Kelly Gerow’s child starts kindergarten with RPS in the fall. Yeah, you got an opinion about that? So did a whole lot of people she spoke to personally.
Kindergarten registration for Richmond Public Schools begins on April 14. For many parents, making the decision to register their children at RPS is not an easy one. For many more parents, it’s not a decision.
Whether you’re still considering RPS, have decided to send your child, or don’t have a choice where your child is educated, it’s easy to become intimidated by a school system that is always in the news for its subpar facilities, budget issues, or City and School Board clashes. I’d heard and read low opinions about local schools for years, but by the time my daughter was able to attend VPI Virginia Preschool Initiative in Richmond, we had the benefit of knowing parents whose kids were actually attending schools in Richmond.1 Even though they were only one or two years in, most everyone was having a typical elementary school experience.
When I wrote about my interest in sending my daughter to Richmond Public Schools back in 2014, she was still two years away from starting kindergarten. The comments to the column were a typical mix of reactions you’d get when you bring up RPS: you’re a bad parent for experimenting on your child, it’s a terrible school system, the cost-per-pupil is very high so why doesn’t money solve all the problems?, and probably a comment about the baseball stadium. Basically, writing about city schools is click-bait. I’ve learned to tune out the anti-RPS rhetoric from people whose opinion of the schools is based on proudly not sending their kids, or from experiences years ago. A lot has changed, will change, and is changing with the schools, but there are kids trying to get an education today. Here’s what it’s like for the parents who are there now.
“We look at schools the wrong way,” according to Bryce Lyle. Lyle teaches in Chesterfield County Public Schools, but has been an active advocate for Westover Hills Elementary in Southside Richmond for years, way before his child was even old enough to attend school. He currently serves as the school liaison for the Westover Hills Neighborhood Association, and is a member of the WHES PTA.2
Instead of thinking about why schools are good or bad, Lyle said we should think of what works at other schools. If Richmond spends more per pupil than surrounding school systems, clearly money isn’t the issue. “I would contend that–as a teacher and a human–parental involvement makes a difference.”
That sentiment is common when talking to other parents and teachers in Richmond. And it’s echoed by the schools themselves–last year RPS launched a campaign called Be There RPS to encourage parents to become more active in their children’s education (“Be your child’s favorite teacher”).
Sharon May, a fifth grade teacher at Bellevue Elementary, who also has twins who attend kindergarten in a Richmond school, has noticed that parents make the difference in a child’s success. “If parents don’t or are not able to buy into the academic culture, teachers are fighting a losing battle to get their students to fall in love with learning,” she told me in an email.
“You as the parent are the best advocate for your child . . . your child is a part of a community by nature of their relationship with their school and by advocating for the needs of your child you are, hopefully, advocating for the needs of that entire school family.”
Angel, another RPS parent, has had three kids in Richmond schools. Her oldest recently graduated from George Wythe High and now attends college. She has a son at George Wythe and a daughter at Open High.
“It all starts at home,” Angel says. Her oldest was at a home school until she entered kindergarten, and in kindergarten she was reading at a third grade level. “She assisted the teacher in teaching the other children how to read.”
Angel credits her and her husband’s involvement with their children as part of the success they’ve had at school. They’ve worked to their children’s strengths and addressed their weaknesses.
“Don’t just talk to the teachers when there’s a problem,” she says. “I would recommend to always have an open communication with the teacher and the principals.” She added, “I went to every single parent/teacher conference,” even when she was told she didn’t need to go.
Whenever her children had any issues, Angel said that the administration at all the schools her children attended were receptive and supportive.
“As long as you are a parent who wants more information and wants to know how you could do better, and work [with the teachers], it’s a smooth process.”
She has noticed a difference in the attention the students get based on their class placement. Her eldest daughter was in all honors classes, and “They are pushed more. The teachers are more creative.” Students in honors classes are sometimes separated from the rest of the school. “I wish it was like that for all different levels,” she said of the more advanced attention they’d get.
Abbie, a teacher, has two children currently attending RPS and one who has graduated. Her children have attended various schools, including William Fox Elementary, Binford Middle, Lucille M. Brown Middle, Open High, and Thomas Jefferson High.
She and her children have had both positive and negative experiences, but she said in an email, “Rarely would any family go through 13-plus years of children in any school without challenges.” Regarding the different issues she’s faced, “As a teacher myself, I understand the surrounding factors for choices and decisions made. What was important to me was that the issues were always addressed.”
One of Angel’s concerns with RPS is how the focus in the classroom is fixed on SOLs (Standards of Learning) (PDF), which is a state-wide curriculum with testing that begins in the third grade. “I feel like the teachers are being held back from doing the great things teachers used to do.”
May also has concerns about the testing culture in the schools, both on the stress it places on her and her students, and how it will affect her own kids. “True education is about a love of learning, not a love of testing to prove that you have learned,” she said.
SOLs played a role in Page Hayes removing her daughter from RPS to enroll in a private school.
Hayes said that they were committed to using City schools, even though it was a neighborhood trend for a family to move away from Richmond shortly after a baby was born. Her daughter attended RPS from Pre-K through third grade.
“Our kid, being a fantastic reader and bright kid, was essentially warehoused while the teacher focused on bringing the lower-scoring children up to speed,” Hayes said in an email. No other teaching was being done during testing, with students watching videos during that two-week testing period when they weren’t actually taking the tests themselves.
The focus on testing, in addition to years of poor communication and “ineffective administration,” led Hayes to look elsewhere. Her family wasn’t interested in moving to Chesterfield County, especially with the large student body at a typical middle school, so she and her husband placed their daughter in an affordable private school.
While they hope to return to RPS, especially given the number of alternative high schools, Hayes has been pleased with their decision. “My kid’s education is more important than the school’s SOLs. She’s being taught how to learn, how to manage her time, and her homework supports what she’s learning in the classroom that week.”
Schools as a Community
Rupa has two children who are attending Richmond Public Schools, though she had anticipated that her family would be one of those that moved out of their city neighborhood because of the schools. Her first child was in a private school for Pre-K, and when she learned that none of his friends were remaining in that school for kindergarten, she started looking around at the surrounding counties and private schools.
It wasn’t their first choice, she says of RPS, “and the reputation of Richmond Public Schools is that you can’t get through K through 12.”
However, after meeting families on the school’s playground, “We kept gravitating to Munford.”
When her son first started at Mary Munford Elementary, she said it “felt like this wonderful elementary school firing on all cylinders.” Now with two children in the school, Rupa is in the school’s PTA, and is able to volunteer time to the school. She said that her children get attention from teachers, and are challenged and engaged.
Rupa credits the success of the city’s entire 1st district to Munford, and then credits the success of Munford to principal Greg Muzik and his leadership skills. “What makes a great school is the community inside the school,” Rupa said. She notes that Munford has less neglect than other schools in the city, but it still deals with a lot of the same issues as other schools. However, with strong leadership and parental involvement, they band together and accomplish things like raising money for equipment and making repairs.
Rupa says the parents don’t just talk about things like how many computers the school can buy, but they talk about what can be better across the district, and how they can keep their teachers. Rupa said that recent talks about teacher engagement and supporting teacher development has brought a “wave of energy” through the city regarding schools right now. 3:
“It’s an exciting time to be young and in the city.” She said she can see communities throughout the city rallying around their neighborhood schools because the young families don’t want to leave.
The Middle School Issue
Rupa says they will continue to do what’s best for their kids, and that she is constantly thinking about what’s coming up next. “‘Where are you going to middle school’ comes up, oh, four times a week.”
While you’d be challenged to find a middle school that is an ideal educational and social situation anywhere–most notably because they would all have middle school-aged children in them–a lot of Richmond families don’t commit to middle school despite having a good elementary school experience.
“We’ve lost a lot of great families,” Rupa says of her neighbors who’ve headed to the counties or gone to private school. As of now, she’s planning for her son to attend Albert Hill Middle, like a lot of Munford students ahead of him.
Kristen Larson, Richmond School Board member for the 4th district, says that the when it comes to getting ready for middle school, it’s basically the same process as with elementary school.
“The key to all of this is actually going to the school, meeting the principal, and getting a sense of the school’s climate and culture.”
As of the current school year, Lucille M. Brown Middle in the Southside is now an all-IB (International Baccalaureate) program. Larson says that on a recent visit there, she found the students engaged and willing to challenge her during their conversations.
This current school year is Binford Middle’s first as an arts integration program. Larson visited the open house as a prospective parent. She says that she’s gotten positive feedback from the parents and that the teachers are, “very engaged teachers who are excited to be teaching in a different way.”
Abbie cites high turnover with administration and teachers as an issue in some of the schools her kids have attended, including Binford and Hill, but that the school board seems to be working to fix those issues. She remarks that the principal at Hill, “really turned things around–she listens and makes change where change is necessary.” As for Brown, she says that the changes have been positive, and thinks her child is receiving a quality education. She also mentioned the art teacher and program as a highlight.
Open Enrollment and Finding the Right School
Open enrollment, the time period during which you can apply to place your child in a school outside of your zone, occurred this past fall for the 2016-2017 school year. Some schools are already at capacity and cannot accept out-of-zone students. However, the zone around Binford is intentionally small so that there are spots available for students to attend via open enrollment, Larson said.
If you are able to get into an out-of-zone school, with the exception of Binford Middle, transportation would not be available for your student.
Patrick Henry School of Sciences and Art, RPS’s only charter school, is open for all RPS elementary students to apply. The application for the next school year is closed, and students will be selected by lottery this year. An online waitlist application will be made available on April 4th.
A few of the parents I talked to did mention changing schools to fit the needs of their children (in addition to frustrations with the Exceptional Education offerings in middle and high school), so if one school in Richmond doesn’t work for your child, that doesn’t mean none of them will.
Most the schools in RPS are Title I schools, which is a Federal assistance program. From the RPS website, “Title I is the largest federally funded program developed to provide additional educational services to help disadvantaged students meet state academic standards. The purpose of Title I is to provide supplementary resources to students who attend schools in high economically challenged areas. Free and reduced lunch is used to determine poverty ranking.” Schools with at least 40% of students coming from low-income families are eligible for Title I funding.4
Richmond isn’t alone with stats like this–more than half of America’s public school students live in poverty. Programs like Head Start and VPI try to manage some of the inequalities due to economic factors to give students more classroom experience before kindergarten begins.
Let’s say that this reality doesn’t apply to you. You’re economically sound and your student is surrounded by books and support and has advantages that children from lower-income households do not. Maybe you’re worried that your child might be held back while waiting for other students to catch up.5 Or maybe you’re concerned that your child might be part of a racial minority within the school.
According to the NPR piece When Integrating a School, Does It Matter If You Use Class Instead of Race?, evidence shows that “When a school reaches a stable level of about 30% middle-class students, the lower-income students achieve at higher levels and the privileged students do no worse.”
Or to be more blunt: The Evidence that White Children Benefit from Integrated Schools.6
Get in the door
Visit the school. This is the most essential thing you can do.
If your option is a school that doesn’t have a good reputation, but you’re interested in sending your child, Lyle suggests that the first thing you do is talk to the principal. Next, find likeminded parents and get the neighborhood involved in the school.
Rupa says that you can’t learn about the inside of a school from the playground alone. “Get to know some of the families who are in your district,” she said. “Do whatever it takes to meet the community who is in the school.”
Catherine, another RPS parent who has a child at Chimborazo Elementary and one at Mary Munford, also recommends that hesitant parents go into the schools. “Meet administrators and teachers. No school is perfect, but we have found that our children are well loved by peers, administrators, and teachers at all schools within RPS. They need your support and really appreciate it, and by working together we can help our schools be all we want them to be.”
Larson noted the positive impact that open houses have had on enrollment and the school’s relationship with the surrounding neighborhoods. “The most important thing is to go into the school,” she said. “I’m looking to my schools across the district to do more outreach.”
“If you walk through the door and you have a negative experience, please share that, too,” Larson added. “Feedback is what helps us improve.”
I attended an open house event at my neighborhood school last fall. During the morning meeting with the principal, children who were selected to lead the tour, and other parents, I asked myself why I wouldn’t want to send my daughter there. What was I thinking that an elementary school was supposed to look like? I could see my child wanting to be picked to be part of the open house tour. I could see her in the school’s garden or in a classroom. Or even in the hallway stalling at the water fountain. I was charmed by the experience, and wondered what else could a parent on the fence about RPS be shown that would push them over either way.
The best part of the tour was taking a peek into the music classroom. The music teacher was teaching the kids to read music by playing the xylophone, which is a more economical choice over the recorder, the standard classroom instrument. Every child would have to have his or her own recorder, but xylophones are a shared resource and are easier to clean. The kids playing tunes on the xylophones were louder than all the other noise we hear about schools. It’s easy to forget that schools are not the buildings, but are the children inside of them, and kids are awesome if you let them be. And I always hated the recorder.
While I’m getting used to the idea that our children’s schooling will become a part-time job for us if they’re going to be successful, and I go back and forth between being discouraged and excited about school, I’m at least a little more prepared for what to expect, good and bad, and I know if we’re having problems, we won’t be the first to have them and will have a network of neighbors to help us navigate issues.
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Utterly confused about Richmond’s current public school drama? Don’t know why you should care? Check out our EDU FAQ series, and let us break it way down for you.
- Having friends walk me through the VPI process was essential, as I needed to be repeatedly told to lower my expectations on communication with the VPI office, though once the school year started, things have been great. ↩
- Read our profile on Bryce. ↩
- More about treating those teachers well here. ↩
- My daughter’s preschool is a Title 1 school. So far, it’s meant she gets free breakfast and lunch, and every month RVA Reads comes to read and she gets a free book to take home. Students who need the additional services are not singled out. ↩
- No one I spoke with mentioned this as a concern. ↩
- I’m not qualified to speak on the non-white experience, but when I hear a story about race or class issues in schools, I can’t help but think of Richmond. And since I have a public radio story for everything, give a couple hours to listen to this two-part This American Life episode on integrated schools. ↩