Monday, May 19, 2008

School Issues: The Players*

The dispute over whether the Richmond School Board should approve the establishment of a public charter school in the old Patrick Henry building has revealed the schism that exists among the players in the Richmond Public School Game. According to today’s TD, Richmond set to vote on charter school, the proposal is supported by

A very vocal, active group that includes, but isn't limited to, parents of school-age children.”Patrick Henry Charter School Now" signs are prevalent in the areas surrounding the school, but they also can be spotted throughout the city.

It is opposed by

the state's chapter of the NAACP … joining forces with representatives from the Richmond Council of PTAs and the Richmond Education Association.

So, what is it about the Patrick Henry Initiative (PHI) that has Richmond residents so vehemently divided?

I won’t waste your time describing the charter school proposal. It is adequately described in the TD article today and strongly advocated for in yesterday’s op-ed by PHI head Richard Day. (I have given up trying to find an online copy of that piece). Further, I expressed my views on the initiative last month.
Patrick Henry Charter School? What is crucial is that the PHI has made a whole lot of people in Richmond fighting mad (or, perhaps, revealed that they are already mad). On this issue, some people have “drawn their line in the sand” and consider it the “mother of all battles.” Why?

Of the many distinct communities in the city, the two most relevant to this school dispute are the students currently enrolled in our schools (and their parents and advocates) and the pre-school-age children of middle class parents who are not yet enrolled in any school. The children currently in our schools are overwhelmingly African American and about 70% of them receive federally-subsidized lunches in RPS (a clear indication that their parents or guardians have economic difficulties). The not-yet-enrolled children are mostly, but not exclusively, white and their parents are doing well enough economically to have other options than RPS for their education (private schools, home-schooling, moving out of the city).

A basic rule of the Richmond School Game is that a significant portion of the parents in our city do not have confidence that RPS can give their children the excellent education they need to succeed in life. The difference between the two groups is that most of the parents or guardians of the children currently enrolled in our schools have no viable option other than RPS, while the middle-class parents whose children are approaching school age are not “stuck” with RPS.

So, what do the parents, guardians and supporters of our current school population want? They want all of our city schools to provide a first-class education to their students. They want a school system that is racially, ethnically and economically integrated. (They perceive RPS now as racially and economically segregated.) They fear that any initiative or RPS policy that permits parents to choose which schools in the city their children attend will further segregate our schools and will decrease the quality of the education received in the remainder of the schools. They oppose the RPS “open enrollment” policy because they believe it concentrates middle-class, mostly white, children in only three or four of our elementary schools, while leaving the remainder of the schools predominantly black and poor. They think the inevitable result will be that the children not in the favored schools will receive an inferior education. Similarly, they oppose charter schools because they believe they will further segregate the children in our city to the detriment of those students for whom the charter school is not a viable option.

And, the middle-class parents of children approaching their fifth birthday, what do they want? (I will not talk of the parents who have already decided to opt out of RPS when their kids reach school age. We can do nothing to change their minds.) They want as much school choice as possible. For whatever reasons (I have written about this before) they have no confidence in their neighborhood school to provide their children with a quality education. They love Richmond and want to remain in the city. They favor the “open enrollment” policy because it allows them to place their children in Munford or Fox or Fisher or Holton elementary schools, which they see as the only schools that provide a top quality education. They also favor the charter school proposal because they believe it will give them another option for their children. (Of course there is no evidence that the Patrick Henry School, if approved, will actually give students a better education than the neighborhood school. But these parents will support anything they think will give them another option for their children).

People on both sides of the PHI issue are getting frustrated. With frustration comes anger. With anger comes some really inflammatory statements by people on both sides. These statements just raise the anger levels. I see people who I have great respect for saying things that they will probably regret when this whole Patrick Henry thing is over.

Each of us needs to take a couple of deep breaths and let our anger go. We need to realize that all the children in Richmond are in the same boat. We also need to realize that the Richmond School Game is not a zero-sum game. It is not true that if my child gains that your child necessarily loses. We can play this as a win-win game in which all the children in Richmond prosper. We must understand that the people on the other side are not evil. Parents and guardians on both teams in the game only want what is best for their children. We must stop demonizing each other. The futures of all our children are too precious for us to be engaged in a fratricidal war that will harm all of them.

So, everybody “COOL IT!” Let’s deal with these issues in an adult and reasonable manner. The pie is big enough for all our children to get their slice.

* Click here to see the first posting in this series.


Scott said...

Like you, I see both sides of the debate when it comes to the PHSI.

My anger remains with a City leadership (both civic and business) that allows ADA and building maintenance to go underfunded while downtown white elephant corporate welfare deals like the Convention Center expansion and Center Stage continue to cost taxpayers.

Its morally atrocious and irresponsible.

RVA Foodie said...

I appreciate this balancing of the two perspectives here. Neither side is all wrong. It's curious that you posted this at 5pm. Did you not attend the meeting? I was intending to go, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the point would be.

The two sides that you describe BOTH have zero confidence in the elected officials who preside over RPS and yet, they're BOTH urging that same governing body to see things their way. I don't get it. PHCI and NAACP need to unite with the PTAs and force improvement in all of the City's schools.

That said, I'm really not looking forward to the fallout from whatever goes down tonight... watching and waiting for the 11 o'clock news right now.

tiny said...

Maven, I have to agree with you. Unfortunately, the divide and accompanying anger one of the results of the increased attention on RPS. I would like to see more public representatives discuss improving the schools without completely debasing the schools. There has been a lot of progress, though there is still a lot to be made.

I have been shocked at some of the statements I have heard from my peers about RPS. For example, one friend claims that all the No Child Left Behind placements have ruined the city schools and that these children should be placed in a "special" school. Now any child, regardless of his or her grades, is eligible for NCLB. The only requirement is that they are zoned to go to a non-accredited school. So, in essense, this friend believes poor, at-risk children with transportation problems should be relegated to their own special school.

A disappointing, yet more prevelant an attitude than you might want to admit.

Gray said...

You're wrong here: The not-yet-enrolled children are mostly, but not exclusively, white and their parents are doing well enough economically to have other options than RPS for their education (private schools, home-schooling, moving out of the city).

Many of the white parents work and cannot home-school. Many cannot afford private school tuition and why should they leave the city for schooling? Maven they pay property taxes, and high ones at that, and have the right to good public schooling just like everyone else. I'm glad this group has dug in their heels.

Like I've said before, my kids attend RPS and it is not easy.

gray said...

"Like I've said before, my kids attend RPS and it is not easy." I need to add: because of policies coming from downtown and Washington. The staff, parents, and students are great at our neighborhood school.

Bert said...

Gray, you are correct, of course. I was trying to make things overly simple. Obviously, each family is in a different circumstance.

pagalina said...

Hey Maven,
I thought you very sensitively stated the situation but thought I'd give you my perspective as a parent of a not-yet-5 year old.

What do middle-class parents want?

When I look at the schools available to us, I see Westover Hills doing a great job working with kids who may not recognize their own written name when they enter school. Kids whose parents must be struggling to pay all the bills that they may not be able to spend money on books and trips to museums and zoos. And kids with parents who may not have time to read to them or help them write the alphabet.

Clearly Westover Hills is working very hard to give these kids a good education. But they do not have a diverse school body, economically or racially, and with struggling SOLs, do they really have the resources to also attend to the potentially small percentage of children that are better prepared?

I've never felt that RPS was providing a sub-standard education just that with their many social challenges,some schools may not provide the right challenging environment for every child. But through open enrollment, i can send my child to a more diverse school with a very involved PTA and a curriculum that is perhaps less focused on raising the SOL scores of poor performers and can offer language arts and a broader range of extra-curricular activities. Any parent who values education would pursue every single opportunity they can get.

If RPS can figure out how to make every single neighborhood school have these attributes, we'd be there! I don't have any answers how they could do this. You can't force people to send their children to neighborhood schools. You can't bus. You could eliminate open enrollment and then POOF all those middle class families opt out because you took every competitive edge that those schools had away.

Thanks again for a nice piece, just wanted to help paint a more concrete vision of the middle-class folks you profiled.

gray said...

We need to fight for the education our children deserve. It is not easy but it can be done. My first grader needed a challenge and it took three meetings to have her placed in the second grade for math. Before returning to school next fall, I will meet with the counselor again so we can come up with a better education plan for my daughter. I told them at the school that we would be forced to leave if my daughter doesn't receive the challenging education she needs.

Pagalina, the Charter School will be city wide open enrollment. I would imagine some kids will have learning difficulties and disabilities will be discovered.

I will tell you the academic mix in my child's first grade class of sixteen students: 1/3 is behind at various levels, 1/3 is average, and about 1/3 is ahead. Not a bad mix. The trick is finding a good teacher to handle that range and a couple of tutors to help.

Like I said, it is not easy. RPS does need to do much more for the advanced students, the group most often left behind.

gray said...

Oh, one more point: Pagalina, Have you spent time in Westover Hills elementary or taken tours? My kids attend a school with a predominately poor and black population and your decription of this group is full of gross generalizations. Did you know that there is a huge population that falls into the category, "the educated poor?" Keep in mind, that SOL's do not test many talents, intelligence nor creativity. This is why I've been pushing for innovative programs in RPS and why I support the Patrick Henry Charter.

I don't know about Westover Hills and this is where, I believe, Bert has experience that perhaps he could share with us.

pagalina said...

You're much further in the process than I am! It's an education in itself. thanks for the insights!

I remember back to my public school education in Williamsburg when my 4th grade math teacher held us all back to the slowest learners' speed and I had to get tutors and remedial math the following year to catch up, so i definitely hear ya on the skill of each individual teacher.

And I'm not looking for some utopian environment, I hope that there is a range of capabilities and backgrounds. and I fully realize that poor does not equal uneducated. Just as affluent does not equal smart.

It is a shame, though, that in order for your daughter to be challenged you had to skip her up a grade for math. I know that parents must be the advocates for their children's education and have to ensure they are they're getting what they needed, but it makes me wonder.

I base my comments about WO on the SOLs, reduced/free lunches, visits by a friend and a teacher there. (boy the subject of SOLs could be a discussion unto itself!)

Thanks again for the civil discourse. I'd actually love to talk to you more about your experiences with the first couple of years. We're possibly going to have our daughter in pre-k at fisher this fall and will be learning first hand!

gray said...

I hear good things about Fisher. It is actually a school I'm considering for my youngest if Bellevue doesn't follow through with a challenging education plan. My oldest will be going on to private middle school next year. She suffers under being taught to the test and it shuts down her creative side.