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.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I’ll be there on the 5th as should all parents horrified over the prospect of sending their precious spawn to Richmond Public Schools…

  2. This came in via email from district 1 rep, Kim Bridges:

    “…I have been impressed by the hard work and tremendous energy and dedication of those involved in the Patrick Henry Initiative. In general, I have found RPS to be very supportive of grassroots efforts to improve our schools (the elementary foreign language program that’s now citywide, for example, began with one PTA at one school putting such a program into place. RPS expanded upon that effort it so that it’s now in all city elementaries.) Grassroots support is critical, particularly in urban school systems, so I want to see all parents and community members involved in Richmond Public Schools–particularly those with the strong desire to make things better for all Richmond children.”

    Please note that she did not reveal her vote.

  3. Scott Burger on said:

    A supporter came to a recent Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association meeting. There are still a lot of questions. Everyone agrees that RPS, especially on the elementary level, need drastic improvement, especially in facilities. Its understandable that citizens want to take the matter in their own hands with a charter school. But when it came down to specifics about student enrollment, committment to ADA, and transportation, some lingering questions exist. I think the hope is that the PHCS would raise the bar and force improvement for the rest of the schools, but the fear is that it will cherry pick the most involved students and parents and leave RPS overall in worst shape. OHNA is asking our School Board rep Betsy Carr to come to our next meeting to give her views.

    Personally, I find it ridiculous that the Mayor is asking for school closures (like PH) in order for more attention to school buildings to take place while parents are trying open charters in order for the same thing to happen. Regardless of closures, why isn’t improvement to RPS buildings happening already? Richmond is already acting illegally by not funding ADA improvements.

  4. Richmond Public schools could use a good dose of competition. I say yes to the Charter.

    By the way, this guy is running for school board and supports the charter:

    And more on charter:

  5. GetRealRichmond on said:

    Great quote from Wolf! Maybe one of the many things that RPS is afraid of concerning charter schools — and this one in particular — is that RPS teachers will stampede to get a job in a school where they are treated with respect by the people running the school and by the parents sending their children to attend. If RPS were really all that great, what would they have to fear from a small group of parents and community leaders wanting to have a neighborhood school. Had RPS administration done more to bring in the neighborhood — and issued fewer free passes for parents from this area to send their kids to Fox, Munford, or wherever — chances are we would still have a neighborhood school. RPS talks a great game about caring about neighborhood schools, but their very own policies undermine their stated intentions by allowing parents to virtually send their kids anywhere they want in the system.

    Why can’t RPS bring forward ideas about how to engage the community instead of stonewalling and making life as hard as it can be? What parent would want to send their kids to RPS when RPS favors some neighborhoods over others. Why can’t ALL OUR schools be innovative and inspiring? Why is it so hard for RPS to understand that we all want the same thing — an excellent education for ALL OUR children?

    I wish the PHSI people the best of luck!

    If RPS leaders were “smart,”

  6. GetRealRichmond on said:

    they would realize that there are a lot of people in the community who want to help. Too often, some of those bully principals we have been hearing so much about lately, drive parents away.

  7. Well, It seems RPS doesn’t care about our neighborhood school, Bellevue. They’re closing it. I’m might really need that Charter School.

    I agree with GetReal, a great response from Wolf.

  8. I want to commend Valerie Catrow for her work on this piece. Community advocacy stories that are informative, well written, and encourage participation are a welcome addition to The snarky satirical bits on this site can be amusing, and the frequent links to print media are sometimes useful, but I think this piece is the kind of story that will help make RVANews a destination (and the Bopst show). Since I find myself in a similar position of prospective parent of an RPS student, I feel that we’ll need to ally ourselves along common goals and get organized to improve the schools for EVERY Richmond child. I hope that Richmond’s alternative media can continue to serve as a tool for community organizing (allong with some old school door knocking and f2f dialogs). Keep up the good work.

  9. Life is a participation sport and now that I have a child, that sentiment has never been truer especially given the prospect of securing a decent education for the precious spawn in the land that time forgot called Richmond, Virginia. Hopefully, if enough people show up, we can help to increase the learning opportunities for not only our own children, but for all of the city’s youth. I for one don’t want to move to the god forsaken suburbs for my child’s education. I love the city and want to raise my child here. I just have to make sure that the offspring is granted every educational advantage that the counties can offer and that requires my personal involvement. That holds true for every parent that calls the city home…

  10. Can I just say that IAL at that Patrick Henry picture every time I go to RVAnews.

  11. ReachemTeachem on said:

    Will someone please help me understand why it is that tax-paying citizens of the City of Richmond do not have the RIGHT to discuss having a charter school with the people they elected to serve on the School Board?

    It sounds almost as if these School Board members — with one notable exception — can’t be bothered to talk to their constituents. These people were elected to represent the citizens of Richmond — not to serve as PR flacks for the administration.

    Let’s hope that when it comes time to vote this issue that those who want to get re-elected understand that they answer to the people — not RPS administrators.

    People need to get ready. There may be more than the Supt. and her top lieutenants missing in action soon. What good is a school board that allows bureaucrats to make their decisions?

  12. Geraldine Schmitt on said:

    Patrick Henry School Initiative: Yes!

  13. Jess on said:

    Great Article!!

    As a long standing member and secretary of the Initiative, I would like to address some comments made by Scott Berger. I love ya, Scott, but I want to clarify some of the misconceptions that you might have about us.

    First, THERE WILL NOT BE ANY “CHERRY PICKING”! This is illegal and is contrary to everything that we want for this school. It is open to every child of Richmond. As far as taking the best teachers, etc., if they are being given the tools they need to be successful in the public school they are in now, then why would they come running to us?

    We are NOT going to be busing students to Patrick Henry. Parents are responsible for getting their students to the school. Busing is expensive. Gas prices are horrendous. Most students that are currently living in the Patrick Henry district are being bused to Blackwell when they could walk to Patrick Henry.

    ADA compliancy: We MUST be fully ADA compliant to operate as a Charter SChool. Period. WE cannot open our doors until much of the ADA work is finished. We do have a little flexibility (such as a 3 year plan) in completing some of the more expensive work, as needed to raise the necessary funds.

    All of you who support this effort to lift up the city schools, WE NEED YOU AT THE NEXT SCHOOL BOARD MEETING MONDAY MAY 5TH. THE VOTE WILL MOST LIKELY TAKE PLACE AT THIS MEETING!

  14. Anne Carter on said:

    I vote YES as this will be a wonderful opportunity for the community!

  15. Shannon Dugan on said:

    I wholeheartedly support PHSI! Let’s give parents a choice that they feel confidenta about. It’s programs such as these that keep people from fleeing to the suburbs just to get in decent school districts.

  16. Scott Burger on said:

    Thanks for addressing the questions. I am not objecting as much as I am calling for public discussion.

    “As far as taking the best teachers, etc., if they are being given the tools they need to be successful in the public school they are in now, then why would they come running to us?”

    I think the obvious answer is that they are not currently receiving the tools, at least in terms of facilities, and that of course they will come running- which is why the fear is that PHS will get the best teachers, best students, best parents to the point that the rest of RPS are left in the dust.

    As far as ADA, it is a crying shame that citizens have to privately fund raise to address ADA. Meanwhile, the VaPAF/Center Stage/ downtown arts center fiasco gets subsidized to the tune of millions of public dollars.

    Personally, I would love to see historic Open High building get an ADA elevator addition (and solar panels). I would love for PHS or another school really connect with Open High’s program as sort of a feeder school. But right now, it is scheduled to eventually be closed. I would like to see PHS partner in some capacity with Build Schools Now to change the closure discussion, but I also understand the political need to keep it separate.

    Again, I am not saying I am against the Initiative at all. I am just trying to raise honest concerns that I would like see addressed to the best of the Initialtive’s ability. This is also not to say that the Initiative should have to address ALL concerns before moving forward. At some point Richmond should just go for it, especialy since the current local government is not responsive to the needs of the community. Mayor, City Council, and School Board (with exception of Wolf) be damned.

  17. Matt H. on said:

    I remeber when my wife and I were expecting our first son the first thing we discussed were schools. We both loved the city and enjoyed going any where from Maymont, to the River, to Carytown, to those cool unique finds in the fan. But as we discussed what to do for our son’s future we knew we had to do what was best for him, thus, we soon moved to a part of Western Henrico. The saddest part of this is that the decsion was more or less made for us. With that being said, I fully support PHSI.

  18. Jennifer C. on said:

    I don’t know how I missed this article until now – well done, Val! I hope to be there on Monday – maybe we’ll get lucky and have the same turnout as the South of the James farmer’s market this morning.

  19. Given that 200 people were expected to come to the School Board meeting in support of the Patrick Henry Charter at 6pm, spineless RPS administrators decided yesterday to schedule the vote and/or discussion to 4:30pm today(5/5) knowing that parents will be either at work or transporting children at this time. (Word is Braxton chose the time)

  20. Excuse my french, but that is total fuckin’ bullshit…

  21. S. Martin on said:

    Let’s go anyway! If we show up 200 strong at their 6pm meeting tonight they cannot ignore us!

  22. Yes, I still plan on going and on the next date (May 19th) as well…

  23. Bopst, it is the RPS way of doing things…they have repeatedly proven they cannot be trusted at any level. The only honest folk on board is Wolf and West.

  24. Well, I have trust in the parents of Richmond to work together to make this city a great place to raise a child.

  25. Common Sense Mom on said:

    I thank everyone for their honest comments. It is a well known fact that middle-income families in the city “flee” for what has been proven to be better educational oportunities, in the surrounding counties. Meanwhile, families that are not middle income have to stay put and deal with a school system that graduates LESS THAN 50% of it’s students. This creates a disproportinatly high number of renters, high-school drop-outs and criminals in the city. There is NO WAY that Richmond can be anything without decent schools that attract homeowners who STAY in their neighborhoods and renovate, invest and become involved in city government. A good school system is the FOUNDATION of a good city – what kind of city do you expect with a 47% graduation rate? The City of Richmond should roll out the red carpet for the PHCI folks for breaking the pattern of flight and blight that can be directly linked to the Richmond City Public School System. Give them a chance!

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