Friday, July 18, 2008

Neighborhood Schools: TheThree Ps

The first time I wrote to School Board Chair George Braxton I said,

In the years I have lived in Richmond, I have noticed a very strange demographic pattern. About half the people in my neighborhood are empty-nesters like my wife and me. Most of the rest of my neighbors are young couples, either without children or with pre-school-age children. When children in my neighborhood reach school age, their parents do one of three things: 1- they move out of Richmond to Chesterfield or Henrico counties; 2- they send their children to private school; or 3- they home-school their children. I think that the only children who attend public school are those whose parents cannot afford any of the other options.

Two days each week, I tutor at Westover Hills School. In both of the classes I work in, all the children are African-American. In fact, almost all of the children in the school are African-American. I have looked at the statistics on the Richmond City Public Schools website, and I find that in most of Richmond's public schools African-Americans constitute 80% or more of the student body. My experience, and those statistics, indicates to me that 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.

What I find particularly troubling with regard to Richmond's segregated schools is that no one seems to talk about them. I hear a lot of talk about building new school buildings or how many children are passing SOLs. But nobody talks about whether children can get a quality education in segregated schools. Nobody talks about how to overcome the perception by middle class parents that keeps them from sending their children to Richmond public schools.

I think that not much has changed since I sent that e-letter. I have discovered that there is another tool that middle class parents use to keep their children out of neighborhood schools—Richmond Public Schools’ open enrollment policy. Aside from that, it is still clear to me that the parents living in Westover Hills, my neighborhood, do not send their children to Westover Hills Elementary School, and that the parents in neighborhoods like Stratford Hills and Southampton do not send their children to Southampton Elementary School, their neighborhood school. It seems that the only fourth district neighborhood school that is being used by residents of its neighborhood is Fisher.

About two years ago, Fourth District City Councilperson, Kathy Graziano, invited residents of the Fourth District to “take back our schools.” I had real difficulty with the “take back” language, which I thought suggested that our schools had somehow been stolen from us. Nonetheless, I answered her call and became involved with what became Friends of Fourth District Schools (FoFDS). FoFDS has been quite successful in other aspects, but we still have not cracked the parent confidence problem.

So, what is it that stands between fourth district middle class parents and our neighborhood schools? I have heard—

I don’t want my child to stand out in class because she is different from the other children.

I can’t risk my child’s future on an experiment.

The other children in the class are low achievers. They will bring my child down to their level.

I’m concerned that my child will not be safe in the neighborhood school.

If my child goes to RPS he will never get into a good college.

As a father who has guided all three of his children through public schools (and later through public colleges) in Virginia, I can understand these concerns. The lives of our babies are precious and we want only what is best for them. But, I wonder how many of these concerns are based on reality. I wonder how many parents have even walked into their neighborhood school to see if their fears and concerns are valid. Most important, I wonder whether parents are looking at their neighborhood school with themselves in the equation.

In certain neighborhoods in the city parents have united to make their neighborhood school work for their children. I know, for example, that the parents in my daughter's neighborhood on the north side of Richmond have decided to make Linwood Holton work as their neighborhood school. Now, Holton has become a superior school with a diverse student population. It is working. It is working because of the partnership between the principal of Holton and the parents of the neighborhood.

Recently, at a school board meeting, I spoke with a member of the board from the north side of the river. We spoke about the Patrick Henry charter school and about public schools in general. She asked me why we "south siders" couldn't do what the parents in Munford, Fox and Holton have done. She said that all we had to do was put together a group of determined parents to go into our neighborhood school and simply inform the principal that we were enrolling our children and that we expected him or her to make the education experience work for our kids. We need to enroll several of our children, join the PTA and make sure that the school works for us.

So here is my plan for "Parents Partnering with Principals.” Parents of four year olds who will be starting school in September 2009: form a group and visit Westover Hills or Southampton and tell the principal that you intend to enroll your child in their school. Tell her that you expect that she will do what is necessary to see that your child receives a quality education in her school. I will go with you. I will support you. You parents of three years olds: start doing the same thing. You have an extra year to get things together and make things work. Parents of two year olds: ditto. Join your neighborhood school’s PTA. It is never too early.

What I really don’t understand is what we have to lose. We in Richmond pay a lot more in taxes than our neighbors in the counties, whether we are homeowners and pay tax as part of our monthly mortgage payments or are renters and the cost of the tax is passed on to us by our landlords in our rent. Our tax payments entitle us to certain services from the city, the most important of which is a top quality public education for our children. You parents have chosen to live in the City of Richmond for a reason. Does it make sense for you not to use your neighborhood school? To me it’s like paying to be a member of a swim club and never using the pool. It makes no sense.

Parents have made neighborhood schools work for them in the cases of Munford, Fox, Fisher and Holton. Are we not capable of doing the same thing? Parent, you need to get involved in Friends of Fourth District Schools and work together with other parents. Get your neighborhood association actively involved in making your neighborhood school work. We have three good elementary schools in the fourth district. We can make them even better and we can make them work for our children if we are only willing to try. It’s all a matter of the three P’s: Parents Partnering with Principals.

One more thing, and this is addressed to Richmond’s business community. You need to get more involved in Richmond’s neighborhood schools. I don’t understand how you can expect Richmond to reach its full potential as a great city if we don’t have great schools. How do you expect to attract other businesses to the city? Do you tell them that Richmond is a great place to do business but that their employees need to live in the counties if they want good schools for their children?

And, finally, to those of you in the real estate business: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could start listing houses in Southampton and Stratford Hills and Westover Hills and Forest Hills and other fourth district communities as being within walking distance of great neighborhood schools? Wouldn’t it be nice to start showing these homes to young couples and tell them that the neighborhood is family-friendly because of the neighborhood school? Get involved, you can make it happen.

1 comment:

Paul H said...

Here's my agenda for city schools in a few words.

Empowered Parents + Empowered Neighorhoods = Strong Schools

The same formula works for the city as a whole.

Of course I'm not running.

Good Luck. I think you will find a friend in Lawrence Williams, among others.