Monday, March 24, 2008

We Have Nothing to Fear but . . .

I have now read Seventh District School Board member Keith West’s piece, The Broken Rule, in Style Weekly twice. I still don’t know what to make of it. It has gotten me angry, compassionate, understanding, discouraged, sad, and then angry again. In his article Mr. West reveals that he and his wife have chosen not to enroll their child in Richmond Public Schools. He says that the reason is fear.

First, I need to say that I greatly respect Mr. West’s courage in making his family decision public. As he says, his being on the School Board means that the West’s decision will face lots of public scrutiny. I also empathize with the frustration that Mr. and Mrs. West must have faced in reaching their decision. For somebody who ran for the School Board to fix Richmond Public Schools, it has to be difficult to publicly admit that the job wasn’t as easy as he thought.

I will not say anything more about the West’s decision. They have exercised their rights as parents and that should be the end of the matter. Last year, I might have thought differently. I might have suggested that if Mr. West was unwilling to send his own children to RPS he shouldn’t serve on the School Board. But, even in my seniority, I am still growing.

I need to talk about the statements in Mr. West’s article that produced such a wide range of emotion in me. First, he says:

While there are many students who receive an adequate education in Richmond schools, you don’t have to be a statistician to figure out that many more do not. Which group is your child going to fall into?

Obviously, Mr. West has spent more time in the schools than I have, so he must know of what he speaks. My limited experience working in two schools has been that the number of children receiving a good education is greater than those who aren’t. But, Mr. West insists that one does not have to be a statistician to know how inadequate an education our children receive. But, I wonder what statistics Mr. West is talking about. Is he talking about these statistics about the City of Richmond from the Crupi report?

•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.

After looking at these statistics, Dr. Crupi concluded,

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).

It is clear that many of our children come to school handicapped by the effects of multigenerational poverty. Yet it has been my observation that Richmond Public Schools is succeeding in helping most of these children overcome their “late start” in the race of education.

I have greater difficulty in dealing with this statement from Mr. West’s article:

Beyond the learning is a host of intangibles with corrosive effects that could be far more difficult to unravel than a faulty knowledge of ABCs. Will your children learn the value of honesty and hard work? Is cheating really tolerated in some classes? Will they show and receive proper respect and courtesy? Will they learn to love learning?In some classrooms the answer is yes. In a few schools the answer is yes. But consistently across the entire school system, the answer is no.

I guess I must be lucky, because in the schools in which I have been I have seen the children learning the value of honesty and hard work. I have seen no example of cheating, let alone cheating being tolerated. I have seen children showing each other and their teachers respect and courtesy. I have seen so many young faces glowing with the love of learning. But, again Mr. West obviously sees a lot more than I do. He has seen enough to conclude that across the entire school system our children are not being taught these values. This makes me sad and angry.

Mr. West goes on to say,

In every job category from custodian to central-office administrator you will find sterling examples of effort and ability working alongside people who aren’t doing their jobs and shouldn’t be drawing a paycheck. You will find some teachers who are imbuing a love of literature in their students, and others writing evaluations with made-up words and nonexistent grammar. You will find some principals prowling the halls gently correcting the transgressions of their little ones, and others hiding in their offices.

Again, I have not been in the schools in which the support staff does not earn their pay, where the teachers are unqualified, and where the principals hide. In the schools that I frequent, I have seen just the opposite.

Unfortunately, Mr. West may have “crossed the Rubicon” in making these statements. I really don’t know how he will be able to work with RPS administrators or school principals or teachers in the future when each one is wondering whether he was referring to them in the above paragraph. But I am not really concerned with that (at least not now).

What I really find most upsetting of everything Mr. West said was his statement that he and his wife are afraid to send their children to Richmond Public Schools. Mr. West emphasized that fear “is the right word.” Mr. West’s statement comes less than a week after I had a discussion with a Richmond public school principal. I asked why if the school was doing such a good job educating its children that the parents in the immediate neighborhood would not send their kids to the school. The answer—“They’re afraid.”

As you know, since I moved to Richmond I have been perplexed with the fact that hardly any of my neighbors send their kids to Richmond Public Schools. I have tried hard to understand.* I participate in a citizens group called Friends of Fourth District Schools that is working hard to provide every parent in the community with a viable public education option. We try to convince our neighbors that their children can get a quality education in the local schools and that they don’t need to move out of the city to get better schools for those children. I have assumed that if we helped Richmond Public Schools continue to improve and if we publicized the accomplishments of the schools eventually neighborhood parents would opt to use the public schools.

But, if what we are dealing with is fear, the task gets a lot tougher. What is the fear that the West’s feel and that my neighbors feel that keep their children out of the public schools they are paying for with their taxes? Mr. West expresses it:

I don’t want to feel like I have to second guess the number of assessments, or ponder the thoroughness of a math curriculum, or worry if the threatening note a classmate wrote is serious or not. I want to see my children off each morning with a feeling that I’m doing right by them.

Certainly, I empathize with Mr. West’s feelings. It is scary to send your young children out of the safety of your home. I know; I sent three of them to public schools. Having once gone to school myself, I know the kind of trouble a kid can get into. (Sometimes I wonder how I even survived my younger years). But the fear that Mr. West is expressing seems to go beyond what parents sending their first child to school feel. What is this fear?

I have heard some of my neighbors say that they don’t want their children in a situation in which they are different. I heard others say they think that being in a classroom with all these poor kids will mean that their children will not learn as much. I have heard some speculate that if their child goes to city schools she will have trouble getting into college. But what the school principal said makes the most sense to me. The principal said that my neighbors are afraid of putting their child into a classroom where he or she is the only child who is not African American. (A friend who was at that meeting with the principal told me that she withdrew her child from the neighborhood school because the child was the only white student in the class.)

So, dear reader, I come back to the beginning of the circle and it makes me sad. More than two years ago when I first wrote my perceptions of Richmond Public Schools to School Board member George Braxton I said,

although more than thirty years has 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.

Fellow Richmond residents, we are caught in a bind. Except for four schools (Holton, Fisher, Fox and Munford) this city’s elementary schools have few if any white students. Because our neighborhood schools have so few white students, white parents are afraid to enroll their children in those schools. It’s a vicious circle:

Fear = Nonenrollment = Overwhelmingly African American School Population = Fear

If this city is to live long and prosper, we have to break this pattern. We’ve got to overcome the fear.

*Sometimes, I feel a bit hypocritical talking about the decision of some parents to opt out of Richmond’s public schools. If I were thirty years younger and I was facing sending my own children to our city’s schools, would I react any differently than the West family or my neighbors who are moving to Hanover or Henrico or Chesterfield? I really can’t say that I would.


Anonymous said...

My wife and I walked past a house on a neighboring block of Westover Hills last week. It has all the telltale signs of the White Parent Exodus: a new "for sale" sign in the yard and a four-year-old's tricycle on the porch. Sad, but true to form around these parts.

There was a recent NYT analysis article that noted that whites in the states with a small black population have tended to vote for Obama in the Democratic primaries, while whites in the states in which whites and blacks live in closer proximity (such as those states with big cities) have voted for Clinton. The NYT's theory was that while whites like the *idea* of voting for a black candidate (and, by extension, for racial harmony), those who live in close proximity to blacks are less interested in having a black person as their president. In effect, after experiencing life among blacks, whites seem to be rejecting the idea of racial harmony.

Is this what is happening in Richmond? After rubbing elbows with blacks all over town, have the whites decided that the "black experience" is not desirable for their children?

Anonymous said...

anon takes the racial implications of this story couple steps too far, IMHO.

But, it's true that white parents don't want to send their kid to be the only white kid in school. Too many of our facilities in RPS are seen as prep-schools for the correctional system. West is right when he says that we have teachers/administrators who have sunk to the level of the children that they're supposed to serve. But, isn't it West's job to bring about incrimental change?

I've sub-taught at RPS and seen teachers snoring away at their desks in front of the class. I've seen defeated happless professionals who have no incentive to improve their practice. Screaming at kids is often the only manner of communication. Does RPS need to demand better of their staff? Yes. But, parents need to send children who are prepared to learn; willing participants. Those parents need to value education themselves and offer an ethic of positive reinforcement in their homes if they're going to do right by their children.

Anonymous said...

JRM, when you say that you respect that West made his decision in a public way, are you not disappointed that he is using his child's education to continue his tantrum of refusing to work thru the School Board because he was not elected to replace Braxton as head of the Board?

If that accusation is a stretch, how about Keith West's work in the community? The lesson to parents of RPS kids is to get involved in your child's school and it will become what you want it to be. Did Keith even try that? One would think that an elected official could mobilize enough parents to improve his neighborhood school that he would feel comfortable sending his kid there. If the School Board rep can't muster some change in ONE school to benefit his own child, how would any citizen manage such a thing? And why should we believe that he had a prescription to change the whole school system if he cant' point to one school that he improved?

RVA Foodie said...

I picked up the book by Jonothan Kozol, "The Shame of a Nation," about the restoration of apartheid schooling in America to look for some answers. The legacy of Massive Resistance has clearly shaped this City in more ways that we can count. I don't think that there's a magic bullet for our schools or the perception of our schools. Maybe Kozol's book will have something to offer.

I don't think one lone School Board rep is going to solve the problem we're facing now and I'm wondering what will be the effect of his public position in Style. It really seems like everyone is pointing at someone else as the problem. It's like people each with their hand on a different part of an elephant, insisting that their perception is the only right way to see things. Professionals should be able to collaborate and validate that each has a portion of the truth. If we can't manage that much around our school system, why would parents set aside their fears? What kind of example does all of this set for the kids?

gray said...

gray said...