Patrick Henry School finds a new home (for now)

Borne upon by an impossible-to-meet construction deadline to renovate the old Patrick Henry Elementary building, Richmond’s first charter school is now considering moving into temporary digs.

Borne upon by an impossible-to-meet construction deadline to renovate the old Patrick Henry Elementary building, Richmond’s first charter school is now considering moving into temporary digs.

Leaders with the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts confirm that they are in talks with Woodland Heights Baptist Church on 31st Street, just three or so blocks away from the Patrick Henry building.

If an agreement is reached, and if the Richmond School Board agrees to what would amount to an amendment to the school group’s charter agreement, Patrick Henry would rent unused portions of the church on a temporary basis.

Patrick Henry’s board sent a letter Wednesday seeking permission from the Richmond School Board to move its planned July opening day to the church facilities. The church building already is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the major construction stumbling blocks at the 80-year-old Patrick Henry building. Woodland Heights is already is used as an election polling station, a duty that requires ADA compliance to meet federal election guidelines.

“This is not a permanent alternate location,” says Patrick Henry spokeswoman Kristen Larson, who confirms that a lack of a lease agreement with Richmond Schools in part pushed them to the decision to seek other space. “In order to open in July, we have to begin construction by April 15. This is March 23 and we don’t even have [construction] permits yet.”

Larson also confirms that because of the nature of the negotiations with the Richmond School Board, which have been slow, school leaders began hedging their bets early this year by opening talks with the church.

The church, says Larson, represents a temporary – and hopefully agreeable – compromise.

The astringent smell of fresh paint and newly laid carpeting greets visitors to the church, which was built in 1917. Workers have been busy here, readying the building for the congregation’s 100th anniversary in April.

A large painting of the Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane looks down from one wall as a delegation from Patrick Henry, along with City Councilman Marty Jewell, tour the facilities. Jewell’s satisfied smile gave way to a soliloquy on the importance of small class sizes and a mourning of the loss of the community classroom.

“I’m a country boy from Goochland County and we had a three-room school,” Jewell says, rocking back on his heels delivers the punch line to his folksy yarn: “They only used two rooms — But I will go toe-to-toe with anybody that I got a good foundation in elementary school.”

The lower-level subbasement that house the church’s vast catacomb of classrooms gives a first impression of coziness – two or three classrooms maybe – but Jewell is about to be surprised.

Robert Johns, a church member providing today’s tour, begins opening doors. Up to nine classrooms are available just in this area, he says. If the charter school were opening at Patrick Henry, only nine classes were planned, and other areas of the church house more rooms that could serve as classes if necessary.

There’s also a full cafeteria and an elevator to the street level.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Terry Green, says he believes the church can meet nearly any reasonable request Richmond Public Schools might seek before approving Patrick Henry’s temporary move. Among possible changes, he concedes, is that the ADA-accessible bathrooms have adult-sized facilities.

“If it were a fairly small change, my guess is that the church would try to make it,” he says. “It would improve our space, as well.”

The religious iconography, like the painting of Jesus, will come down or be covered, as is currently done when other Richmond schools utilize church facilities around the city.

That’s plenty to satisfy Jewell.

“It’s a good space, but what do I know?” he summarizes, directing his comments at nine other elected officials who are not here, but with whom the decision rests to approve Patrick Henry’s request to move here. “I’m just fearful that you have a different School Board than the one that approved the application.”

Two years ago, Jewell was an opponent of the school, concerned that it might be an unhealthy avenue for white families in the Forest Hill area to create what amounted to a private school for their children. Since then, satisfied with the school’s commitment to diversity and including students from all over the city, his position has done a full 180-degree reversal.

It’s a reversal likely to be bolstered for others in the black community by the school’s announcement today of its first principal, Pamela L. Boyd, a Henrico County middle school technology teacher. Boyd is black.

“Our schools are reflections of our neighborhoods,” he says, worried that Richmond’s schools aren’t much to look at and ideas that could come from charters might provide inspiration to improve their looks. In the meantime, he says, “our villages are broken.”

For those interested in learning more about the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, take a look at the charter agreement with the Richmond School Board and the school’s proposed transportation policy (both are PDFs).

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Chris Dovi

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