Patrick Henry School Initiative: Yes? No? Maybe?

As local parents and residents are being forced to jump through hoops made of paper trails and communication barricades, the rest of us are left to wonder, “Are charter schools the way to go?”

It’s no secret that Richmond parents spend much of their time worrying over their kids’ education. As a city-dweller (and soon-to-be parent) I can personally relate to the conflict they feel — the desire to expose your child to the diversity found in the city is pitted against the commitment to him/her getting the best education possible.

So what do you do?

Many parents opt for private schools. Some participate in lotteries to enroll their kids in places like Fox Elementary in the Fan. Others make the decision to leave the city for surrounding counties with more stable and statistically strong schools.

And still others take matters into their own hands. Enter the Patrick Henry School Initiative (or, as we’ll call it, PHSI).

Patrick Henry Elementary (located at the intersection of Forest Hill and Semmes Avenues just south of the river) closed after the 2005-2006 school year — attributed to the school system’s efforts to cut the cost of maintaining schools with low enrollment. It housed students from Norrell Elementary during the 2006-2007 school year after the flooding of Battery Park, but since then, it’s stood empty.

Neighborhoods in that area feed into elementary schools like Westover Hills, Southampton, and Blackwell, among others – schools that are not the lowest-performing schools in the city by any means, but are definitely not competitive with other elementary schools just a few miles across county lines.

Dissatisfied with their available options, local parents and residents had a vision for what they wanted for their kids. When the school system closed Patrick Henry Elementary, these parents saw an opportunity to bring that vision to life. So they banded together, applied for non-profit status, and began the process of creating a charter school that would be open to any city resident’s child who wanted to go there as long as there was room.

To start a charter school in the state of Virginia, the proposed school must offer something others in the area don’t. PHSI breaks their efforts down to three specific features:

  1. A year-round calendar. The school will operate on a 9 weeks on, 3 weeks off schedule with a longer 5-week break in the summer. During the breaks, students will have the option to attend remedial or enrichment classes.
  2. Curriculum focused on arts and sciences, with adjacent Forest Hill Park acting as an inspiration and major resource for the school’s environmentally-conscious approach to learning.
  3. Required family involvement. Each students’ parent or guardian must sign a contract committing to 24 hours of volunteer work at the school each year.

In October 2007, the PHSI submitted its charter school application to the Richmond City School Board. In January 2008, the PHSI got initial feedback from the State Board of Education as well as a review committee, chaired by Richmond Public School deputy superintendent of instruction and accountability, Dr. Yvonne Brandon. The application was resubmitted in mid-March, and members of PHSI met with Dr. Brandon for a more in-depth discussion. “It turned out to be a really good meeting – or so we thought,” says Richard Day, PHSI board president. “The meeting ended on a very good note.”

Not so much, it seems.

At an April 21st school board meeting, PHSI was asked once again to make further revisions to their application. After that request, many of the school board representatives had questions as to why additional revisions were necessary and why Dr. Brandon was hesitant to approve the proposal – questions that Dr. Brandon couldn’t answer. So, George Braxton, Chairman of the Richmond School Board (in a move filled with logic and reason – something often so uncharacteristic of our city’s education system) suggested a meeting between the members of the school board and those involved with PHSI.

Again, no dice.

The Richmond School Board’s attorney advised them not to meet with the members of PHSI, stating that there was not to be any direct dialogue between them and the PHSI ever. Which is why PHSI has secured their own attorney to find out if it is indeed *illegal* for them to answer questions from the school board on this matter.

“They are stonewalling us,” Day says. “Not having exposure to the school board and not being able to have a dialogue — we feel that it is just wrong.”

Such a strong road block in the process makes you wonder if this is more about following procedure or if there are other motivations behind what is panning out to be a somewhat passive-aggressive resistance. Some are wondering, is the Richmond City Schools administration afraid that PHSI would be too successful and start pulling too many students and too many resources away from other city schools? Does the fact that Richmond Public Schools has received several proposals like this and has yet to approve any of them relate to this at all?

Day makes it clear that he does not want PHSI to be a threat. “[The Patrick Henry School Initiative] is trying to raise the bar for the entire school system. We want to be a resource for Richmond Public Schools, not an island.” He adds that he envisions other schools taking field trips to Patrick Henry to see the open air classrooms and outdoor learning environment.

So what now?

Last Tuesday, Day received a document via courier stating that PHSI had 5 business days to respond to the review committee’s recommendation. By tomorrow, Tuesday April 29th, PHSI is to finish and submit another round of revisions. But, with about 17 core members most working other full time jobs, Day says that is just not enough time.

If and when revisions gets submitted, the school board will decide this Friday May 2nd whether to vote on the issue on May 5th or May 19th. The Richmond School Board could approve the charter school even without the review committee’s recommendation. To get approval, 5 out of 9 school board representative would have to vote for it, which presents another interesting twist:

It’s possible that if the charter school application is rejected with this go around, PHSI could approach the school board at a later date, depending on the statute of limitations for resubmitting their application. Currently, at least 3 school board members are not running for re-election this year, and their spots will be filled this November…potentially giving PHSI a new audience for their efforts. If Richmond voters grab on to this as a cause close to their hearts, the status of PHSI (and other efforts like it) could easily become an issue potential school board members will have to address as they seek election.

We sent an email to each member of the school board, asking them if they would share their stance on PHSI. At the time of publishing this, only a handful had responded, indicating that it would be inappropriate to comment before a vote happened. However, Carol Wolf of district 3, who also declined to reveal her vote, did offer this insight via email on Sunday:

What is driving the people behind the Patrick Henry Initiative? Why has this effort generated an abundance of community support throughout the City of Richmond? I cannot speak for the individuals involved in this effort, but I suspect that what drives them is similar to what drove Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers to declare independence from Britain in 1776.

As the British government had become unresponsive to the needs of the colonists, Jefferson and the leaders of the Revolutionary War declared that it was their “Duty and Right of the People to alter or abolish and to institute new Government,” I believe that the citizens pushing for this charter school have decided that the byzantine bureaucracy of Richmond Public Schools is so unresponsive to their needs and the needs of their children, that it is their duty and their right to create another choice for educating their children.

No matter if you’re for or against this initiative, any input from Richmond voters should and could have an impact on how this plays out – for this particular charter school and for other attempts in the future. See below for the current board members and their phone numbers and email addresses, if available. Get in touch with your district rep and let them know what you think.

For more on the Patrick Henry School Initiative, check out these links:

Other information:

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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