Sunday, March 23, 2008

You Got Trouble Folks! Right Here In River City

In Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” Harold Hill, a brilliant salesman/scam artist warns the citizens of another River City that their children are in trouble because a pool hall has opened in town. He convinces them that the only solution is to create a boys marching band to “keep the young ones moral after school.” Of course, he expects to get rich selling all the parents musical instruments.

Were our troubles here in this River City so simple? If a marching band would solve all of Richmond’s problems, I am sure that every citizen would be more than willing to donate a trumpet, trombone, Sousaphone, tuba, drum or Glockenspiel to each of our city’s children. A marching band, however, will not solve Richmond’s problems. Nor will commercial development on the Boulevard, a public marina on the river adjacent to the Richmond-Henrico border, the performing arts center, another baseball team to replace the Braves, a regional transportation authority, or a new downtown master plan. None of these deal with the city’s most serious problem.

On March 12, I posted an open letter to those who are, or would be, candidates for mayor this year. I asked the candidates to tell us what they would do to fix what I called Richmond’s “middle class hemorrhaging disease” should they be elected. I described the “disease” as the exodus of the city’s middle class to the outer burbs to get for their children what they perceive is a better public education. So far, only Jackie Jackson has replied to my letter. 1
In her response, Ms. Jackson seeks to define herself as the education candidate in this year’s race. Prior to my open letter, I entered into an e-mail discussion with Paul Goldman, the other announced candidate for mayor. Mr. Goldman also describes himself as the education candidate. I assume, that if and when Bill Pantele or state delegate Dwight Jones throw their hats into the very large mayoral ring they too will claim to be the education candidate. (And, you can be sure that if Mayor Doug announces for reelection, as we all expect he will, he will also claim to be the education candidate.)

Of course, talk is cheap. Everybody claims to be pro-children and pro-education. But we need someone with some very good ideas about gaining middle class trust in our schools. We also need someone who is willing to invest more of Richmond’s revenues in public education, rather than freezing the city’s education appropriation for three consecutive years.

If you read Style Weekly, you know that the president of the city’s Council of PTAs, Tichi Pinkney-Epps, has charged that Richmond Public School’s open enrollment policy has created a resegregated school system in our fair city. 2 Ms. Pinkney-Epps’ accusation has ruffled the feathers of School Board member Kim Bridges and of parents of students who use the open enrollment policy to place their children in what are perceived as Richmond’s elite elementary schools. 3 ( Also take a look at the discussion on Near West End News and the comments to Style and the City Schools Stalemate on Carmelized OpiNIONS). Of course, Ms. Pinkney-Epps is not the first person to suggest that the open enrollment policy is unfair. School Board member Keith West has also challenged the fairness of the open enrollment policy. See Mr. West’s statement in Church Hill People’s News.

Ms. Pinkney-Epps' comment has caused divisions within the PTA council and between parents living in different parts of Richmond. It is clear that many people feel threatened by the dispute over open enrollment. It is unfortunate that at a time when we need our “village” to be united in its resolve to make RPS the best school system in Virginia we have this dispute. However, we need to realize that the controversy over open enrollment is a symptom rather than the disease. If we use it to examine the real issues involving schools perhaps we can start working on a cure.

We citizens pay taxes both to the Commonwealth and to the City of Richmond. We expect our tax dollars to be spent wisely by both jurisdictions and we want the public services that our dollars buy to be of high quality. This expectation surely must extend to our public schools. Yet there is a common view in this city that there is a vast difference in the quality of education that our nearly thirty elementary schools provide to our students. Everybody “knows” that children attending Mary Munford or William Fox north of the river or J.B. Fisher south of the river are getting a better quality education than are the students in the rest of our public schools. That is why parents who know about the policy take advantage of open enrollment to try to get their kids into those schools.

I live in Westover Hills, a neighborhood along the south side of the river that extends several blocks both north and south of Westover Hills Boulevard. We have a lovely neighborhood school (Westover Hills Elementary) but few if any children enrolled in that school live in Westover Hills. Parents in the neighborhood are convinced their children cannot receive a decent education in the Westover Hills School. So, if they can afford it they put their kids in private schools or home school them. Or, at great detriment to the City of Richmond, they move to the counties.

In a nearby neighborhood, Woodland Heights, after the School Board closed Patrick Henry Elementary School, parents found their children zoned into either Blackwell or Swansboro elementary schools. Neither of these schools has a good educational reputation, so the parents in Woodland Heights banded together to try to reopen Patrick Henry as a public charter school. Should the School Board not approve the Patrick Henry initiative, I fear that many other city children will be heading for the counties.

Whether it’s justified or not, there are a significant number of Richmond parents who have no confidence in their neighborhood school. (Serving as a Micah volunteer in two schools—Carver and Westover Hills—I know that the lack of confidence is not justified.) We citizens of the Richmond community, whether or not we have children or grandchildren living in the city, cannot just sit around and accept the status quo.

Last October in a letter to the Times-Dispatch and on this blog I suggested that open enrollment in combination with free interzone transportation had resulted in the concentration of middle class children in a few Richmond elementary schools. 4
I urged the School Board to consider eliminating open enrollment.

That was the idealistic side of the maven talking. Since that time, my practical side has been on the ascendancy. For one thing, our dwindling school population has a very detrimental effect on our school financing. As pointed out by the Times-Dispatch in Richmond penalized by Va. aid formula,
the City of Richmond receives less state education payments per student than do our neighboring jurisdictions of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico. The major reason for this disparity is that Richmond has so few children enrolled in its public schools compared to its population and tax base. Thus, under the state’s “composite index of local ability-to-pay,” Richmond appears to “need” less funding per student. If our school enrollment continues to drop, as projected by RPS, we will get less and less money from the state. I believe that without open enrollment many additional parents would take their children out of RPS. For this, and other reasons, the question of open enrollment is not as simple as I said in my letter.

So, dear reader, what do we do about our problem in River City? Last year on this blog I set forth these five suggestions for turning Richmond Public Schools into a world-class education system:

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]f 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 [the business leaders who offered their help in fixing RPS last summer] 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: . . . 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.

This maven has become better educated about the schools since last year, so I’m not sure I would use the same language now. Further, in the eight or nine months since I wrote that piece the School Board and RPS have continued to make considerable progress. However, I do think that my five basic principles—1-treating all students in Richmond as if they were are own children, 2-demanding excellence from all our students, 3-expecting our teachers to use the best teaching methods, 4-responsible budgeting, and 5-accountability—are still applicable.

As a community we must commit ourselves to having a world-class public education system. We must restore parent confidence in our neighborhood schools. Richmond elementary school students must receive an equally high quality education whether they attend Mary Munford on the city’s west or Chimborazo on the east, Linwood Holton on the north or Summer Hill on the south. We must make the open enrollment policy obsolete by eliminating any reason for parents to move their children between schools. We must insist on a school system that is so good that not only will all our current families opt to enroll their children, but also families in the burbs will move back to the city to avail themselves of our schools. (You may say I'm a dreamer. . .)We must settle for nothing less. To become a great city, Richmond must have great schools.

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