Charter school votes offer unprecedented insight

On Monday night, Richmond’s School Board ok’d Patrick Henry School’s temporary relocation to Woodland Heights Baptist Church. With that vote, Richmonders got something to chew on, too, thanks to a Round Robin-style forum prior to the vote during which each member gave a mini-stump speech to explain their reasoning.

If any lessons come from Monday night’s School Board vote to grant permission for Patrick Henry School for Science and Arts to open in a local church this August, it’s this: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch… or you just might have to eat crow.

With that vote — which decided in the charter’s favor — Richmonders got something to chew on, too, thanks to a Round Robin-style forum prior to the vote during which each member gave a mini-stump speech to explain their reasoning.

In ways that transcend the charter school issue, those speeches provided unprecedented insight into what drives the politics and ideologies of their elected School Board representatives — and left some charter opponents who thought they had a sure victory scratching their heads.

Going into the meeting, it seemed a veritable certainty that the end of the road had arrived for the charter. The opinions of five School Board members — a simple majority of the nine — were well known and all planned to vote no to the school. Another member, Adria Graham-Scott, seemed a likely no vote as well, according to observers.

Of the five who were known to oppose the school, Dawn Page, Maurice Henderson, Chandra Smith, Kim Gray, and Evette Wilson, there seemed little doubt that their votes were a lock. All have made no secret of the philosophical, political, or economic issues they have with the school.

With the question of moving to the temporary location came a far more fundamental question of whether the charter would be allowed to survive the evening, since a variety of delays have made moving into the Patrick Henry building by August a certain impossibility.

Most opponents of the school saw the evening as a period on the conversation. A no vote meant no charter school, end of conversation.

Henderson opened the forum. He represents the district in which the charter is to be located and who will face an election to remain that representative in November, and moved his objections largely away from his previous concerns about the school’s alleged shaky financial foundations, instead finding his new concern in locating the school –- even temporarily — in a church.

The change, said Henderson, flies in the face of a sacred separation of church and state.

Henderson’s fundamentalist views on church/state separations were not mentioned during his earlier report to the board on the district’s Early Head Start program. The program for pre-kindergarten students is operated by Richmond Public Schools, but locates many of its programs at churches throughout the city.

Gray came next, indicating that the question before the board changed dramatically between Sunday night — when she’d met with charter representatives and given them an emphatic ‘no’ based on the school’s finances — and Monday when she voted yes.

The change came in the waning minutes of the board’s afternoon work session, during a presentation from Jane Ellis, director of charter school lending for Self-Help, a non-profit financial organization that specializes in high-risk loans to charter schools. Ellis, citing the proposed school’s innovative curriculum as the only collateral needed to secure financing, told the School Board that her group was ready to provide a $200,000 loan to the school. That loan makes possible the charter’s necessary renovations to the Patrick Henry building on Semmes Avenue.

Gray agreed in principle with Henderson’s church-and-state objection, but indicated that the district’s own precedent for co-locating in churches and its lack of a stated policy against such co-locations meant that the rationale was moot in assessing Patrick Henry’s request.

“If they met the requirements of that bank,” Gray said, “I do believe they can meet our demands.”

It was a view not shared by Dawn Page. Page represents the district where much of the political opposition to the charter school is centered — the children of NAACP Richmond Chapter executive director and vehement Patrick Henry opponent King Salim Khalfai attend John B. Cary Elementary where Page once served as PTA president, and Khalfani spoke Monday objecting to Patrick Henry. Page said the school failed to show a “sustainable” financial model.

Norma Murdoch-Kitt gave her nod in favor of the school with little explanation other than that the school had adequately answered the board’s questions.

Coleman arrived for the long meeting wearing on his lapel a “Choice” campaign button, and cited Superintendent Yvonne Brandon’s signature drive to increase enrollment in Richmond schools from the current 23,000 to 30,000 students by 2012, as part of why he was voting yes to the school.

Coleman, an ordained minister with leadership ties to Richmond Hill and co-pastor of the East End Fellowship in Church Hill, gave no credence to Henderson’s religious objection.

“When we think of this building as a church, I have a church that meets in a theater,” he said. “Should people not go to the theater” because of its alternate church use?

Chandra Smith and Evette Wilson both cited perhaps the most surprising reasons for voting no. Both have made no secret of their objection to the charter school. When the School Board approved the school’s original charter two years ago, the pair joined then-Board member Joan Mimms in a walkout to protest the vote.

But on Monday night, both said their no vote was based almost entirely on the new location and its impact on students with disabilities.

“My problem is as an educator — I’ve taken the time look at the data and it’s unproven,” said Smith, first reiterating to her objection to charter schools generally. But it is the school’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act that she cited as the key reason for her down vote on the move.

Wilson even more strongly objected to the school’s failure to address ADA issues when moving kids from the church to Forest Hill Park where the school’s outdoor classroom is to be located. That outdoor classroom is central to the schools curriculum.

“I have a higher standard” for ADA compliance, said Wilson, who admonished the school for not accommodating students with physical disabilities along the few blocks between the church and the park. “It concerns me that some of those children wouldn’t be able to walk on the grass path.”

This July marks the 20th anniversary of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, an anniversary of no little significance to Richmond Public Schools which currently is in the midst of belated, multi-million-dollar renovations to its 50 or so school buildings to comply with the federal civil rights law.

Short of Gray’s switch, Adria Graham-Scott’s yes vote came as the biggest shock to the charter’s supporters, and surprised many at the meeting by revealing a sympathy for charters borne of her own child’s positive experiences in alternative education programs in Los Angeles.

She countered another of Smith’s objections — using children to experiment on with alternative education programs – by saying “experimentation is good.”

“Think of the value of penicillin – it grew in a Petri dish,” Scott said. “We have to recognize that experimentation is part of growth and risk is part of development.”

Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges voted yes for the church site, making a point of noting that she is the last remaining board member who voted yes for the original charter.

“I’m going to stay on that road for now,” Bridges said, cautioning the school on another point of criticism heard from both supporters and opponents of the school.

“It’s a two-way street,” Bridges said of the need for open-mindedness from Patrick Henry supporters, who she encouraged to learn more about the other schools in the district and the challenges that have held them back.

And Bridges called for something that has yet to truly happen on the subject of charter schools in Richmond: “We’ve got to have a community dialogue.”

So far, that dialogue has been confined to pundits, and it’s one that Bridges said needed to happen more broadly because the charter school issue “is an undeniable movement” that “has only grown exponentially and it’s one that we need to come to grips with as a community.”

The Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts is scheduled to open in Woodland Heights Baptist Church in August. No date has been set for when the school will move from there to the Patrick Henry Elementary building.

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Chris Dovi

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