Despite the summer heat baking off Harvest International Full Gospel Baptist’s blacktop Wednesday afternoon, children were outside counting play money, having spelling competitions, jumping rope and hula hooping.
Many were having so much fun, they didn’t realize they were learning. That was the point.
The children, a mix of Petersburg City Public School students and those attending Harvest International’s day care, waited patiently outside as a member of the Petersburg schools support staff set up various learning activities Wednesday afternoon, many focused on reinforcing mathematics and reading skills.
The youngest children threw inflatable six-sided dice into the air, yelling out the number when it fell and jumping rope or hula-hooping that many times.
Then they escaped the heat and had a phonics lesson under one of four learning tents. Equipped with whiteboards and markers, the kids raced each other to write various letters in both upper and lowercase and then spelled out various words, including “hat,” “rat” and “mop.”
The support team is traveling by bus all summer, meeting children and families wherever they are. In the works for about two years, the school system recently refurbished a bus to create a resource center on wheels.
Called “The Wave,” a nod to the high school’s Crimson Wave moniker, the bus functions as a mobile library and learning site, internet cafe with Wi-Fi access and a career center.
Bracina Hill, director of the Harvest Child Care Center, ran a virtual learning pod of children for the past year and noticed kids struggle with phonics, reading and math. Bishop Mary Bonner called the school system to see if there were any summer learning opportunities. The Wave bus now stops at the church once a week.
“Our goal and our pastor’s goal is that we get these kids ready to transition [back to in-person learning],” Hill said.
In the 2018-2019 academic year, Petersburg third graders had the second-lowest passing rate for the reading state accountability test, surpassing Richmond by less than a single percentage point. Compared to the state’s 70.3% pass rate, Petersburg’s rate was 49.6%, according to United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.
Third grade is where the rubber meets the road for reading. No longer are students learning to read; rather, they are reading to learn. If a third-grader can read at grade level, they are significantly more likely to succeed throughout their schooling years and graduate high school on time.
“I think the first thing [the bus is doing] is showing them that learning can be fun,” said Frank Aikens, a member of the Petersburg schools student support staff. “Kids sometimes aren’t willing to learn because it seems boring.”
The school district wants to build trust and a closer relationship with its families, and to do so, it needs to meet the families where they are — in their neighborhoods, said Pam Bell, chief student advancement officer with Petersburg schools.
Some goals of the bus include supporting parents in finding a job and handing out books to children. Adults can create résumé on-site and prepare for interviews.
As a student support staff member, Aikens helps students and families with anything they need, as he and his colleagues want kids to focus on learning rather than worrying about everyday responsibilities. If Aikens can help eliminate obstacles for families, for example, connecting families who may need housing assistance, he knows he’s doing his job, he said.
According to United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg, 34.6% or roughly 2,356 of Petersburg’s children were living below the poverty line in 2019. At the time, Petersburg’s child poverty rate was roughly three times larger than the state’s 13.3% rate.
As the city faced financial ruin five years ago, the school system received less than bare-bones local funding despite a state mandate and the fact that students were already among the lowest-performing in the state.
Having begun that fiscal year $19 million in arrears and $12 million over budget, the city owed the struggling school district $1.9 million by June 30, 2017, but it didn’t have it. At the time, the state requirement, established to ensure districts receive the necessary funding to meet benchmarks for quality education, set the spending floor at about $7.6 million for Petersburg.
Two months later, the then-named A.P. Hill Elementary was the subject of a state investigation that found students cheated on state accountability tests. Teachers were fired, and the principal was abruptly moved to the high school.
The school system is still receiving bare-bones funding to this day. For the current fiscal year, which began July 1, the school system received a flat $10 million from the city, for the second year in a row. The district had requested $11 million for the current fiscal year.
Last fall, schools chief Maria Pitre-Martin said limited local funding would hurt the school system’s ability to execute a five-year plan, which seeks to lift up the entire Petersburg community and improve student academic achievement.
While facing years of underfunding, the school district closed its doors for a year during the coronavirus pandemic. Petersburg schools were completely virtual until March, when about 30% of the district’s students returned to the classroom in phases. That left 70% of students still learning entirely from home.
This summer, Aikens is reconnecting with students, many of whom he hasn’t seen since before the start of the pandemic, including Paloma Vazquez, an incoming eighth-grader at Vernon Johns Middle School.
With a stack full of paper money in her hands, 13-year-old Paloma counted out $2,700 on Wednesday. She spent most of the afternoon at the money table, pretending to be shopping, smiling as she counted imaginary bills.
The bus will travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in July, as well as on Mondays starting in August. Once school starts, the bus will only travel by request.
The district is looking to park in on the streets of neighborhoods, apartment complexes, churches, nonprofits and the city government. It is looking to add Walmart and Target parking spots in the future.
Upfront costs to get the bus running was in the ballpark of $75,000, which paid for an air conditioner, a generator, technology, furniture and resource materials.
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