Helping parents reconsider Richmond Public Schools

Would you move out of the city to keep your kids out of Richmond Public Schools? Here’s Bryce Lyle on why he didn’t and why he hopes others don’t.

What’s so great about Fox Elementary?

That’s the question Bryce Lyle used to ask fellow parents on the playground of Westover Hills Elementary School on the Southside.

To non-breeders, Fox Elementary, located in The Fan, is just one of many public schools in the city. But to many local parents, it’s the city’s best elementary school, one parents would do almost anything to get their kids into.

Lyle would often visit his local elementary school’s playground with his one-year-old daughter and speak to parents about why they preferred Fox to their local school. During one conversation with a Southside parent that had successfully sent his child to Fox instead of Westover Hills, Lyle asked: what made Fox so much better?

“They said, ‘Oh, well the parent involvement is amazing at Fox,” Lyle recalled. The man’s wife was on the PTA board and said the overall involvement from him and other parents at the school made Fox superior.

“The thing that’s obvious to me when you hear that is, wait a minute, your wife and you are doing that, and you could be doing that at our own school, and then our school would be getting all the benefit,” Lyle said. “What our neighborhood sees as a positive at Fox are the resources that we’re providing to Fox.”

Lyle isn’t picking on Fox Elementary. He likes Fox just as much as he likes Westover Hills, just as much as he likes every school, for that matter. Because Lyle is a teacher in Chesterfield County Schools, and he doesn’t think of schools as being good or bad. He thinks schools are a vital component of their communities, and communities should be a vital component of their schools.

That’s why he and others are galvanizing would-be Westover Hills parents to not send their kids elsewhere, but to keep them in their community. He’s also encouraging parents to reconsider how they look at the city’s public schools.

In the minority

Bryce Lyle knows what it’s like to attend Westover Hills Elementary School. He began attending the school in the 1980s, staying in the area’s public schools up through his high school graduation.

“I was definitely in a minority at the school,” Lyle said. “It was an ever-present thing that it was a majority African-American school.”

Lyle wasn’t bullied or taunted because he was one of few white kids at the school. He did what all other kids did: learned. “I remember that it was a great school, and it was the only [elementary] school I ever went to.”

The strange part about Lyle attending Westover Hills Elementary School had nothing to do with the school itself, but with the lack of neighborhood friends attending with him.

“I was the only kid from right in my neighborhood…that went to my school,” Lyle said. Instead of tagging along with Lyle on the walk to Westover Hills, neighborhood kids went to other schools. “There was a little bit of a disconnect for me that the kids I went to the pool with…didn’t go to school with me. I had school friends and out-of-school friends.”

“And that’s one of the things we’re really trying to address here with what we’re doing in Westover: to make this a neighborhood school where lots of kids from the neighborhood will go to school together.”

Ratcheting things up

After completing college, Lyle married and returned to Westover Hills. Soon after, he and his wife had a daughter. When his daughter was about 1-year-old, Lyle routinely took her to the playground at Westover Hills. He often heard parents discussing schools while there.

“Schools are on the tips of everyone’s tongue. It’s the easiest conversation in the world to have,” Lyle said. “Before I started talking about it, I heard other people talking about it.”

Some parents said Westover Hills Elementary wasn’t good enough for their kids, unlike Fox or Mary Munford. Most parents with kids near or at elementary school age seemed committed to avoiding Westover Hills entirely.

But not all of them.

Early last year, Lyle took a phone call from his School Board representative, Kristen Larson. Larson said another Westover resident, Paige Holbert, was thinking of sending her child to Westover Hills Elementary. Larson thought the two should meet.

“[Holbert] wanted to send her kid to Westover [Hills], and she wanted to get some other people to do it with her,” Lyle said. This was big because parents often supported the idea of sending their kids to the local schools where they would be in the racial or economic minority, but ultimately parents didn’t want their children to be the guinea pigs.

After Paige Holbert and her husband moved to Westover about three years ago, the couple began asking parents (just as Lyle did) why they didn’t send their kids to Westover Hills.

“It’s a wreck. It’s just a terrible school,” Holbert said, recalling what she and her husband were told. Holbert didn’t believe things were so bleak, and so after Holbert and Lyle met, the pair decided to rally other young parents in the neighborhood to do the same.

“Once there was Paige saying, ‘We’ll be the first ones, we’re going to do it, come with us,’ it really changed the conversation,” Lyle said.

The conversation amped up when the two arranged a meeting with Westover Hills principal Virginia Loving. What Lyle and Holbert had discovered was that parents who openly denigrated the school had no first-hand experience with it.

“I didn’t know anyone who had ever been in the school,” Lyle said. “It seemed that was sort of intimidating, people were uncomfortable, or people weren’t doing it. For whatever reason, people were not walking across the street to see the school.”

So Lyle and Holbert brought the school to the parents. The pair arranged a meeting between Principal Loving and other school officials inside Taza, a local coffee shop. Lyle told the coffee shop he expected 20 people to attend the meeting, 30 at the most. About 70 showed up.

“That really kind of ratcheted things up,” Lyle said. “Following that meeting, there was clear interest from so many people to learn more, and so [Westover Hills Elementary School] took over and had a couple of open houses with school tours during the day.” Lyle also created a Facebook group and email list for parents to stay connected.

Lyle discussed his experience and efforts during a talk at last year’s TEDxGraceStreet:

Westover parents recently joined together for another meeting. “We had parents from our neighborhood who have students at the school this year sit in a panel and answer questions,” Lyle said. “They all said that their kids are happy there, they’re making friends, and they’re progressing.” With luck, the testimonials of those parents will encourage others to send their children to Westover Hills in the coming years.

The approach Lyle and Holbert have taken has inspired similar parent groups in Byrd Park, Church Hill, and others. Lyle hopes it continues to expand.

“What we’re doing in Westover is not unique to Westover,” Lyle said. “It’s nothing that can only happen at this one spot in this one neighborhood. This is absolutely something that can be replicated in neighborhoods all around the city.”

Getting plugged in, getting comfortable

Lyle recommends that parents of four and five-year-olds and parents of children who are not quite school-aged contact the principal of their local school. It’s an important step before parents make any decision about where their children will attend school.

“The principal is such a key figure in an elementary school and knows everything that’s going on,” Lyle said. “That’s a great way to get plugged in and get comfortable.”

Lyle understands the pressure that parents face when deciding where their children will attend school. But he thinks most of it’s unnecessary.

“There’s so much stress, I think kind of self-imposed stress, that City of Richmond families take on themselves by belaboring the school decision,” Lyle said. “If we just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to our school, we’re going to invest our time there, [and] we’re going to make it the school we want it to be’–that that’s easier.”


photo courtesy of Karen Allen Photography

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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