Schools


I attended a breakfast meeting this morning sponsored by the non-profit group, Hope in the Cities. The keynote speaker was former Mississippi Governor William Winter, a champion of public education who succeeded in passing major education reform legislation for Mississippi while in office.

Considering the massive political upheaval surrounding everything related to the Richmond Public Schools, Gov. Winter’s visit was timely.

Attendees were very diverse in terms of age, race, and the organizations they represented. City and suburban school districts sent representatives, as did major corporations (e.g. Capital One, Bon Secours), non-profits (e.g. YMCA, Red Cross), and faith-based organizations.

Sadly, out of hundreds of people there, only 1 was an elected official, Sheriff Woody. Considering the theme of the breakfast, Innovating for the 21st Century: Healthy Integrated Public Schools,’ it was disappointing that NONE of our school board officials came, and NONE of the members of city council or county boards of supervisors came.

Considering the distinguished reputation of Hope in the Cities (who’ve been around for almost 30 years and recently helped bring about the reconciliation statue in Shockoe)- and the who’s who of non-elected officials who were there, I was a bit surprised that no elected officials who deal with education were there. Former Richmond Mayor Walter Kinney and former City Manager (and current DC City Manager) Robert Bobb both attended.

Griping about politicians aside, Winter’s address was inspiring.

The main point he made was that until we address the racial divides in our community, we’ll never be able to solve the education problem.

As long as black and white folks live separate lives without coming together for honest conversation about our similarities and our differences, then we will continue living out segregated and isolated lives- in education and in other areas.

People from every walk of life share a common goal: quality education for their children.

Gov. Winter suggested finding ways to come together, across the divides of race, class, and jurisdiction, to achieve that goal.

But as long as we still have racism, racial prejudice, and massive disparities in educational attainment and income which we don’t talk about or address as a community, then we won’t be able to achieve healthy public schools in the Richmond region.

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“I don’t see where that helps a school by combining a school district.” – Robert Setliff, chairman of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors [VIA]

Seriously? Well, perhaps Chairman Setliff needs to read the article in which he was quoted. There he’ll see some research referenced which clearly refutes his baseless claim:

Federal studies show that school systems with more than 50 percent of students reliant on free lunch programs simply do not succeed, Cowles [Executive Director of Richmond-based Initiatives of Change] says. Considering the overwhelming number of city schools that face such a scenario, he says, “the city can’t address it alone.”

So does Chairman Setliff not know that poverty is concentrated in one jurisdiction in our region?

Does Chairman Setliff not know about education research that shows that concentrated poverty has an adverse affect on student academic performance?

Does Chairman Setliff not know how suburban Richmond-area counties actively prevent affordable housing from being built through zoning laws, thus continuing the economic segregation which keeps some jurisdictions saddled with high poverty levels?

Either he doesn’t know these things- and should therefore not be publicly commenting on what helps schools, or he does know these things- and is claiming ignorance in order to prevent change which would benefit our most educationally disadvantaged children.

Either way, it’s a striking statement of ignorance from a highly-place suburban official.

Let’s hope other officials will at least acknowledge the disadvantage created by our unique county-city divisions, even if they don’t intend to change them. Because statements like this obscure the real issue- children are not being served by our current school systems.

According to today’s TD, and the people they’ve interviewed, the Richmond-area education system is a shining example of regional cooperation, “If there’s a regional cooperation model to follow, education leaders say it’s theirs.” School leaders in Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover call efforts “very successful” and “healthy.” Richmond-area schools are the best – at cooperating with each other.

Examples celebrated include substantial achievements, such as Maggie Walker’s Governor School, and pedestrian ones, like matching spring break schedules.

Call me an idealist, or overly critical, or whatever you want, but I’m not impressed. I don’t care how many regional projects we have, as long as the purpose of our education system- children’s educational achievement – does not meet with the same success across the region, then there’s nothing to celebrate.

When the city is saddled with huge concentrations of poverty due to other jurisdictions’ refusal to build affordable housing, how can we celebrate regional cooperation?

When counties are actively promoting fear of the city, by, for example, fighting and refusing bus service because it will give “dangerous” people access to the county (which Chesterfield and Hanover both do), how can we celebrate regional cooperation?

When politicians publicly claim their superiority over other regions, as Henrico Co. manager Virgil Hazlett recently did, how can we celebrate regional cooperation? Hazlett said, “We are the community of choice. Our school system is second to none.” [“Henrico board refuses to fund Varina project,” TD, May 9, ’07 – no longer available on-line];

When there is an enormous achievement gap between children in different jurisdictions, how can we celebrate regional cooperation?

The only reason to celebrate is if you have a stake in maintaining the status quo- which it’s obvious that the counties do since the current system works to keep poor kids out of their schools.

Kudos go to Richmond School Board Chair, Braxton, who urges the region to think about a regionally merged school system. Of course the idea faces intractable opposition from those who like things the way they are:

“[A]ny push toward a regional school system would be left to future generations, Hanover’s [superintendent] Roberson said. ‘I truly believe there’s a healthy level [of regional cooperation] right now, but future opportunities to cooperate regionally are limited only by the imagination.'”

Bottom line, as long as things are working for me and my people, I won’t change. Apparently, we’re happy to let kids suffer from a dysfunctional school system that segregates kids along economic and racial lines, hindering many from achieving their full potential.

That’s not what I’d call “healthy” and “successful.”