Day #067: Schools as laboratories

Variety and access could be the keys to student engagement.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Create more variety in schools while identifying and giving access to environments that will engage students.
  • Difficulty: 4 — Running charter schools is extremely difficult and that’s after contentious policies are put into place to promote their existence.

Education is one of the most important services offered by government. “Good” schools are the anchors of communities, while “bad” schools can pull apart neighborhoods.1 Central Virginia has its fair share of “good” schools, but the area is falling short of quality comprehensive education. Richmond should encourage and increase access to charter schools as a way of boosting student engagement as a path to success.

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… to create an excellent statewide system of public education that equips all students with the knowledge and skills to excel in postsecondary education and careers and to become capable, responsible, and self-reliant citizens.Virginia Department of Education

Metropolitan Richmond has “good” schools, but there’s a distinct difference between having good schools and having a good school system. If VDOE’s goal is to equip all students with the skills stated in their mission statement, then Metropolitan Richmond is failing.

The region is exceptionally good at sorting and congregating students who excel in a narrow area of academics, but for every successful school and excelling child, there is an underperforming school and unnecessarily disengaged student.

The school system is stuck between an absolute comprehensive education system and a system entirely based on choice. The “gifted” have school choice through magnet programs and specialty centers, and the wealthy and geographically mobile have school choice through residency.

If schools were physically more equal and there was no school choice, the successful students and parents building incredible communities at the Governor’s schools and other magnet programs would be strengthening schools from Adams Elementary School to Varina High School. It only takes a few families to foster an environment that gets everyone engaged.

Shutting down magnet schools and ending the inequality between schools is never going to happen, so the alternative is increasing school variety and school choice–particularly for students unable to academically differentiate themselves or families unable to afford housing in the suburbs and commute long distances to work.

Variety as a tool to increase engagement

People, including students aged 5-18, want to be engaged. Engaged people are more successful. I love the vision of every student studying the classics, learning Latin, and mastering math, but it’s unrealistic. Disengaged students simply won’t keep pace. Socialization, discipline, and the process of learning can be taught in a variety of environments, so why do we insist on providing such a homogeneous product when a diversity of options are needed?

I think charter schools should be laboratories. Places where new ideas are tried through teacher experiences in classrooms that can act as models to show what we learned.Dr. Atkinson

I recently visited Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, Virginia’s first charter elementary school, and met with Principal Dr. Eileen Atkinson. On paper, the school has had its ups and downs. It’s on its third principal in five years, and test scores have been mixed, but PHSSA is impressive.

The school has autonomy over its curriculum which focuses on environmental sciences and the arts. The 300 mostly minority students wear uniforms, parents are required to volunteer for 24 hours per year, and the school operates on a modified year-round schedule.

They are currently leasing their building on Semmes Avenue for $1 per year and have had to find creative ways to fund remodeling and maintenance. In 2013, their charter was extended for an additional five years. There is a waiting list to get into the school.

Most importantly, the students are visibly engaged. Not a single student was sitting in a chair in every class I visited. The curriculum is focused on many of the same subjects as other elementary schools but emphasis is put on visiting neighboring Forest Hill Park and environmental sciences. Every class has a garden from which they use what they grow to occasionally make pizzas using the real ingredients like tomatoes and basil.

When entering a third grade classroom, the “class greeter” immediately walked up to the principal, shook her hand, looked her in the eyes, and said, “good morning Dr. Atkinson, my name is — and we are working on maps. Good morning Mr. Williams.” I attended two different “great” elementary schools. We couldn’t look adults in the eyes much less have the awareness to greet them without being prompted.

This evidence is anecdotal. PHSSA hasn’t even existed long enough to send a class from Kindergarten through fifth grade. There have been many unsuccessful charter schools (especially for-profit charter schools), but we don’t let the existence of terrible traditional institutions dissuade us from trying the same thing over and over.

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A variety of opportunities won’t be effective as long as opportunities are limited to those who already excel academically or those with mobility. Charter schools won’t fix the entire school system, but too many students are looking unsuccessfully for opportunities to be engaged for society to stand by idly.

Richmond should embrace charter schools–especially in middle schools and high schools where opportunities for engagement are needed more than ever. It should develop ways to identify the environments where students will be most successful and encourage them to pursue those opportunities.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

  1. Quantitatively measuring schools is difficult. How can Kindergarteners with three years of Montessori School experience be compared to students who couldn’t even get access to Pre-K? 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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