Richmond’s public schools are deep into the 2018-2019 semester, with midterm exams on the horizon for some, and the long shadow cast by the condition of the city’s education hanging over all.
That condition, detailed in a report released on September 27 by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), revealed that less than half of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) met the state education standards required to be awarded accreditation. Additional data released by VDOE also showed RPS had statewide lows in on-time graduation rates and attendance, and statewide highs in dropout and absentee rates at a middle school and high school level. The sole omission was George Washington Carver Elementary, who became embroiled in a cheating scandal earlier this year.
For Gladys Wilder, a retired teacher with 30 years of experience in RPS primary, correctional, exceptional and special education that includes establishing an annual “book tasting” event at Swansboro Elementary, the effort to meet state standards is still fresh in mind.
“It was a struggle to get there. But Swansboro broke out because of leadership,” Wilder said. “I mean local leadership, in-school leadership, principals and assistant principals. It was a whole school effort.”
“No child, no human learns the same way. There’s no box where you can put every child and this is it. Our philosophy, and I’m sure the philosophy now, is every child can learn, every child can achieve. You just have to meet that child where it is.”
RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras seems to share some of Wilder’s beliefs. In a statement published following the report’s release, Kamras was adamant that any cause for the data’s findings didn’t come from the learning ability of RPS’s students, instead serving as “a reflection of our failure to provide them with the education they deserve.”
My administration is committed to changing this – once and for all – for every young person in RPS, Kamras said.
Wilder, for her part, stressed the importance of not placing guilt for educational failures on individual error, including parents and educators, something she felt may been implied in the wording of Kamras’ response.
“To me, is that like placing the blame on those who are in the trenches, the teachers? I will not do that,” Wilder said, instead drawing attention to the curriculums teachers are expected to abide by — and may occasionally have to veer away from to ensure all students learn what they need.
True to her skillset, Wilder referenced Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade in describing this situation RPS teachers are placed in.
“There’s blame all over,” Wilder said.
The state requirements for accreditation, recently updated in 2017, include increases in academic performance and decreases in failures in advancement, with special focus for high schools on absenteeism, graduation and dropout rates, in addition to the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates that were the sole criteria for accreditation in the past.
The continued presence of SOLs, and the challenges they bring to education, was a point of concern for both Wilder and Sharonda Ragland, an instructor in Virginia Union University’s Department of Mathematics.
“We need to stop teaching to the test,” Wilder said. “If you just teach to the test, and if the words in the test are not what you’re teaching, the kids are going to fail. Teach the child.”
Joining the conversation, Ragland adds, “And they don’t learn at the same rates, but they’re expected to take a standardized test that all of them may not be prepared for.”
Just because it works for one doesn’t mean it’s going to work for all. You’ve got to see what works for your school.
The topic of preparation for students is one Ragland is familiar with, serving last year in a math and science summer program designed to act as a “stepping stone” to college-level coursework for high school students, complete with college credit, improved study habits and early connections with other students. Virginia Union is also home to the Upward Bound program, offering graduating high school students in the RPS system a brief but direct experience at college-level courses and residential life.
Referring to her experience in the summer program, Ragland said, “The ones that have come in through that bridge seem to retain better versus the ones just coming from high school to college without any preparation. It makes a difference.”
The question of how RPS moves forward following this report is one with a number of answers. Tinkhani Ushe White, Ed.D., whose experience stretches from RPS teacher to principal in the Henrico County Public School system to School Improvement Specialist with Chesterfield Public Schools, suggests a path forward may lie in greater cooperation between state authorities, school divisions and the schools themselves. However, White acknowledges the difficulty this method may have with solving “issues outside the school’s control,” like absenteeism or poverty.
“The big thing there is for schools divisions and states to work hand in hand with their schools to try to figure out the issues that are preventing schools from reaching those minimum benchmarks, and then working to supply those needs and close those gaps,” White said.
Gary Broderick, an advocate for Richmond education and School Board candidate in Richmond’s 7th District, had his own ideas in his diagnosis of what he described as a “moral crisis for our city” in a statement to RVA Mag. Broderick wrote that fair funding and compensation should serve as parts of creating an ”atmosphere of support that makes long term investment in RPS a sustainable choice for teachers.”
“The path forward is clear,” Broderick wrote. “We must exert the political courage to demand corporations pay their fair share of taxes, so that we can staff our schools properly and wholly counteract the racist and systemic defunding of our schools.”
Some measure of Broderick’s recommendation may be coming to RPS, as Richmond City Council prepares for an uphill battle in requesting greater state support for public education as part of the city’s legislative package during the upcoming General Assembly session.