650 annually].
• More than one of every two parents in Richmond is a single parent.
• Median income is less than 60 percent of the Greater Richmond average.
• 74 percent of students receive free/reduced price lunches.
• It has the highest rate of food stamp distribution in the state.
• Foster care rate is about three times the metro area’s rate.
• 50 percent of children are dependent on Medicaid or FAMIS [child health insurance program].
• 30 percent of kindergarten children need additional reading assistance.
• 14 percent of children from 3-4 years old are in the Head Start Program.
• 19 percent of children have disabilities and receive special needs education.
• It has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the metro area.
• 51 percent of students drop out of school according to a 2005-06 report by the VA Department of Education.
• The high school absenteeism rate is 26 percent and 14 percent in the middle schools [2005-2006].
• It is the only locality in the state in which all seven community problems involving youth are rated as “very serious.” Problems include: “violence on TV, movies, or in music.” lack of affordable and quality child care, lack of after school supervision, and alcohol and other illegal drug use by children or adolescents.
• It lacks a coordinated, proactive approach to addressing a young person’s needs

Dr. Crupi puts all these facts in the section of his report entitled “Give Richmond Schools a ‘Product’ They Can Work With.” As Dr. Crupi puts it,

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the Richmond public schools are getting large numbers of children who are not ready for school, who grow up in single parent homes that don’t (or find it difficult to) reinforce education, require nutritional support, and live in a community environment that makes it very difficult to study and learn. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the poverty is concentrated in 4000 public housing projects that are primarily located in Fairfield Court, Whitcomb Court, Gilpin Court, and Creighton Court. Were these problems in the counties, the schools would also have problems.” (Emphasis added).

Given the factors discussed by Dr. Crupi, it is really amazing that RPS is doing as well as it is. In the August article in Style Weekly, “The Real Problem With Our Schools,” Don Cowles of Initiatives of Change said that school systems with more than 50% of their students reliant on subsidized lunches “simply do not succeed.” Yet, with a subsidized lunch rate of 74%, Richmond Public Schools are clearly succeeding.

As Dr. Crupi points out, large numbers of students in Richmond start school without the skills necessary for learning. The Richmond 26 and the mayor clearly are making unfounded accusations about RPS. Imagine that the kitchen receives sour milk, moldy flour, rotten eggs and rancid shortening. These ingredients are baked into a cake. After tasting the less-than-perfect cake, would it be fair to conclude that it was made by a terrible baker?

I am not putting our students down. It is clearly not their fault that they come to the race with a ball and chain around their ankles. I see these children every week and almost all of them are eager to learn and they are making remarkable progress despite the difficulties of their lives. They have dedicated, hard-working teachers. Their schools are run by competent, demanding principals. I have seen RPS administrators at work. They are competent people dedicated to making RPS into a school system this city can be proud of. I have interacted with members of the School Board. They are committed to turning RPS into a world-class school system. They put in long hours trying to make RPS work despite real dollar budget cuts imposed by City Council.

Is RPS perfect? Clearly not. There is lots of room for improvement. But, I am really tired of all these critics with little knowledge attacking our public schools because they seem like an easy target. They need to stop complaining and do something to fix the problem. In the words of Dr. Crupi,

“Richmond’s leaders need to understand that concentrating on the output (i.e. what the school’s produce) without addressing the input (i.e. the condition of students entering the schools) is doomed to failure. It is a question of investing on the front end or paying on the back end. The time has come to design a way forward.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

SOL scores are calculated excluding the drop-outs. The system really gets rid of the "low scored students" in order to raise SOL scores and get accredited. Yes, it is good to have higher accreditation, but how about all the children that drop-out of school?