Make Binford Middle community-based and community-supported once again

Now, more so than any time in the last six years, the attention of the School Board and much of the city has turned to Binford Middle School and its future.

Dear Richmond School Board members,

Six years ago my family moved into a home one block from Binford Middle School. When we first moved into the Binford District I attended PTA meetings, I met with former principal Peter Glessman, I volunteered at the school with campus clean-up projects and with the community garden. Our desire is for Binford to be a strong, community-supported middle school.

During the last six years we have had at least one child (and now three) attend Fox Elementary School. The younger two also attended the Maymont Pre-K Learning Center. Our experiences with Richmond Public Schools have been positive, and we believe that Richmond’s continued growth as a city includes strong commitment to public education.

Now, more so than any time in the last six years, the attention of the School Board and much of the city has turned to Binford and its future. I’m glad for the attention, but I fear that the focus is misdirected. After participating at the informational meeting on Monday, November 24th, and reviewing the four proposals presented by the School Board, I find none of the proposals compelling. They are under-defined and feel desperate. More importantly, I fear that they don’t address the underlying problems. They aren’t entirely transparent with regards to the real issues within Richmond Public Schools, particularly at the middle school level.

While I applaud the efforts taken to include the community in this decision, we’ve been asked to make recommendations with only the thinnest amount of information about proposed solutions. We’ve been asked to make recommendations to solve problems that the school system barely understands. It has been repeatedly emphasized that there is a problem–namely declining enrollment and test scores below accreditation standards–but the root cause(s) behind that problem are either not known or have not been explained. To offer solutions to a problem without fully understanding it is short-sighted.

The real problem is this: Binford is not a community-based and community-supported school. Of the 216 students at Binford only 58 of them are from the Binford zone. While Binford has remained a desired option for some out of zone families, it has lost credibility with many in-zone families. Because transportation is no longer provided for out of zone students, overall enrollment has cratered.

Every year for the last two or three years a group of Binford-zoned parents of fourth or fifth graders has rallied together to invest in Binford. For whatever reasons, those efforts have flagged and suffered from a collective failure of nerve. Instead many in-zone families choose from these options: apply for the selective IB program at Lucille Brown, apply for school choice at another RPS Middle School (Albert Hill is the current school of choice), enroll in private school, or move out of the city. Each of these options further undermines Binford as a community-based and community-supported school.

Because the elementary school zones were re-drawn last year, it would make sense to re-draw the middle school zones so that community ties nurtured during elementary school years can be translated to middle school. Families whose children know each other are more inclined to send their kids to middle school together. Redrawn middle school zones must preserve community ties and racial diversity so that our city isn’t further divided. More and more, RPS needs to move away from one or two flagship magnet programs as the solution to middle school woes. We need strong schools in every neighborhood and equal opportunities for comprehensive education for every child.

With regard to the specific proposals offered by the Superintendent, there is no clear winner.

  • Expanding the Open High School model risks cannibalizing a shining star within the district in an effort to save a ‘failing’ middle school. It suffers from a lack of developmental understanding (namely that eleven year olds can’t
    assume the same level of educational independence as high schoolers).
  • The IB, College Springboard, and Fine Art suggestions all peddle educational buzzwords to woo parents, while
    lacking the substance to produce the type of school our community needs. They run the risk of only serving some students (in a magnet-like program). The presentations on these alternatives were plagued by a lack of specifics. Significant questions remain about how a Fine Arts integrated program will teach the SOLs and develop core competencies in math, science, and English. Very little data (and virtually no local examples) were offered as comparison points for College Springboard.
  • Fox Elementary (and other RPS schools) attract and retain students and families without specialized programs. They do it through attentive and competent administration, committed teachers, and active involvement of the larger school communities.

Of course, the elephant in the classroom in this entire discussion is race. My family (along with many of the other in- zone families) is white. Binford’s enrollment is 98% black (according to Binford Principal, Dr. Lyles1). Binford’s enrollment does not reflect the demographics of its zone nor of the city as a whole. Families like mine must not equate safe with white or more academically rigorous with whiter. Similarly the administration must not assume that speciality programs are the only desire of white families. Racially and socio-economically diverse schools that serve local communities are good for our children and good for our city. We need to see our schools as opportunities for fostering more socially-integrated networks for our children and for us. Part of the responsibility for these networks lies with our schools and the School Board. Part of the responsibility lies with the community itself. The problem at Binford isn’t just the School Board’s. The problem is ours.

That’s why whatever programmatic changes are made at Binford, I urge that a public relations campaign be central to the effort. The school administration and School Board must together reach out first to the parents and students, staff and teachers who are at Binford. They must hear that they are not being forgotten or replaced. They are part of the way forward. Second, the Binford and School Board together must reach out to parents and community partners in the Fan and at VCU who could be at Binford. It’s embarrassing to the district when School Board members demonstrate a lack of solidarity with the administration (from the Superintendent down through principals and faculty).

The school and the School Board ought to invest in strengthening partnerships with the community and families who reside there. What are frequently listed as problems can just as easily be seen as strengths. Binford has the smallest enrollment of the RPS middle schools. That means a more intimate learning environment, greater individual attention, smaller class sizes, and a better student-teacher ratio.

Dr. Lyles is an engaging leader. He is proud of the recent (albeit measured) progress the school has made on assessments. Binford is within walking distance of VCU. A community-based approach to the school would leverage that unique resource, by attracting teachers and implementing novel educational models. The Fan is full of local businesses which should be approached immediately for support, investment, and partnership.

Current enrollment numbers suggest that next school year Binford will have just over one hundred 7-8th graders, plus whatever 6th graders matriculate. A significant enrollment of in-zone students (both white and black) along with the committed involvement of families, businesses, and the local community could quickly transform the culture and reputation on Binford Middle School.

Families like mine need to be invited to invest in our community through commitment to its public schools. Joining together around our public schools is one avenue for cooperation, but it requires a posture of humility, listening, and mutual respect. I want my children to be prepared for a globalized world not merely through a curriculum that touts global awareness, but through a school community that reflects the varied diversity that makes our city great.

This is not a simple problem. There is not a simple solution. It requires strong and committed leadership. I urge the Richmond School Board to act decisively and quickly. Those of us in the Binford school zone with rising sixth graders are weighing options for our children right now. It’s impossible for us to consider hypotheticals that are fuzzy on specifics. Many of us are deeply invested in our neighborhood and are committed to RPS. Indecision or fractured leadership will only contribute to the further diminishing of Binford and the district as a whole. But bold and sustained leadership can make a community-based and community-supported Binford once again the pride of the Fan.

Erik Bonkovsky

  1. 93.46% black according to the Virginia Department of Education. You can see a chart of Binford’s 2014-2015 membership by race/ethnicity here. Or you can pull more data here. — Ed. 
  • error

    Report an error

Erik Bonkovsky

There are 4 reader comments. Read them.