Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What I said to the Dems

On Thursday night, the Richmond Democratic Committee is scheduled to endorse candidates for the otherwise non-partisan city elections on November 4. I am hoping that, unlike the other groups that have endorsed candidates in the fourth district school board race, the Democratic Committee will base its decision on who will do the best job for the children of Richmond. Below is the questionnaire from the committee that I submitted.

1. What is your political affiliation?

__X_ Democrat ___Independent ___Republican

2. Why are you seeking the endorsement of the Richmond City Democratic Committee?
I have been a Democrat all my life. (The legend being spread that my parents hung a picture of FDR over my crib may or may not be true.) I grew my political teeth working as a Young Democrat for the Monroe Democratic Club in Brooklyn, New York. I always had the fantasy of running for office, but family responsibility led me to take a job with the Federal Government where political activity is illegal. Now that I have finally become a candidate, it would make things complete if I were running with Democratic endorsement. It would make all those mornings after crying about Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Don Beyer and Mary Sue Terry a little easier to deal with.

3. What do you see as the greatest strength and greatest weakness of Richmond Public Schools?
The biggest success stories in Richmond’s public schools occur within the schools themselves. In the last three years I have seen dedicated, excellent teachers and administrators, working with volunteers from the community, make learning work for children from the a wide range of economic backgrounds. My success stories are the individual students who come to school every day and are thriving in Richmond Public Schools.

The biggest failure of Richmond Public Schools is its continuing inability to convince middle-class parents that their children can receive a quality public education in the City of Richmond. In the Fourth District, where I live, when most middle class children reach school age their parents do one of four things: 1- If they can afford it, they enroll their child in private school; 2- If they can afford it, they choose to home-school their child; 3- If they know the rules of the game, they use Richmond Public Schools’ open enrollment policy to put their kid into one of Richmond’s elite public schools; or 4- They move out of the city. Based on the demographics of my neighborhood, I would say that option 4 is the most popular.

This lack of confidence by middle-class parents is bad both for the school system and for the city. Over the last several years the enrollment in Richmond Public Schools has dropped by an average of 500 students per year. The Superintendent’s proposed budget for 2009 showed this trend continuing into the future. The result has been that we have a student body that is of a lower economic status than the city population as a whole. Further, because most of our middle class parents with young children now live in Chesterfield or Hanover or Henrico, the demographics of the city are becoming distorted. If this middle class bleeding continues the population of the City of Richmond will become divided between only the rich and the poor and only between the young and the old. (For more details see my blog, James River Maven,

4. How can the Mayor, City Council, and School Board work together to improve our schools?
Under state law, responsibility for running the schools is vested exclusively in the school board and the superintendent it hires. The mayor has no formal role. The role of the City Council is to make sure that the school system is adequately funded.

The mayor should function as a cheerleader for and as a marketer of Richmond Public Schools. The mayor should use his political leadership to rally the citizens of Richmond to support a world-class school system for our city. He should offer all his aid and support to the school board and the superintendent. And, if the superintendent or the board are not adequately fulfilling their jobs, he should call them in, with no reporters present, to give them a “pep-talk.”

The Council needs to provide the funding that RPS actually needs, not imposing a ceiling in advance as it has in the recent past. Also, since many of the problems facing Richmond children academically result from problems they face outside of school, the Council must make sure that the City provides adequate services to families so that all our children start school prepared to learn.

The kind of cooperation needed to make sure that RPS works for all children in the city, regardless of their ethnicity or economic situation, requires a mayor, council members and board members who are more interested in getting things done than in satisfying their egos. Next year, it is crucial that all the parties stop playing politics and get on with the task of building new schools and renovating our older schools so that our children can learn in the best environment we can provide for them.

5. What qualifications do you want to see in School Board Chair and Superintendent of Schools?
The chair must be a leader and a uniter. We cannot afford another school board term in which factions on the board are fighting each other to the detriment of our children. We also need nine school board members who understand that they are not always “right” and that governing often means compromise. (I intend to end the Fourth District “monopoly” on board chairs. I will not seek the chair.)

I set forth the qualifications necessary in a superintendent on my blog, James River Maven, last spring. I said:

Our next superintendent must be a leader. The superintendent needs the ability to get the myriad employees of RPS to follow her agenda. She has to be the motivator that gets everyone to work at their full potential. Leadership ability should be demonstrated by success in some leadership position either in academics, business or the military.

Our next superintendent must understand organizations. RPS is often accused of having too much bureaucracy. The superintendent needs to be able to analyze the RPS organization and eliminate those positions that are unnecessary in giving our children an excellent education.

Our next superintendent must be committed to accountability. The attitude of employees in any institution is set at the top. The superintendent must not only be honest himself, but also convey to everybody who works for RPS that their job is a public trust. He must make it clear that he will not tolerate any employee who uses taxpayer money improperly.

Our next superintendent must understand the Richmond problem. A significant number of parents in the City of Richmond have indicated their lack of confidence in RPS by leaving the city to find a better educational opportunity for their children elsewhere. The superintendent must be able to deal with this problem first by making RPS a superior school system and second by convincing parents that their children will thrive here.

Our next superintendent must understand our school population. Seventy percent of RPS students come from families with economic difficulties. The superintendent must understand the challenges that these children face in obtaining their education and must have a plan for how to help them reach their full potential.

Our next superintendent must have a vision for RPS. She must be able to articulate her vision of where she expects RPS to be going in the next two years, the next five years and the next ten years. She must be able to convince the taxpayers that their investment in RPS will pay off in class after class of productive young citizens. She must show us the route to greatness.

Our next superintendent must be a unifier. Making RPS into a world-class educational system requires the participation of teachers, parents, civic and faith groups and the business and academic communities. The superintendent must be able to unite these various stakeholders in a common purpose—the education of our children. He must also be able to work productively with the school board, the city council and our next mayor.

6. What is your number one priority to improve Richmond Public Schools?
Our number one priority must be to stop the abandonment of RPS by our middle class families. This will require us to revitalize our neighborhood schools and to reverse an unfortunate attitude that has arisen with the school choice movement. Traditionally education of our children was an undertaking of the entire community. The community raised the funds, built a school, hired teachers and participated in making sure their children were receiving a high quality education. The community and the school reinforced each other. In my part of town, for example, the Westover Hills neighborhood and the Westover Hills School grew together. Under school choice, however, education has become just another commodity that families “shop” for. If parents are unhappy with their neighborhood school they look elsewhere for their child’s education. In my neighborhood that means that most of them move out of the city.

My goal is to reverse this trend by convincing parents that they have the power to take ownership of their neighborhood school and make sure it works for their children. Just as parents in the Munford, Fox, Fisher, and Holton zones have done, I will work with the parents of the fourth district to reclaim their neighborhood schools as their own. I would also help any other member of the school board to use these tactics in their districts. We can revitalize the city by building stronger communities around our neighborhood schools.

7. What do you propose to do to decrease violence in Richmond Public Schools?
Violence in the schools is not solely an RPS issue. Usually the tendency to violence originates in our neighborhoods and migrates into the schools. Therefore, we need to have a multifaceted approach to solving the problem. First, we need to assure that the RPS “Standards of Conduct” are strictly enforced. We should not tolerate teachers, school administrators or central office administrators who think that enforcement of these standards is optional. Second, we must engage in violence reduction programs in which RPS, Richmond Police Department, other city agencies, private groups like Communities in Schools and outside contractors work cooperatively. We should use as a model the agreement that was entered into this summer by RPS, Richmond Police Department and the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises to establish a Violence-Free Zone Safe School Initiative at George Wythe High School. The Memorandum of Understanding setting up this program can be examined as an attachment to the School Board’s August 4, 2008 agenda. http://www.richmond.k12.va.us/schoolboardnew/index.htm

8. What do you propose to improve the services that the Richmond Public Schools provides to children with special needs?
The first thing we must do is to make all of our school buildings ADA compliant. Too many years have gone by since the court order was issued mandating that RPS do this. Unfortunately, political bickering among the mayor, council and school board has resulted in this objective not being fulfilled. We can no longer delay. Second, we must make sure that RPS is fully compliant with all federal and state requirements in providing services to special needs children. We also have to adopt the attitude that special needs children are entitled to as high a quality education as the other children in our city.

9. What do you propose to increase student achievement in the Richmond Public Schools?
--We must place higher demands on our administrators, teachers and students. As shown in the TD article today on Richmond Community and Open high schools and the Franklin Military Academy, treating the SOLs as minimums rather than as the prime goal of our schools leads to a higher level of student achievement. We must change our curricular emphasis from teaching only the facts required by the SOLs to teaching our children the skills they need to function in our Twenty First Century world. Our children need to be prepared to compete on a global scale. We need to give them the critical thinking skills they need to succeed. Most of the content of what we teach our children today will be just a historic curiosity in fifteen or twenty years. So we have to teach our children how to think, how to gather information, how to make decisions, how to understand that everything is related, how to communicate, and how to relate to a world of different people from different cultures. To accomplish this change we need to provide training to our teachers to equip them to teach with the changed emphasis.

--To further reward our educational professionals, I propose that we consider offering RPS administrators and teachers a pay system in which pay increases are based on performance rather than on college degrees and longevity. Let me be clear, I do not propose that compensation be based on student SOL scores. There are far too many factors other than teacher performance that affect how well students do on SOLs. We need to develop a system in which we can measure how much progress students are making in a particular year by comparing where they are in September to where they are in June. We also need to handicap the system so that teachers in schools with concentrated poverty can compete fairly with teachers in schools that are primarily middle class.

This would be a voluntary system for teachers and administrators working for RPS. Teachers would be given the option of staying in a compensation system based on longevity and degrees or moving to the merit system in which pay raises would not be guaranteed but would be significantly higher than on the longevity scale.

I invite the Richmond Education Association to participate with the School Board in designing this new compensation system. A voluntary system like this was recently implemented in Prince Georges County, Maryland, with the cooperation of its teachers union.

--To assure that children in all neighborhoods in the city receive the same high quality education, I propose the creation of an “Order of Richmond Heroes” composed of high quality teachers who agree to teach in our more difficult schools. We would offer a cash bonus to those teachers who agree to move to these schools and stay there for at least three years. Only teachers who have demonstrated high levels of performance, either in RPS or other school systems, would be eligible to apply.

--To provide school principals with greater incentives, I propose that we experiment with making some of our schools into hybrid schools, being somewhere between regular public schools and charter schools. I envision schools in which principals enter into contracts with RPS to achieve a certain level of improvement over a fixed time period and are given increased independence to achieve that goal. The compensation of participating principals would be based on how well the students in their schools perform.

It may be that the nine members of the School Board will decide not to implement these suggestions. However, we at least need to discuss them. The futures of our children are far too precious to consider any proposal to be “off the table.”

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