Garet Prior and Richmond Forward are committed to making sure our city’s kids have safe school buildings where they can learn and thrive.
In my experience as a Richmond resident and Richmond Public School parent, the issue of school improvement feels chicken-or-the-egg-esque.
We all seem to agree that things aren’t as they should be, but where do we focus our efforts in righting the ship that is Richmond Public Schools?
Enhancing student achievement?
Increasing teachers’ salaries?
Improving the conditions of the buildings where learning takes place?
I’m going to assume (safely, I think) that a good majority of you reading this are thinking, “Yes. All of these things. Now.”
“It’s going to take more money, engagement, and change in each area (facilities, teacher’s salary, academic achievement, etc.) for us to make [RPS] a world-class system–which it will be,” he says.
But, Prior explains, “I needed to start with a piece of the pie. As a former teacher, I see facilities as the baseline for student learning. Cognitive study tells us that safety and security are the basic human needs.”
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Prior and his wife moved from Ohio to Richmond–the Fan, specifically–after they both accepted teaching jobs in Hanover County.
“As a teacher I was always interested in exploring community. Each year, my after-SOL project for students would be to have them create documentaries on how larger issues (e.g. immigration, climate change, etc.) impacted their local community,” he explains. “Through observing my students I learned that the classroom was a reflection of community brokenness. This led me to taking night classes and obtaining a Masters from VCU in Urban Planning.”
After stops at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and the Cities of Hopewell and Hampton, Prior now works as Senior Planner for the Town of Ashland.
In 2014 Prior entered what he calls “the appealing and attractive world of school facilities” after seeing a piece in the newspaper about RPS’s plans to create a Facilities Task Force.
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The Facilities Task Force was created, as the RPS website states, “to evaluate the district’s short- and long-term facility needs, assess projected enrollment, gather feedback from the community and provide recommendations to members of the district’s administration, School Board, Mayor, City Council, and the public on facility planning options over the next 10 years.”
Prior applied to join the RPS Facilities Task Force, got selected, and joined forces with Richmond City School Board members Kristen Larson and Kimberly Gray and over 40 other community leaders, volunteers, district staff, and subject matter experts to compile and present the Facilities Needs Report: a breakdown of what schools need and how much it’s going to cost.
The RPS Facilities Task Force presented the Needs Report to the Richmond City School Board on April 13th, 2015, then presented the following month to a joint meeting of the School Board and Richmond’s City Council. An updated Needs Report-focusing on one of five original options and carrying a projected cost of over $560 million (PDF)-was then presented to another joint meeting on October 12th.
Since then community meetings, WTF comments from Mayor Dwight Jones’s office, and $18 million budget gaps have left residents wondering, “What now? How do we wrap our brains around all this and do something? How do we move forward?”
As Prior explains it, “Richmond Forward is a relationship-based community advocacy group, built on the belief that inclusion and empowerment are essential to lasting change. We have a common understanding for Richmond that education is our top economic development and civil rights priority, neighborhoods are the building blocks, and relationships are essential to lasting change.”
“Our priority action,” says Prior, “is to adopt and fund a comprehensive plan for school facilities.”
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Richmond Forward’s website serves as a hub of information and empowerment, if you will. It’s a place where education- and community-minded Richmonders can stay up-to-date on the inner-workings of what it takes to–for lack of a better phrase–get this shit done.
“My hope is that RichmondForward.com is used to fill in the gaps,” explains Prior. “We are not looking to recreate or replace any existing organizations or institutions, but provide support where needed to improve these systems and empower others to make change. This may take the form of educational materials, […] communication documents […] or orientation to other websites. Site content will be driven by our primary action goal.”
Visitors to the site can also sign up to receive email updates. Prior says that list currently reaches 250 people and counting. From that list Prior and Kelly Hall, Richmond Foward’s “organizational guru,”2 have been able to set up teams for policy analysis and student and parent engagement.
Richmond Forward’s policy team recently put together a Facilities Package (PDF) that was then sent to the School Board and City Council. A recommended action item within that package (policy directing revenue of excess school property sales back to schools) headed to City Council in the form of Ordinance 2016-092 on March 28th.3
As for student and parent engagement, Richmond Forward wants to tap into existing organizations that are already doing great things with and for Richmond-area kids.
“We are looking to support groups like Art 180 who actively work to encourage student expression,” says Prior. In mid-March, Richmond Forward teamed up with Art 180, artist Mickael Broth, and 10 Richmond Public School students to create cards featuring community-sourced images of the poor state of RPS schools paired with hand-written messages asking viewers to imagine what it would be like to have to learn in these conditions–and offering suggestions for how to help solve the problem.
As Broth explains in a Facebook post describing the project, “The idea is that these ‘cards’ can be easily taken to public events (city council/school board meetings, rallies, etc.) and be displayed as a precarious house of cards.”4
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While this community response (and subsequent accomplishments) are evidence of the real, tangible good Richmond Forward can do, Prior says the most powerful feedback came in the form of a phone call.
“The response that moved me the most was from a Fox Elementary School teacher,” says Prior. “She had read an update and called to talk about basement mold in the school that she attributed to her sickness that day. What struck me wasn’t what she said, but her relief that someone was listing and raising awareness.”
Prior is quick to credit Richmond Public School teachers–and our superintendent–for much of the boots-on-the-ground advocacy and awareness happening in and for the City.
“What Chris Lombardi, Keri Treadway, and other teachers are doing is transformative,” explains Prior. Lombardi and Treadway are teachers at Mary Munford Elementary and William Fox Elementary, respectively, and key contributors to Support Richmond Public Schools, a public Facebook group committed to keeping members informed about who to talk to, where to show up, and what to do to show support for RPS students, teachers, and staff.
“I’ve known RPS teachers who were afraid to speak out because of past administration retribution. Allowing for teacher expression has empowered these teachers which is a direct correlation to Dr. Bedden’s change in school tenor,” says Prior.
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But for Prior, Richmond Forward and the work it’s doing for Richmond Public Schools isn’t just for students, teachers, and parents–it can’t be and shouldn’t be.
“RPS is not what people who don’t send their kids to RPS say it is,” Prior insists. “Richmond has seen a terrific amount of progress to improve student achievement and experience in the schools. Many of the same pressures of standardized testing and low teacher pay I experienced in Hanover County exist here.”
He goes on and…well…he ends up on a bit of a roll, but in a really, really good way.
“If you don’t have kids, like me, you should join your closest PTA because your school is directly impacting your pocketbook! After public safety, schools are the largest line item on the city’s budget. If you want to make sure your tax dollars are being used wisely, get involved.”
“If you want our City to make smart economic development investments, we should improve the variable (schools) that has a direct effect on housing values, thus increasing the value of Richmonders’ property to build wealth, spend money in the city, and increase tax revenue.
“If you want to address outstanding social justice issues, look no further than Richmond schools, a system set up to fail through the construction of lower quality ‘separate but equal’ facilities.”
“If you have kids now, want to have kids in the future, have grandkids or future grandkids, you are going to prize their education and do everything you can to support them.”
Yes, that feels like a lot to take on at once. But hopefully Richmond Forward will enable those invested in the future of Richmond Public Schools to do the heavy lifting together.
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Visit richmondforward.com to stay up-to-date on Richmond Forward’s and the Richmond Public Schools facilities discussion–and be sure to sign up for email updates!
Just getting in on the conversation? Don’t worry. You’ll find everything you need to get caught up. And check out our ongoing EDU FAQ series for a whole lot of facts, one subject at a time.
- A title he reluctantly uses to explain his role. As he puts it: “I’ve used all my skills (writing emails, facilitating discussion, drinking coffee with people, and forming words out-loud in public) to take this far.” Don’t sell yourself short, Garet! Forming words out-loud in public is something most people are not very good at. ↩
- Gabriel Vernon serves as Richmond Forward’s “graphic design wizard.” They’re looking for a “SquareSpace wizard” too, FYI. ↩
- The ordinance has been continued to Council’s April 11th meeting. Stay tuned! ↩
- I see what you did there, Mr. Broth & Company! ↩