Friday, May 30, 2008

A Brazen, Bold-Faced Attempt to Part You From Your Money!

Having analyzed the issue for a while, I have concluded that this maven needs to spend at least twenty thousand dollars to get elected to the Richmond school board. I was told that it costs about five thousand just to send a mailing to every household in the fourth district. If I do that twice, that alone comes to ten thousand. Then, I am told I will need professional-looking glossy two-color literature, lawn signs, bumper stickers, stationery, etcetera and etcetera. (Palm cards ~$500 per thousand; lawn signs ~$500 per hundred; bumper stickers ~$200 per hundred; lapel stickers ~$200 per thousand).

The big problem is that I don’t have twenty thousand dollars. In this day and age, they don’t pay mavens very much. So, I need to raise money. I thought of a car-wash, but since gas is so expensive nobody drives any more. I would sell cookies, but then hundreds of vengeful sprites in green or brown uniforms would picket my house. A yard sale would hardly produce enough. I even thought of calling Hillary for a loan, but I understand she is all loaned out.

With this dilemma, I consulted my guru—“The 21 Most Important Rules for Winning a Campaign” by Steve Grubs. (I don’t know if Mr. Grubs is really a guru, but the book was free.) Rule number 1 is “Send out your family and friends letter.” This is a letter that every candidate should send out to his nearest and dearest begging for their support. The theory is that if people who know you won’t support you then you may have to rethink your decision to run for office. The unwritten subtitle to rule number 1 is “How to antagonize your relatives and end life-long friendships.” But, I will have to take the risk.

Then I thought of you guys out in cyberspace. They say that Senator Obama has raised millions of dollars—one hundred at a time—from his online family. I don’t need millions, but it might just work. So I will modify Mr. Grubs’ rule by sending out this friends and family e-letter.

Beloved reader, I need your help to finance this campaign. If you’ve been reading the maven for even a short while, you know where I stand on the issues (and millions of other things that are totally irrelevant). As I explained recently, I am clearly the best qualified person to represent the children of the fourth district of Richmond on the school board. And, as you know, I am running partly in response to your outpouring of cyber-requests that I do so.

I ask that you donate $100 or more, if you can afford it, or $50 or even $25. Please make out your check to:

Bert Berlin 4 School Board

and send it to

5401 Dorchester Road
Richmond, VA 23225

The election laws of the Commonwealth require that my campaign committee keep records showing the full name, complete mailing address, occupation, and name and location of employer for every contribution received. This information will not be reported if your cumulative contribution is $100 or less for the entire campaign.

Cyber-friends, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, (or at least they would if they were still living), my Maveness thanks you and, most of all, I thank you.

Approved by Bert Berlin 4 School Board

Thursday, May 22, 2008

School Issues: The Children (Part A)

One of the girls I tutor, Squaisha, is making real progress in school (in part, I hope, because I’m her friend). Then, about two weeks ago, just a month before the SOLs, she was not in school. Her teacher told me that she was out because she hadn’t received her vaccinations. By the time she was properly vaccinated, Squaisha missed about eight days of school. SOLs are next week and I am worried about how well she will do. This is the same Squaisha who lives with her grandmother because both her parents “passed.” (I never had the nerve to ask the teacher how Squaisha lost both her parents.) Of course, if Squaisha does not pass her SOLs this year, she will become part of a statistic that shows that Richmond Public Schools does not do as good a job educating its students as do the suburban school systems. It makes this maven angry to think about it.

Let’s look at the statistics from the Richmond Public Schools website. In the school year 2005-06, the most recent year for which statistics are posted, 77% of the elementary school children and 75% of the middle school children in Richmond Public Schools receive federally subsidized meals. (Eligibility for the federal meal subsidy is generally considered an indication that a child comes from a low-income family). The percentage of students receiving subsidized meals in high school dropped to 47%, I assume because many high school students do not eat at school at all.

So, what’s the significance of so many of our children receiving subsidized meals? Last August, in an article in Style Weekly, Don Cowles of Initiatives of Change was quoted as saying that school systems with more than 50% of their students receiving subsidized meals “simply do not succeed.” Well, Richmond Public Schools has a percentage of children receiving subsidized meals considerably higher than 50% and as a system it certainly is succeeding. See Richmond Public Schools are Pretty Damn Good.

Yet, children like Squaisha are struggling. Why? In the April 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Richard Rothstein says,

If you send two groups of students to equally high-quality schools, the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement than the more fortunate group.
Why is this so? Because low-income children often have no health insurance and therefore no routine preventive medical and dental care, leading to more school absences as a result of illness. Children in low-income families are more prone to asthma, resulting in more sleeplessness, irritability, and lack of exercise. They experience lower birth weight as well as more lead poisoning and iron-deficiency anemia, each of which leads to diminished cognitive ability and more behavior problems. Their families frequently fall behind in rent and move, so children switch schools more often, losing continuity of instruction.
Poor children are, in general, not read to aloud as often or exposed to complex language and large vocabularies. Their parents have low-wage jobs and are more frequently laid off, causing family stress and more arbitrary discipline. The neighborhoods through which these children walk to school and in which they play have more crime and drugs and fewer adult role models with professional careers. Such children are more often in single-parent families and so get less adult attention. They have fewer cross-country trips, visits to museums and zoos, music or dance lessons, and organized sports leagues to develop their ambition, cultural awareness, and self-confidence.
(To access Mr. Rothstein’s article, go to the ASCD website.)

As Dr. James Cruppi stated in his report to the greater Richmond business community last November,

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. . . . Were these problems in the counties, the schools would also have problems.

The fact is that children like Squaisha come to school carrying terrible baggage. That she is doing well (at least until the fiasco of her missing inoculations) testifies to her remarkable determination to succeed. As I pointed out last fall,

It is clearly not [the] fault [of our students] that they come to the race with a ball and chain around their ankles. I see these children every week and almost all of them are eager to learn and they are making remarkable progress despite the difficulties of their lives. They have dedicated, hard-working teachers. Their schools are run by competent, demanding principals.

Considering that so many of our children live in poverty, it is not so surprising that they do not score as well on SOLs as students with more affluent parents living in the suburbs.* Further, since parents with children approaching school age compare the SOL scores of city and suburban schools they conclude that the city schools are simply not as good.

If is very important to realize, however, that SOLs measure the progress of students, not schools. No school takes SOL exams. Only students do. If students in city schools do not perform as well as students in suburban schools, it does not necessarily mean that the city schools are not as good. As pointed out by Mr. Rothstein, above, if you send two groups of children to schools of equal quality, “the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement” than will the group without such disadvantage.

I would love to do an experiment. I would love to exchange the student populations of a school in the city and a school in the suburbs. (We wouldn’t tell the parents about the experiment so that their behavior towards their children would not change.) Every day for an entire school year I would bus the suburban kids to the city school and the city kids to the suburban school. The school buildings, administrators and teachers would stay with the original school. I bet that at the end of that year, the suburban kids, now in the city school, would be outperforming the city kids, now in the suburban school. I would make that bet because I am convinced that the disadvantages with which many of our low-income students start school stay with them throughout their educations. Likewise, the advantages that more affluent students carry with them into kindergarten stay with them throughout their educations. Of course, we can never do that experiment and so we will never know whether I would win my bet.

Many of the children who attend Richmond Public Schools have problems that the schools are simply not equipped to deal with. To expect our schools to fix these children’s lives is unreasonable. The entire Richmond community must dedicate itself to improving the lives of our low-income children before they are enrolled in school, thus enabling them to begin their formal education with learning skills equal to their more affluent classmates. This will require us to address some of the issues raised by Dr. Cruppi in his report. Remember, Dr. Cruppi titled the section of his report dealing with RPS “Give Richmond Public Schools a ‘Product’ They Can Work With.”

Does this let RPS off the hook? Definitely not. As I stated when I announced my candidacy for the school board, we must demand excellence from our all students, teachers and administrators. We must not allow the disadvantage that some students have when they enroll in RPS to become an excuse. We need to set high expectations for all our children and then help them to meet these expectations. We may need to consider such options as city funded pre-kindergarten for all children, adding time to our school day for additional learning, offering “signing bonuses” to attract high quality teachers to the schools where our low-income students are concentrated.

All of these options will be costly. However, our children have only one life. Can we deprive them of the quality education that they need because it is too expensive? All of us in the Richmond community must commit ourselves to making sure that all of our children will succeed.

*I realise that many children from low-income backgrounds enter school with all the learning skills they need and achieve at a level equal to more affluent children. The comments in the Cruppi report and the observations by Mr. Rothstein apply to low-income children in general.

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.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Is the Press the Enemy?

In his book “Hardball” (wouldn’t that make a great name for a TV talk show?) CNN commentator Chris Matthews gives advice to politicians. He titles one chapter in the book “The Press is the Enemy.” In it he explains that politicians must be wary of the press because their objectives are not the same. The objectives of politicians are to get elected (or reelected) and to implement their policies. The objective of the press, however, is to publish a good story. The press is not concerned with whether politicians are elected or implement their policies unless, of course, it makes a good story. Therefore, the politician can never trust the press.

We in River City have seen recently how cautious public figures need to be in dealing with the press. Back in March, City Council member Ellen Robertson was reported in Style Weekly as accusing Richmond Chief Administrator Sheila Hill-Christian of being a criminal. The story caused Mayor Doug to strap on his six-guns and turned out to be embarrassing for Ms. Robertson, Ms Hill-Christian and the mayor. But it was a great story. Also, a few weeks later, Style Weekly highlighted a disagreement between school board member Kim Bridges and PTA council president Tichi Pinkney-Epps. It also made a great story, but both Ms. Bridges and Ms. Pinkney-Epps came out of the whole thing pretty bruised up.

Devoted reader, you may also remember that in January this maven accused the broadcast media of managing the news in such a way as to bolster the campaigns of Senators Clinton and Obama and downplay the campaigns of the other candidates.
Choosing the President: It’s the Media, Dummy.

I was thinking about these things when I looked at today’s Times-Dispatch. As I expected the main article was about Mayor Wilder’s decision not to run for re-election. Wilder will not run for re-election. Right in the second paragraph was this statement,

Corporate lawyer Robert J. Grey Jr. is being mentioned as a likely candidate to run as heir to Wilder's vision of a strong mayor to lead city government.

I’m sorry! I have been watching the mayoral race from my observation post high above the mighty James River and I haven’t heard anything about Robert Grey. I’ve heard about Paul and Dwight and Jackie (who was in and out of the race without even splashing) and there are a few interesting other candidates. I also expect that City Council President Bill will be jumping in the pool soon. But Robert? Where did Robert come from? And what does “being mentioned as a likely candidate” mean? Can it be that our beloved metropolitan daily is the one doing the mentioning? Would the TD manage the news to encourage the candidacy of Mr. Grey?

And… Three weeks ago George Braxton announced that he was not running for reelection to the school board and on the very same day my secret identity announced he was running for the vacant seat. (I will not suggest that the timing was a coincidence). I sent an electronic copy of my announcement to all the local news outlets including the Richmond Free Press. The next issue of the Free Press reported Mr. Braxton’s announcement and said that no candidate had announced for Mr. Braxton’s seat. It also said that sources suggest that a former member of the school board would make a good replacement for George. Now, I cannot prove that the Free Press actually received my announcement before it reported that there was no announced candidate for the seat. But, just maybe, it was managing the news in suggesting its own candidate for the school board vacancy.

So, is the press the enemy, as Chris Matthews suggests? Trusted reader, I leave it to you to decide.

The Next Superintendent

Saturday, will be the second of four meetings the school board is holding to get citizen input on the search for our next Superintendent of Schools. So, I’ve been thinking about the kind of person we need to lead Richmond Public Schools. I think I know what I would like to see in a Super-superintendent. In the real world, however, we may have to settle for less.

As a prologue—

We have to think of Richmond Public Schools as a manufacturing business. At one end we take in young minds ready to learn; at the other end we produce young men and women who are prepared to deal with their life goals, whether in college, in the business world or in the military. In thinking of RPS as a business we need to look at the taxpayers of Richmond and the Commonwealth as the shareholders. These shareholders invest their tax dollars and realize their “profits” in the satisfaction that they have prepared a future generation to take up the baton. Like all businesses, the workers of RPS, from the superintendent to support staff in each school, are accountable to the shareholders for their performance. The business analogy must take into account the uniqueness of the “product” that RPS is producing. In addition to the taxpayer-shareholders our school system must also be accountable to the children, whose precious lives we have in our care.

Therefore, in no particular order—

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.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mayor Wilder

Mayor Wilder has finally seen the pink slip I sent him1 and has announced that he will give up City Hall at the end of his term. On the Times-Dispatch website there were tons of emails from readers either condemning Mr. Wilder or praising him. This maven will not join the crowds.

I praise Mr. Wilder for his decision. I know it wasn’t easy for him. I also praise Mr. Wilder for his accomplishments while mayor. I wish him the best in his remaining months as our chief executive. I also wish him the best in his re-retirement.

Let’s get on with picking his successor.

Pick Me! Pick Me!

Well, treasured reader, I found out that I will have an opponent in my school board race. So it is time to explain why the voters of the fourth district should vote for me rather than “the other guy.”

1- I have life experience. I have raised three children, all of whom are products of public schools. I’m not sure that aging necessarily brings wisdom, but I’ve had lots of years to learn.

2- I am deeply committed to public education. It is the great equalizer. It is the one institution in our country that is designed to assure that all of our young people have an equal chance to see their life goals fulfilled.

3- I have two granddaughters who live in Richmond and who will be students in Richmond Public Schools. I thus have a personal stake in assuring that RPS becomes a world-class school system.

4- I have spent lots of time in Richmond’s schools. I have worked with principals and teachers and students and I understand the issues they deal with every day.

5- I spent most of my career working for the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO). The concept of accountability to the taxpayers has become part of my being. I will instill a sense of accountability in all RPS officers and employees.

6- I’m retired. This will enable me to devote most of my time to RPS. If you elect me, you will be getting a real bargain.

7- My faith has given me a strong commitment to social justice. I see providing a quality education to all our children as something worth fighting for.

8- I am a uniter. I will work to get all the stakeholders in RPS—teachers, parents, civic and faith groups, the business and academic communities—to understand that they are all in the same boat and must work together for the good of our children. I will convince parents in all economic circumstances that they are not adversaries fighting for a limited piece of the education pie.

9- I have no higher ambitions. I am not running for school board as a stepping stone to City Council or mayor or the General Assembly. Providing a world-class education for all our children is my only goal.

10- I have come to love the City of Richmond. I have no desire to move anywhere else. I understand that Richmond can never be a great city unless it has great schools. Therefore, I dedicate myself to achieving that goal.

11- I understand that politics is the art of getting things done. The word “compromise” is part of my vocabulary. I also understand that I do not have all the answers. I will work well with all the members of the school board.

12- I am impatient. I am tired of continuous discussions and planning. We know what has worked in other schools systems. It’s time to stop planning and start acting.

So, there is my not-so-dirty dozen. I hope that the citizens of Richmond will see that I am clearly more qualified for the school board than Brand X. I urge them to join me in my campaign for our children.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

America’s Disease

I was particularly upset to read the article in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause. It seems that people campaigning for Senator Obama throughout our fair land have been experiencing some really nasty racist sentiment. They have been greeted with “raw racism and hostility”. They have been called racially derogatory names (I assume using the N word), and have “endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping” from people who are not happy that Senator Obama, a black man, is a leading candidate for the presidency. The article indicates that some Obama workers have heard statements like “"Hang that darky from a tree!" or "White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people." This is happening in the United States of America in the twenty-first century. It does not make me feel warm and fuzzy.

Obviously, I have neither the band width nor the time to thoroughly discuss race relations in America. (Hey, I’ve got a political campaign to run.) Nor can I discuss the other “ism” that has been demonstrated in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that Post commentator Marie Coco discusses in her op-ed today Misogyny I Won’t Miss.
But, I would like to talk a bit about the strangeness of America’s obsession with the color of people’s skin. Actually, if it weren’t so tragic, it would almost seem comical. Here we are engaged in a struggle for national survival (let us not forget that there are people out there who want to destroy us), on a planet that is experiencing monumental climate change that will vastly change the quality of our lives, and we are concerned with the amount of melanin people have in their skin.

Discrimination based on pigmentation seems so strange. When driving in a rural area I sometimes notice that farms have cattle of different colors grazing in the same field. It gets me wondering whether the black cattle notice that the brown and white cattle look different, or do they just see each other’s “cattleness.” Hey, my dog doesn’t seem to notice that other canines are of different breeds. To her a dog is a dog. Yet for we humans skin color is of monumental importance. Right here in the land of the free and the home of the brave we kept millions of people in slavery for two and a half centuries based on the fact that their skin was darker than those of us whose ancestors came from Europe. For another hundred years our “white” majority maintained a system of separation and discrimination, again based on skin color. How strange!

The inanity of our color bias was amply demonstrated by the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” televised back in 1969. The Enterprise discovers and takes on board Lokai, a political refugee from the planet Cheron. Lokai is a humanoid, but his body is half white and half black. Later, Bele, also from the planet Cheron and also half black and half white comes on board the Enterprise. He has been chasing Lokai across the galaxy for about 50,000 years. As the story develops we learn that on Cheron one group of black and white humanoids is fighting another group of black and white humanoids. When Captain Kirk makes the mistake of indicating to Bele that he and Lokai look the same to him Bele points out, "Isn't it obvious? Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side." Eventually, the Enterprise goes to the planet Cheron to discover that all its residents have been destroyed in a war between the white-on-the-rights and the black-on-the-rights. Lokai and Bele are the only survivors of their planet. Rather than learning a lesson from the genocidal war that has destroyed their world, Lokai and Bele teleport down to Cheron to continue the battle.

Dark skin – light skin, does it really matter? Regardless of what the cattle or my dog notices, we humans do notice a person’s pigmentation when we first meet them. I know that when I encounter a person I cannot help but notice both their gender and the color of their skin. Is this something that is genetically programmed in us? I have watched this phenomenon in my four-year old granddaughter. She notices that some people have darker skins than she does. But, I’m not sure it is particularly important to her. She likes dolls and, once while shopping at Target, she informed us that she wanted a brown doll. She doesn’t seem to treat her brown doll any differently than her other dolls. So maybe pigmentation discrimination is not something we are born with. As Oscar Hammerstein pointed out so eloquently in South Pacific,

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

The United States has probably the most racially conscious society in the world. Our governments even require us to identify ourselves by our race. I’m not exactly sure why the federal or Commonwealth government has a right to know whether you and I are white or black or American Indian or Asian or Hispanic, but they are always asking. I don’t cooperate with such labeling. When I fill out a government form that asks me to pigeonhole myself, I always check the “other” box and write in the word “American.” It’s a very small step of civil disobedience but I think it’s necessary.

Well, dear reader, I don’t really know where to take this missive. Having reached my political awareness in the 1960s, I have always been inspired by the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., that some day his children would be judged by the strength of their character not the color of their skin. Unfortunately, Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled. I think that there are too many people in our country who have too much invested in pigmentation consciousness to ever let it go. For some black people and some white people there must be a level of comfort in maintaining a society in which skin color really does matter. I hope that I live long enough to see Dr. King’s dream of a color-blind America fulfilled. But, I doubt it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Let’s Talk IB

Yesterday’s Times-Dispatch article about International Baccalaureate programs in the Richmond area (A world of satisfaction ) was enlightening but it only looks at a part of the picture. It looks at IB only as an honors program for gifted children and therefore misses what is best about IB.

The International Baccalaureate Organization offers three different programs. The Diploma Program, for high school juniors and seniors, is the program that generally gets the most attention. The Diploma Program offers college-like courses for students and, like AP courses, its students often receive college credit for the IB courses they complete. Certainly, the Diploma Program should be considered an honors program. It requires students to complete an extended essay project, to study the interdisciplinary Theory of Knowledge, and to participate in creativity, action, service (CAS), which “encourages students to be involved in artistic pursuits, sports and community service work.”

The IB Middle Years Program (MYP) is designed for students in middle school and the first two years of high school. Although in Richmond Public Schools the MYP program is viewed as an honors program, that is not its intent. The MYP uses a different approach to learning that exposes students to eight different subjects taught through five areas of interaction. The MYP encourages students to be “independent thinkers” who

can recognize relationships between school subjects and the world outside, who can adapt to new situations and combine relevant knowledge, practical and social intelligence to solve authentic problems alone or in groups.

I am most familiar with the MYP at Langston Hughes Middle School and South Lakes High School in Fairfax County. Unlike the MYP in Richmond at Lucille Brown Middle School, all students at Hughes are IB students. There are no admissions tests, comparison of SOL scores, teacher recommendations. Enrollment is not limited to 50 students. There is no separate school-within-a-school. Every child living in the Hughes school zone becomes an IB student upon enrolling at Hughes. They remain IB students through the ninth and tenth grades at South Lakes High School. Because of this “whole-school” approach, all students in the Hughes-South Lakes MYP benefit from the IB program. It seems clear that the MYP is working quite well. In the five years since the MYP has been fully functional for all students at Hughes-South Lakes student achievement, especially among minority students, has improved considerably.

I understand that the whole-school approach to implementing the MYP is the way things will go in the future. The school-within-a-school model, like that at Lucille Brown, is no longer favored by the International Baccalaureate Organization.

The third IB program is the Primary Years Program (PYP). The PYP is intended for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. The PYP

curriculum framework consists of five essential elements: concepts, knowledge, skills, attitude, action. The knowledge component is developed through inquiries into six transdisciplinary themes of global significance, supported and balanced by six subject areas.

The six themes are 1- who we are, 2- where we are in place and time, 3- how we express ourselves, 4- how the world works, 5- how we organize ourselves, and 6- sharing the planet. As is the MYP, the PYP is intended to be a whole-school rather than an honors program.

Last summer I was fortunate to share dinner with faculty of an elementary school located in Athens, Georgia. Their description of their school population closely resembled the populations of many of Richmond’s elementary schools. They told me that before becoming an IB school most of the children in the school were not meeting state-mandated standards. Under the PYP, student achievement in the school improved significantly. So, at least in that school, the PYP was successful.

None of the IB programs are cheap. For the PYP, as of the beginning of this year, the fee for the first two years (when the school is in the application process) is seven thousand dollars per year. After that the annual fee is five thousand dollars per year so long as the school is a PYP school. In addition to the fees, the IB school must bear the cost of faculty training and of a program-coordinator faculty position.

Thank you to TD reporter Zachary Reid for his wonderful article. Now you know the rest of the story.

For more information on IB, see

Richmond’s Edifice Complex

I am a product of a public elementary, junior high and high school education. My elementary school, called by the picturesque name Public School 219, had a building that was about thirty years old. It was not air conditioned and we attended school through the last week in June. I went on to Arthur S. Somers Junior High School. Its building was also about thirty years old and was not air conditioned. I then attended Stuyvesant High School. The building was more than fifty years old and ditto on air conditioning. In those three school buildings, none of them new, I received a first-rate education that prepared me for college and then law school.

Last week, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. On the street known as the Royal Mile was located Milton House Public School. I saw a class of students at recess enjoying the rather moderate playground. They looked none the worse for attending school in a building that is at least one-hundred years old. I assume they probably don’t need much air conditioning in Edinburgh.

Here in Richmond, things are different. We have no appreciation for old school buildings. In fact, we have a mayor who withheld funding from Richmond Public Schools because the school board was not closing our older schools fast enough. In Edinburgh, a mayor who proposed closing old school buildings would probably be run out of town. In River City we have a lot of other people who think that tearing down old schools and replacing them with new ones will automatically improve the education that our children receive. Same children, same principals, same teachers, same budget, same curricula, but if we build new school buildings the quality of the public education that we give our children will miraculously jump to world class. Or, so the belief goes.

Monday I was in Carver Elementary School. It was constructed and expanded over many years and in walking through the building it is fairly easy to see the parts of the school that were built in different years. But, I don’t see any indication that the children who are located in the newest section of the school are receiving any better educations than those who attend classes in the older parts. Today, I was in my neighborhood school, Westover Hills Elementary School. There’s a plaque in the lobby that indicates that the school was built in the mid 1950s, about the same time as my house. (I find the plaque particularly fascinating because it indicates that future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was chairman of the Richmond School Board when the school was built.) Although Westover Hills also appears to have been built in sections at different times, there is no apparent difference in the quality of the education received by children in newer or older classrooms. I’ve been in Armstrong High School (newer) and Huguenot High School (older.) Perhaps Armstrong looks a bit better than Huguenot, but there is no evidence that Armstrong students are better educated than Huguenot students.

I must admit that I haven’t been in most of Richmond’s school buildings. There may be schools in the city that are old and poorly-maintained and that may detract from the ability of students to learn. Those school buildings need to be either repaired or replaced.

But, to close and replace school buildings merely because they are old seems a particularly American thing. In this country we don’t build anything to last. Think of our beloved City Hall right here in River City. A few months back we read all those reports of how it was falling apart and we would have to pay big bucks to repair it. The attitude of the pols and of our great metropolitan daily was “what do you expect, it’s forty years old.” Forty years old? Do we build things so poorly in Richmond that they are falling apart after only forty years?

But Maven, in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico, they’re constantly building new schools. Don’t our children deserve new schools too?

Trusted reader, Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties are experiencing rapid increases in their school populations. They need new schools just to serve the many new children enrolling in their schools each year. In Richmond, our school population is shrinking. We don’t need additional schools to house new enrollment. Besides, you may not have noticed it, but Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties have broader tax bases to pay for these new schools than we do in the city.

Maven, the new schools will be built using City of the Future money. So, why should we object to building as many new schools as we can?

Oh, gullible reader. You’ve been misled into believing that somehow City of the Future money is free. It may serve the mayor and other pols to brag about all the recreation improvements and new schools that City of the Future has or will give us. But as Robert Heinlein put it, TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). The financial institutions which are providing funding for City of the Future projects are not making gifts to the city. They fully expect that their loans to the City of Richmond will be repaid with interest. So what may appear to be free school buildings or playgrounds or tennis courts are improvements that you and I, or whoever lives in Richmond in the future, will have to pay for.

Are you saying that you oppose new school buildings?

No, not at all. What I’m saying is that what goes on inside our school buildings is far more important than the buildings themselves. Our priority must be to spend money on those things that improve the quality of the education that our children receive. If there are school buildings that are so dilapidated that our children cannot possibly learn in them, we must repair those buildings or, if they are beyond repair, replace them. But we must not allow ourselves to believe that new school buildings will fix everything that ails RPS. We also need to understand that new buildings will not be free.

Maven, do children in Edinburgh really attend such an old school?

Oh, yes, dear reader. Take a look.

One more thing. I checked on the web and my elementary school, now named the Kennedy-King School, and my junior high school, now an intermediate school, are still educating children in those same buildings, now more than seventy years old. Stuyvesant High School, after educating students in the same building for nearly ninety years, has moved to a new facility.

So, Richmond, let’s show our older school buildings a little respect. And, let’s get our priorities straight. Let’s make sure that we pay our principals and teachers enough to make sure that we keep and attract the most talented people out there. Let’s make sure that our children have the technology to learn to live in the twenty-first century. Let’s make sure that all our children start school with the skills they need to succeed. Let’s all join together to make sure that Richmond Public Schools works for every child living in our city.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Been?

Trusted reader, if you know the next line to the above nursery rhyme you know where the maveness and me were for the last ten days. I know that I haven’t written anything during those days and I apologize. I was in a state of radio silence.

Although ostensibly we were on a pleasure jaunt, my trip actually involved a secret mission to Her Majesty Queen Liz. Considering how badly our presidential election process was going this year, I felt that it was time to face the facts—our experiment in self government was just not working. So, I traveled carrying a petition to the Crown stating that despite all that “when in the course of human events” stuff, we were not making a go of it and we wanted her to take us back as colonies.

After entering Buckingham Palace through an underground secret entrance I was ushered into the Queen’s private dining room. Apparently she was just back from Scotland because she was eating haggis and eggs. She asked me to join her, but I couldn’t get past the thought of eating disgusting parts of a dead sheep. After reading my petition and consulting with Prince Philip, she gave me her answer—

We love you Americans very much but you can’t come back. We have enough political problems of our own. Besides which, we have converted your bedroom into an office and there is no place for you to sleep.

So, with our diplomatic mission at a standstill, the missus and I toured London and then went up to Edinburgh to see how that haggis stuff (and single malt whiskey) is made. After a brief drive to St. Andrews to see the place where they started hitting the ball with a club, it was off to the airport and our flight back to Virginia.

Despite the now public failure of our secret mission, it is great to be back in Richmond, USA. Anything meaningful happen while we were gone?