Thursday, March 13, 2008

Style and the City Schools Stalemate

Can we talk about the City schools stalemate? This week's Style cover story certainly shone a light on the policies and practices that have perpetuated our city's ongoing gridlock where public education is concerned. (full discloser: I have volunteered a bit with the Build Schools Now initiative and will probably continue to do so).

In the story, we see Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, the president of the Richmond City Council of PTAs maligned for pushing obstinate officials to do better for Richmond's children. We see PTA groups pitted against each other for existing in a modern-day version of a separate/unequal school system. We see children receiving the misguided punishment of frustrated administrators. And, we don't see nearly enough about the need to change the systemic pattern of neglect in the significant portions of Richmond where poverty is rampant; neglect: between parent and child, parents and teachers, local government and low-income citizens, and between citizens with common interests. It's a vicious downward spiral of suspicion and simmering hostility that keeps our city in a constant state of toxicity.

Seriously, read that Style piece and see if you learn something, get mad about behind the scenes behaviors, or the misdirected focus on infighting, and an overall lack of hope. Take your pick of an issue. I think this story warrents your attention, speculation, and participation. And, in lieu of hope, maybe there is inspiration to act. We can pick apart the story, the actors in the drama, or their charicterization, and we can update the story with recent developments. I'm interested, not as an expert or an insider (I'm neither), but because I've got a kid on the way and I want him to feel good about my public school options. I'm not hoping to use this space to put my platform forward (although I hope to voice some more opinions in the comments section). I'd rather see some dialgue among those who've read the article and care about our schools and our city.

Richmond, the ball is in your court.
More required reading: James River Maven's Letter to the Mayoral Candidates


  1. Okay, I'll start it off.

    Tichi is pictured with the title "The Insubordinate." Does it strike you as a little odd that someone whose role is to advocate is considered insubordinate for doing her job? Is it the newspaper labeling her or is it the political leadership? Either way, is it right or productive? Would she be doing right be the citizens if she sat in silent deference to the wisdom of the Mayor, Council, and the School Board? If there is an implicit heirarchy in our political playing field, where do you put Tichi and where do you put the kids who attend RPS schools in that flow-chart?

  2. Utopian solution: Parents must somehow break free of the mindset of corporal punishment and negative reinforcement as the foundations of childrearing. Then they should become very involved in their children's schools. Making demands of the system as involved, positive parents and citizens will work, even taking charge of matters is possible.

  3. Bert Berlin3:29 PM

    Look, the only thing that really counts is the kids. We have a responsiblity to offer a first-class education to all school- age children in the city.
    I think that all the adults have to take a deep breath, control their tempers, and get on with the job of perfecting our schools.
    I won't criticize Style Weekly. It does a good job in a city that lacks a great metropolitan daily. But, Style has been at the center of two big fights in the past week. When it reported that City Council member Ellen Robertson had suggested that city CAG Sheila Hill-Christian was a criminal, our beloved mayor became a gun-toting sheriff defending Ms. Hill-Christian's honor. Now, Style has brought the dispute between Tichi Pinkney-Epps and school board member Kim Bridges to the center of public attention. I'm not qualified to lecture Style on journalistic standards, but it would probably be a lot better for the citizens of Richmond if Style reporters discouraged public figures in Richmond from airing their dirty laundry on its pages. A private verbal dispute between two people can be settled by an appology and a hug. Once it's in the papers, however, it moves toward being a feud.
    Back in October, I wrote a letter to the Times-Dispatch suggesting that the combination of free bus transportation and the open enrollment policy had encouraged segregation in the city's schools. I thought that the majority of Richmond parents who took advantage of these policies moved their children into the "elite" elementary schools Fox, Mumford and Fisher. I expanded on my views in my blog. So, Tichi is not the only person in the city who is troubled by open enrollment.
    Ideally, all the schools in Richmond should provide the same high quality education to all our students. If parents perceived their neighborhood school as a great school, they would have no need to take advantage of open enrollment. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. We need to face the fact, as I pointed out in the letter you so graciously cited at the end of your post, that the vast majority of white, middle-class parents in the city of Richmond do not send their children to Richmond Public Schools. (Pardon me for the reference to race.) And, the minority that do send their kids to RPS do not use their neighborhood school.
    I live in Westover Hills, south of the river. Our local school is Westover Hills Elementary School. The fact is that few, if any, of the children enrolled at the school live in the Westover Hills neighborhood. The parents living in our neighborhood choose one of the four options I pointed out in my letter when their oldest child reaches school age.
    Two weeks ago, more or less, the TD reported that the City of Richmond receives less state education money per student than do the surrounding counties. To me this is outrageous and the formula for measuring jurisdictional needs has to be amended. However, Richmond receives less aid from the Commonwealth because we have so few children attending public school compared with our tax base. As the exodus of middle-class families from the city continues, Richmond will do worse and worse on the state's "Composite Index of Local Ability to Pay." It is vital that we in the Richmond community find a way to stem or reverse this desertion by our middle class.
    As I said in an e-mail to Tichi:
    "The question of open enrollment is not as simple as I said in my letter and blog. We do not have a situation where open enrollment allows parents to concentrate the children who are already in the system into one or two schools. Rather, we have a situation in which children would not even be in the system unless there were open enrollment. I can try and convince my neighbors that their white children can get a quality education in our neighborhood school (Westover Hills). But if they tell me that they don't want their children in a classroom where there are so many poor children (in their minds poor = low achievement) and that they will move out of the city unless they can send their children to a school in which a significant proportion are 'like them,' what am I to say? Do I simply accuse them of being racists? That would accomplish nothing. If it is our intent to make RPS a viable choice for educating the children of all our residents, we might have to bend a little. If people in my neighborhood say they will only send their children to RPS if they are allowed to put them in Mumford or Fox or Fisher, should we say 'no, you must send them to Westover?' Concentrating middle class children in a few school does not have an adverse effect on the students in the local school, because there is no way that those students would be attending that school anyway."
    We can fix Richmond's schools if we unite as a community and forget our egos. I realize that dealing with our school system can be frustrating and that frustration often leads to anger. However, fighting with each other accomplishes nothing. We must transform Richmond Public Schools into a world-class school system. We must end up with neighborhood schools so good that families move back to the city to take advantage of them.

  4. I'm tempted to contact my School Board rep and ask her to come out against Kim Bridges' interference with the school PTAs. Public officials should not be starting fights between civic groups. That's not leadership or problem solving. It's playground behavior that would probably get Ms. Bridges suspended under the zero tolerance rule.

    So, I guess I disagree with Berlin/Maven there (but not on much else). It should be in Style, but it shouldn't be the focus of a profile of Pinkney-Eppes, who has gone to great lengths to push our representatives to cooperate and make progress on a better school system FOR EVERYBODY. In other words, Tichi has stuck her neck out for the kids and we should stick our neck out for her if political forces are mobilizing for retrobution.

  5. Stakolee,

    Problem is in our school system there often are no parents and punishment is carried out in the neighborhood.

  6. I don't think student discipline is the problem here. I think government discipline is.

    Right now the City of Richmond is running afoul of federal ADA law. Its acting in an ILLEGAL and IMMORAL manner when it does not properly fund ADA improvements to RPS.

    And its not just ADA. One of my coworkers who mentors at one RPS school was shocked when a teacher told a student to hold his bowel movement because "the pipes have not been fixed yet". The fact is, too many RPS buildings are in horrible shape from lack of maintenance and infrastructure repair.

    I find it appalling that the Mayor, City Council, and business leaders push through a special deal for the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation/Center Stage project that applies millions and millions of taxpayer dollars without having them answer to even FOIA requests, yet later shortchange ADA and capital building & maintenance budget for RPS.

    Pardon my french, but that's a really shitty City of the Future plan, one that will eventually get Richmond sued AGAIN for inadequate school buildings.

    I would like to see Build Schools Now work. I would like to see green and solar schools built. I would like to old but worthy schools renovated for energy conservation, with savings applied to future budgets. Some schools will need to be closed for smaller student population and the proceeds from the sales of those sites should also be used for future budgets.

    In fact, I have already suggested closing Community High and renovating Open High:

    Will ADA and new, renovated school buildings solve all of RPS' problems? No. But it is the right, legal thing to do. It is the highest priority and ignoring it is really screwing up the city.


  8. I think we can really make a laundry list of local government dificiencies. And I can always count on you, Scott, to work in the Performing Arts Center, ADA, and green schools; all really good examples of misalligned priorities on our officials' part.

    My question for all of you is, what is the effect of the Style article? Do you think that the article points to Tichi's "insubordination" as the problem? Is it zero-tolerence policies that hold the schools back? Imbalance between rich/poor black/white schools? Elected official infighting? How does the article speak to YOU?

  9. The Style article mentions that we generally have 'conversations about the conversation.' That's true, and it's unproductive. The schools in neighborhoods of lesser means should follow the leads of the middle class schools by applying people power to the equation. Get the parents into the schools in large numbers to fix the problems. After all, they are our kids. Do you think that the City Council, the School Board, or any other institution decided one day to make Fox and Munford good schools? Probably not, more likely it was parental pressure and presence that brought about the changes.

    Also, I have no idea what "punishment is carried out in the neighborhood" means.

  10. Well said Stakolee, I do agree with your 2nd comment and think I misinterpreted the first.

    I meant that kids from tough neighborhoods often don't have parental support. The only example many see are the tough kids on the street. Smart kids and good students are often harrassed for acting "white".

  11. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I am a teacher in a school administered by RPS, but held on the campus of another entity. Safe to say if we were to draw an organization chart of the place it would be a bowl of spaghetti. Therefore I do not have a first person view of what is going on daily in RPS schools. That ID done, a few observations:

    1) Too many things seem to be too much about personality and ego these days -- this seems to be one of them, whether the egos are hyped or real in this instance.

    2) If the things that Ms. Pinckney Eppes talks about are happening to many many students on a regular basis in the city, it is poor, lazy educational practice. Kids should be given some room to advocate for themselves and opportunities presented to them to exhibit each of Howard Gardner's eight intelligences. Given the presentation of the situations in Style's article, it appears that these things were not done for these kids.

    3. I say this as a professional and as a Richmond city taxpayer: Teachers are around to help each kid reach their full potential. Administrators are around to help and facilitate teachers in doing this. The job of city politicians is to put the most resources they can into that job (rather than feeding millions to rich people through projects like "CenterStage" and "MeadWestvaco"). Politicians should then monitor to ensure that administrators and teachers are doing what they're supposed to. Clearly parts or all of each of the three layers are failing here in specific cases, perhaps systemically.

    4) In terms of resource allocation, city schools have faced a question for years they have not been willing to answer. Should students be concentrated in a few large, comprehensive schools at each age level, or should they be educated in smaller neighborhood and specialized schools? While smaller schools are more expensive to operate per student, all things equal, I believe smaller schools are also better at helping kids reach their full potential in all areas of human self-improvement. Community High, Open High, and the yet-to-be-opened Patrick Henry Charter School are interesting experiments based on this premise. My own school assists greatly in this area with a few select students from districts around the state.

    5. I taught the sons of a parent of a prominent city department head at a private school where I worked a few years ago. He and his wife ultimately chose to educate their sons in that private school rather than have them go to high school in the city because both struggled in several public school placements. When I talked with him about education in the city, he said that he and his wife's proudest moments happened when their sons were in elementary school. They were part of a core of about a half dozen parents that enrolled their children in what is still a school that mostly reflects the current ethnic makeup of its neighborhood. They believed that their school was much better when their children were in 5th grade than when their children were in kindergarten, and that the improvement had to do with their level of involvement with their PTA. Fostering this kind of commitment and magnifying it by a factor of 10 or 100 is the ultimate cure to segregation or inequality between schools in a district.

    6. Finally, the single biggest variable in the quality of a school is the leadership of a prinicpal. A school with lower test scores can be a much better school that one with very high test scores for two reasons at least. One, the atmosphere at a school can be more or less welcoming and more or less physically and mentally safe. That quality begins with the principal. Two, a school with lower test scores can still be pushing their students harder and exposing them to more opportunities they've never seen than a school with higher scores. A lower income or higher achieving student may well be better off in some cases in a "worse" school because that school may actually be pushing that student to improve more in more areas. That quality too begins and ends with the principal.

    John R.

  12. I am really digging these epic comments for posterity's sake. Gives this blog entry some longterm value. However, they're hard to respond to. Where to start? It sure is a privilege to see a teacher speaking up. The suggestion of parental involvement in the schools is a solution that I believe in, but is it a panacea?

    The same group of engaged parents could probably do a great deal to help Tichi's RCPTA to pressure our elected "leaders" to likewise cooperate. Does it take five years to have an impact on a school? On City Hall? Does it require neighborhood organizing to mobilize parents? Community cooperation and the patience to see collective effort thru aren't in abundance in Richmond, if you ask me. One good tool for building trust and communication is Hope in the Cities ' programs for neighborhood discussion groups.

    About the example of "toughness" that kids see in the streets... I would suggest RPEC's "alternatives to violence project" and groups like the Richmond Youth Peace Project as means to intervene.

  13. Eric G.7:13 PM

    My eyes want to roll back when I read about Tichi's complaints about her son's discipline. Please, the reason kids who have issues are taken out of class is because it affects the rest of the kids ability to learn and encourages more bad behavior. I have no sympathy for her. How about getting her son to behave? It's called raising a child. (Yes, I'm a parent myself.)

    RPS's big problem is that it has a such a high percentage population of poor students. One thing that could help the system is to simply do more to attract middle class families (magnet schools, gifted and talented programs, etc.). More middle class kids and families in RPS would put even more pressure for the system to improve.

    I'm not from Richmond, but I understand this city has quite an ugly history. It needs to stop living in the past and join the rest of the new south with more progressive solutions.

  14. Anonymous3:23 PM

    Check out our neighborhood's comments regarding Style's profile of Tichi

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