Raising Richmond: City schools, county schools

We’re sticking with Richmond Public Schools because we want to support our city. And also because the school is right by our house and daughter already likes that playground. It would be weird if we didn’t send her there.

We live within walking distance of the elementary school that my daughter will eventually go to, and I’ve been aware of the school’s push for people in our district to actually send their children there for a while. At first I was confused by this. Was everyone in my neighborhood sending their kids to private school? How do people have that much money to do that? Can I have some money? Also, the school is right there. Why not just go there? You already paid for it.

Then I realized that parents pick up and move to a surrounding county instead of dealing with Richmond Public Schools (again: how do people have money to do that?). As the small kids we know get older, the trend seems to be about half go with RPS, and the others are heading out (or planning to head out) to Chesterfield County. Some of my kid’s friends will start with RPS this year. I’m looking forward to the feedback, though I have heard nothing but good things about the elementary schools where our daughter could possibly attend pre-K next year.

Recent news about the conditions of the schools that we’re sending our children to has been eye-opening. It’s important to make those issues known, and it’s been inspiring to see how the students and parents are reacting. I have faith that things will improve as long as people work toward it and don’t stop being outraged. I don’t know how I fit into this right now, as my kid is not in school. I’m in “paying attention mode.”

I attended Richmond schools for elementary school. My parents have implied that we moved to Chesterfield County because of schools. My elementary experience was great,1 but our middle and high-school options in the city weren’t.

I don’t know what makes a “good” or “bad” school. Schools have reputations for sure, and my friends who work for RPS and the people I know who work for Chesterfield or other county schools have problems so different that it’s like they don’t even share a profession. I think that a child can still do well at a “bad” school, but limited resources and teachers who can’t do their jobs the way they need to are obstacles that all students deal with and keep kids from doing better.2

Am I nervous about sending my child to RPS? No–not right now anyway. I admit that the middle school options look bleak to me, but I think that’s mostly because I don’t know what to expect. We’ll likely live somewhere else by then, and that location will be driven by schools. But that’s a decade away. By then I’ll know people whose kids have gone through it and can confirm that the school is not built on a Hellmouth.

I don’t judge people who move out of the city for better schools, or any reason. I see the appeal. I have drooled over the spacious houses that people have out in the counties that have closets bigger than my bedroom. Northside is on my list of places I’d consider living, and that goes across city limits.

I don’t want to end up in Chesterfield County (although Bon Air is adorable). No offense to Chesterfield (especially Bon Air), but I lived there as a teenager and all I did was wish we still lived in Richmond. Even as a student I knew that I was getting a mediocre education. I definitely had some good teachers, including one who irresponsibly egged us on to challenge the school and administration. I did well in school, but not because the curriculum was challenging or relevant. I did well because I had a few good classes; my friends were smart and funny; I read on my own constantly; and I had parents who were interested in learning new things. I am not of the impression that school alone prepares you for anything.

Basically, the only reason that I can see to go to county schools is that it’s less likely that a ceiling fan will land on my child during class. Those schools are old, too, and they’ll be hitting RPS-like problems soon enough. Those parents will then start moving out to the closest, more rural counties, leaving behind a trail of Wal-Mart Super Center breadcrumbs.

Richmond is being built up as a great place to visit, and not a great place to live. For those of us who do live in it, it’s like our tax dollars go to supporting the date-night needs of the surrounding counties and little more (maybe trash pick-up). I don’t know the incentive to move here and start a family if you’re looking at it from the outside. You can access the cool things about the city just as easily from Henrico. But if you’re already here, like me, it’s hard to find things about the counties that are as appealing as living within a mile of stores, restaurants, parks, playgrounds, the river, and schools.3

So we’re sticking with Richmond, and will be sticking with the schools. I know the challenges that we’ll have. I’m ready to fight on my child’s behalf and to understand the balance between student needs and resource limits. I’m ready to learn new math and bug my coworkers with her fundraisers. I think RPS will provide my child with a normal elementary school experience. We’ll see what happens from there.

Plus if I move back to Chesterfield County, my 16-year-old self will time travel and murder me. And she’s bigger and meaner than I am, so I am scared of her.

  1. I fondly remember my years at J.B. Fisher Elementary school. It was interactive with the city. The principal when I was there knew everyone’s names. I was also going to mention how excited I was to have Mrs. Brooks as my third grade teacher, and when I looked up the school’s website I saw that she’s the principal now. 
  2. I have zero qualifications for talking about what teachers and school administrators go through. I’m going by what I’ve read, and Friday Night Lights when the Taylors moved to East Dillon High. 
  3. Although I drive everywhere right now. Walking a mile with a three-year-old takes four days. 
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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

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

  1. Jason on said:

    One of the big reason I live in the city (and I think this is true of at least some others) is that you can actually walk or bike to places you want to go. Living in the counties pretty much means driving everywhere. And my neighborhood has character and houses close enough together that we know our neighbors very well.

  2. Jeb Hoge on said:

    All the way out in Chesterfield County (Woodlake), our kids also walk to elementary school almost every day. It takes longer to drive. And I really doubt the county schools are going to face the same problems that RPS properties do…we don’t have a mayor trying to spend our budget on an unnecessary baseball stadium, for one thing.

  3. I’m planning to send our girl to public schools here in Church Hill, but I’m sure whatever decision people make, they’re doing what they believe they need to do. For what it’s worth, I went to school in Chesterfield County and my high school was absolutely filled with leaks so that you could barely get down the hallways for dodging leak-catching trash cans. Also, I’d say that from elementary to high school, about 1/3 of my life was spent in trailers.

  4. We have no plans to go anywhere either, but it’s going to take EVERYONE making Richmond Public Schools their top priority for us to have schools we are proud of. It’s going to take hard work, time, and money.

    It’s a small thing, but ask your elected officials to go on the record: “Yes or no, are Richmond Public Schools your highest priority?” Record the answer here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1TJBtwzt8zAhZ5qZvrBBpWthnraLuap1pFJj_gl4MWFY/edit?usp=sharing

  5. Erin on said:

    Such a great article! I really appreciate your refreshing take on city schools, I agree with many of your points. I’m a teacher in the county and,while my school is great, my husband and I will be sending our kids to our neighborhood city school.

  6. Emily on said:

    We’re with you! Staying put, investing in our community and staying open to opportunities. Great article, Kelly!!

  7. Cathy on said:

    What a funny and relevant article! We live in the city and have a daughter in our neighborhood elementary school. We talk all the time about what to do in the future. We don’t want to leave and I’d rather not go private. So Sam Davis is right — we all have to insist that our city schools get what they need to improve.

  8. Eric Drumheller on said:

    What changes are we talking about with the city schools specifically? Is it the physical conditions of the school? (They are the same no matter what if your city or county) Is it the quality of Teachers? Seems everyone is okay with the elementary school, what are the issues with the Middle and High Schools?

  9. Rachel on said:

    Love this! Especially the Bon Air thing, I say the same thing! We are in the small minority if affordable homes zoned for Fox and are now in the awkward position of wanting to stay in the city FOR this amazing school. But dreading middle school years as well. You would think there would be people smelling opportunity when there exists a near universal dilema pleading for a solution….

  10. Jessica Hendricks on said:

    We have lived in the city for 15 years and our oldest will be starting middle school this year with RPS. If you are concerned about middle and/or high school options but are comfortable with elementary, I would suggest getting involved in volunteering at your zoned middle school now. It does take time to make a difference at a school and the more help they get now, the sooner you will see those changes. I have friends that kids starting Kindergaten this year and are on boards and raising money at their neighborhood high school now. Yes, we need to stay in touch with our city and school representatives for big picture things like the state of our buildings but we can get involved in small ways now that could make a huge difference down the road. I’m all for sticking with RPS and we plan to have our kids graduate from an RPS school!

  11. Greg on said:

    We live in the city (Woodland Heights) and have no plans to move but I can’t in good conscience send my only child to one of worst school systems in the state. While you all have mentioned noble reasons to send your kids to RPS (at least thru elementary), nobody has suggested it’s to get a great education, a school’s primary purpose. I hope this changes but I can’t imagine it without large s disruptive systemic change.

  12. Richard on said:

    I like Jessica’s suggestion to get involved in the schools that your child will attend later on down the line. It’s fine to raise a voice and tell the city, and counties, to ensure better schooling, but this is not nearly enough. Moving to a better school district simply perpetuates the problem. Active engagement, and not mere finger wagging and the raising of objections, with the schools, teachers, administration, and fellow parents is the only thing that can work. A school is not just the building, teachers, and students. It’s a part of the community we live in, filled with our neighbors, friends, and family.

    A good education can be had anywhere, if every right-minded and -hearted person stands behind it.

  13. Kara on said:

    The City of Richmond has one of the highest property tax rates in the country. Higher than Henrico and Chesterfield. That is how people “afford” to move to the counties – lower taxes and less expensive price per square foot real estate. There is a premium that comes with living in the city.

    The fact that you can’t get decent middle and high schools out of such high taxes, or even basic building maintenance suggests something is systematically very, very wrong. I am amazed at the amount of fundraising that must happen on top of paying high property taxes just to keep fans from dropping from the ceilings in classrooms.

    And you are not providing people date nights – they are providing you with sales tax revenue that is put towards roads, infrastructure and schools. It is no different from resenting tourists for visiting. The us vs. them moral superiority perpetuated by the city dwellers gets old. I don’t understand it.

  14. freddy2006rva on said:

    @Kara: “The fact that you can’t get decent middle and high schools out of such high taxes, or even basic building maintenance suggests something is systematically very, very wrong.” Yes it does suggest that something is systematically very, very wrong. Read a little local history and I think you will easily find that what is systematically very, very wrong is the combination of racism and economic injustice that has concentrated so much poverty in the city. While property tax rates in the city may be high, the total tax revenue capacity in the city is much lower than the surrounding counties and they are happy to keep it that way by forbidding annexation (thanks county-dominated General Assembly) and through exclusionary zoning and other tools. Some city dwellers may express moral superiority but that is only because we are making a decision that does not help perpetuate a long-standing system of racial and economic disparity. If you would educate yourself on the political, social and economic history of this region you would have some idea but go ahead and provide your glib take on the existing conditions without any consideration of historical or social context and the rest of us will roll our eyes in derision.

  15. Mike jasp on said:

    There is a HUGE elephant in this room.

    I like the idea of the hills/heights parents pushing for folks to get involved with the school. That is good but it can only work in a few schools (where it hasnt already worked). Fox and Mary Mumford have huge participation rate and noone would argue that they are not great elementary schools. Before anyone spouts off about income levels remember that parent participation for the most part free.

    There are 26 RPS elementary schools. Many of those zones have high concentration of some combination of underprivilaged or flat out bad parenting. Bad parenting is the key here.

    Those 26 zones expand to just 8 for middle school, and that is the simple explanation of the drop-off…the concentrated neighborhood school parents that ban together, donate and/or participate become a smaller portion of the stew….the “good” parents who care what their kids say, do and witness. Rich or poor they put their kids first with whatever resources they have.

    So back on bad parenting….and for those that want to put their children in a noble experiment for the greater good, cheers and thank you but my personal choice is no way. Bad parents….Dad left of is in jail, alcohol abuse, drugs, bad habbits, bad language, sex all taking place in front of young children..those children, in high concentration in the bad schools (vast majority in RPS)…are now sitting in class with your prim and proper well raised little girl or boy telling them what he sees and hears at home. Do you want that? I dont.

    From experience in RPS, i can tell you stories of 1st and 2nd graders re-enacting sex acts, being violent toward teachers, and speaking about drug paraphenalia. In those homes with bad parents….this is normal. They dont care. Bad parents dont care what language is used in front of their kids. They dont pay attention to what they see and whether its appropriate or not.

    Can you imagine the kids of those parents teaching your kids new things? With high concentration of bad parents in many of the RPS schools, this is likely to happen much moreso than elsewhere.

    @kara where on earth did you get the highest tax rate in the country data from?

  16. Teacher on said:

    My sentiments exactly! Well said, Mike jasp.

    “……and for those that want to put their children in a noble experiment for the greater good, cheers and thank you but my personal choice is no way.”

    –experienced elementary school teacher
    –will not send my child to RPS public school past elem school

  17. Caro on said:

    I really hate the “bad parent” argument that Mike makes. I read his comment hours ago and it still bothers me. I think a PUBLIC school’s role is to create an environment where every child can feel safe, grow and learn. I think adminstrators, teachers, parents and students can create this environment. We must stop this “good parent” vs “bad parent” BS and support all children in a school. Children and parents need the support of their communities and classrooms are a great place to start. Get involved people and remember that we are talking about children here!

  18. Mike,
    Coming from a teacher, you’re pretty far off base if you think those same conversations aren’t taking place in county schools very regularly. Like Sam Davies and others have said, it’s going to take everyone giving up their fear of the schools (their fear of CHILDREN) and actively participating to make change. And at the rate neighborhoods like Highland Park and Church Hill are improving, it is possible, but not if half of the residents are sending their kids to private schools.

  19. Brad on said:

    My wife and I have been with Richmond city schools for 10 years now. We have a rising 9th and 6th grader. I can only look at pride at my children who are very accepting of other children who are racially and socially diverse. You do have to stay involved and participate in the PTA and maintain an open line of communication, but what you will get are children who are ready to face a diverse adulthood and realities of the world that await them.

  20. Mr. Neal on said:

    I would love to look into a citizen’s group that would be willing to help change the attitudes and culture of the citizens in our area. Together, we could demand and strive the best schools in the state.

    The creative citizens in this town is something to be proud of…let’s do something.

  21. Brian E on said:

    Divide the total budget of RPS by the number of students who attend, then ask yourself how RPS can claim to be so underfunded when the math shows how much is being spent per student.

  22. singleterry family on said:

    As my 5 yr old approached elem school my family and I decided it was in my children’s best decision to move to the west end. Truthfully, I could no longer be selfish by using the personal perks ( restaurants friends etc) for what matters most a proper education. I cannot work good faith let my old fair city educate my child simply based on their results. We spend the most $ on students in the city and look at what we get.
    As a parent it is no longer about you..

  23. Cost per pupil figures do not include capital expenditures. We spend “the most”, in part, because it is so expensive to keep so many old buildings in operation instead of consolidating in bigger and cheaper to run, newer buildings.

    I’d be interested to see capital projects included in those cost-per-pupil figures for a more clear picture.

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