Open High School students speak out at school board meeting

“Who has the power to save our schools?”

At last night’s school board meeting, several students from Open High School (OHS) continued to make their voices heard regarding Richmond’s ailing schools and their state of disrepair. This is an ongoing subject that OHS students have tried to address recently.

Kelvin Tyler, an OHS student, took to the microphone, explaining, “[Mayor Jones] said to speak to our school board…you guys here.” He continued, putting the situation bluntly: “We’re being educated in unsafe environments” and “[the schools] need to be repaired.”

Given the short amount of time on the agenda allocated to public information comments (thirty minutes), the microphone was turned over to a Ms. Pollard, also an OHS student, who stated that, “School is a second home for us; where else are we to go? … My peers and I have been searching for an answer to this question. How do we improve the conditions of our schools to address the immediate safety concerns? And I hope that tonight we can get closer to the answer to this question. And I want to leave you guys by saying: Safe schools? Is that really a question that we have to ask?”

Another OHS student, senior Isabella Arias, took to the floor to sternly admonish the room, stating, “In the past week, we have talked to the mayor, the Superintendent, several school board members, and city council, but we have not received the answer we were looking for. Whose fault is it that our schools are in such disrepair? Who has the power to save our schools? The mayor pointed to city council and the school board. City council pointed to the school board. And the school board pointed to city council and the mayor. But we have finally found our answer: everyone is responsible. We are all responsible for the failing of our schools. And we all have the power to save our schools. The mayor and city council need to provide the accurate funding to help us fix our schools. The school board needs to accurately implement the funding. And the public needs to be aware of what’s going on with the mayor, the school board, and city council to make sure that they are aware of their actions.” She ended her comment on a hopeful note however, suggesting that “If our government officials and the public are able to work together then there is hope for Richmond Public Schools.”

After several other citizen comments on various topics, Kimberly Jones echoed the final repair plea for collaboration and cooperation from Arias when she formally thanked everyone for their handling of the tragic death of 8-year-old Marty Cobb, proving that they can all work together “to support the greater good.” Jones stated that she stands with the kids from OHS, asking the board to “bring that same ability to work together, to not only work with each other but to work with city council and to, for lack of a better word, pester them until they make our children a priority.” She went on to say, “It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about them, and we need to show them that. Not just when they die, but when they’re doing good in school, we need to show them that, and we’re not. If you were at the vigil Saturday night, one of the things said was that we failed. I failed. You all failed. The school failed. The mayor failed. City council failed. We all failed. We need to do better. We must find a way to do better.”

— ∮∮∮ —

Later highlights of the evening included a presentation on health policies in the city, illustrating the connection between education and better health (more information can be found via the VCU Center on Society and Health website). Of note is that Richmond reportedly ranks #121 out of 133 on health and #129 out of 133 on social and economic factors (for example, a high school graduation rate reported at 59%). The overall idea is that “healthy students achieve and learn more” and that “every child deserves a healthy learning environment.”

The Board heard a lengthy pitch for a Culture & Climate Survey, which included the push that such a survey is “not an exercise that just generates more data” and presents a “vehicle for authentic” two-way dialogue.

Bon Secours presented information about a proposed internship program called the GIFT (Great Influences For Tomorrow) Program. Their stated mission is “to provide local youth working in the healthcare training program at the Richmond Technical Center (RTC) with an opportunity for ‘real world’ hospital work experience.” To that end, enrolled participants would go beyond feel-good measures: they would “actually engage in a research project,” be “matched with a nursing and radiology mentor,” and would be given “life skills mentorship and education,” among other things. Neat.

The Board devoted time to teacher appreciation, and several members expressed their gratitude to those in the trenches. “Teachers are the lifeblood…[doing] the most noble public service job,” Mr. Bourne said. Ms. Taylor added a heartfelt closing to the section, saying simply, “To all our teachers, thank you.”

The board decided to delay the possibility of a year-round schedule for Martin Luther King Jr. middle school–“we cannot rush into this,” was the board’s sentiment. There are concerns regarding the costs associated with year-round schooling, but ultimately the board reached a consensus to possibly delay until another school year but continue working towards implementation.

Of the three items on the agenda for action, the addendum to the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts Charter School was postponed for two weeks. The Annual Exceptional Education Plan was approved, and a directive to the Superintendent to work with the city administration to request emergency funding for facilities was the final item on the agenda. This harkens back to the state of disrepair many of our schools can be found in, which OSH students spoke to at the beginning of the meeting.

This item (1A13-14-23) would give Dr. Bedden the ability to work with the Superintendent on “urgent issues at Fairfield and Thompson [schools] because we do not have money in our budget to cover these unexpected needs.” These needs specifically include AC/cooling and roof repairs, according to Deputy Agent Ralph Westbay. Westbay explained to the board that roofs do not need fixes at predictable times–there are old roofs that are great, and new roofs that are in need of repair. Ms. Taylor noted that she had recently visited Clark Springs, and “It was really hot in the office” and she requested an assessment, adding, “I don’t want those children who’ve already been traumatized by the Fairfield building being traumatized by” what could be a really hot spring. The directive was unanimously approved 6-0.

Photo by: Glen Sturtevant

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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