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A look back at Richmond Public Schools in 2019
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A look back at Richmond Public Schools in 2019

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More administrative and academic issues. A contentious rezoning process. National Teacher of the Year.

It was a busy year. Richmond Public Schools began implementing a five-year turnaround plan, which includes drawing new school zones for city schools and a drastic shakeup of how middle and high schools operate. The School Board, which grew more fractured heading into the final year of members’ four-year terms, will hold its first 2020 meeting Jan. 6 and will appoint its leadership for the coming year.

Before then, though, here’s a look back — in no particular order — at the board and RPS in 2019.

Rezoning

No school pairing is coming to Richmond.

After a year filled with debate and 59 community meetings, the School Board chose not to merge majority-white and majority-black school zones with the goal of improving diversity. Instead, the body redrew a boundary changed in 2013 and left other zones proposed to be merged as-is.

The proposals, first unveiled in June, called for three-way school pairing in the North Side and West End. Students would have gone to Linwood Holton Elementary for third through fifth grades, while Ginter Park and Barack Obama elementary schools would have served students in kindergarten through second grade.

Mary Munford Elementary would have had students in third through fifth grades, and students would have attended George W. Carver Elementary for kindergarten through second grade. Fox and John B. Cary elementary schools also would have been combined, with students going to Fox for kindergarten through third grade and Cary for fourth and fifth grades.

In another proposal, students would have gone to Munford through second grade and then Cary for third through fifth grades.

The idea controlled almost every meeting as the community debated how it should go about rectifying the fact that about 3 in 4 city schools are what researchers define as “intensely segregated,” meaning less than 10% of the student body is white.

“Resources don’t matter as much as relationships, and resources don’t matter as much as humanity,” said Kim Gomez, a 1st District parent, during one of four formal public hearings the board hosted. “This is the opportunity [to truly integrate]. It doesn’t come every day, and you guys can do it.”

The main opposition voiced was over the cost, which the RPS administration estimated in October to be between $617,500 and $842,500 per school pairing, and the district’s ability to implement pairing, especially as it tries to turn around a school division in which less than half of 44 schools meet the state’s full accreditation standards.

“Straight rezoning doesn’t cost any money,” a Munford parent wrote in a public feedback form that collected much of the opinion from across the city. “The money should be spent on the 20+ unaccredited schools in RPS, air conditioning, heating, building repairs. … I think it would be a gross misappropriation of public money for the school board to spend that kind of money on pairing.”

In other parts of the city, new boundaries were drawn to fill a rebuilt, 1,000-student E.S.H. Greene Elementary; a rebuilt, 750-student George Mason Elementary; and a new, 1,500-student middle school on Hull Street Road. Carver Elementary and Bellevue Elementary have also been tapped to be become magnet schools.

The plans approved by the board take effect at the start of the 2020-21 school year and don’t close any schools.

Teacher recognition

Richmond is officially home to the country’s best teacher.

Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher inside the city’s juvenile detention center, on April 24 was named the National Teacher of the Year on “CBS This Morning.” He became the first teacher ever from Richmond Public Schools and just the third in Virginia history to claim the title.

“It means my students have an advocate who is going to tell their stories and fight for the resources they need to be successful,” Robinson said of winning the award. “I didn’t get into [teaching] for this. I just got into it to help students and fight for them.

“Winning this award means I now have a big stage to fight for my students and what they need.”

The King William County native has spent the eight months since winning the award traveling the country advocating for more teachers of color in U.S. schools.

While not originally scheduled to do so, he met with President Donald Trump in an Oval Office meeting.

Robinson was also named the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Person of the Year on Dec. 16 alongside author Meg Medina.

The 41-year-old wasn’t the only Richmond teacher on the national stage.

Robert Dunham, who taught at George W. Carver Elementary School last year and is now at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in September. In the spring, Dunham had brought his hair clippers to school in case some of his students needed a haircut before their “moving on” ceremony, a graduation from fifth grade to sixth grade.

A picture of him giving haircuts to students went viral, leading to his appearance on the popular daytime talk show. On the show, Ellen DeGeneres surprised Dunham with $10,000 to pay off his car and an additional $10,000 toward a trip to Disney World.

Dunham has since started a nonprofit, Be the Change RVA, that partners with local barbershops to give free haircuts to students.

School construction

Construction continues on three new schools that are set to open in the fall of 2020.

The schools — George Mason Elementary, E.S.H. Greene Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road — are being built using money raised through an increase to the city’s meals tax in 2018. The increase — from 6% to 7.5%, in addition to state tax — generated enough money for the city to take out $150 million in bonds.

While initial estimates showed the construction of the three new schools would cost $110 million, the city is now looking at a $146 million bill.

“The reality is those numbers we had initially were just wrong and the numbers we have now reflect the true cost of building these schools in 2019 in Richmond, and my commitment is to make sure that we update the entire facilities plan accordingly,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said in March about the initial estimates that were compiled by former interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz. Kranz has stood by his estimates.

Kamras added: “This is not a case of cost overruns or mismanagement or anything of that nature. We started with bad numbers and now we have real numbers.”

Construction costs increased over the past two years and the required environmental certification has added costs, among other factors, the group overseeing the construction said in justifying why it is costing more than originally projected.

A group of local contractors said the costs are higher because the city didn’t use a competitive sealed bidding process, something city officials have vehemently rebutted.

All three schools are still on track to open for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

The construction of the new George Mason Elementary, though, hit a speed bump with the city’s historic preservation body.

While the school system wants to demolish the entirety of the current school, which is often labeled the worst school facility in Richmond, the Commission of Architectural Review ruled in November that RPS must preserve the façade of the part of the school that was built in 1922.

The district is appealing the ruling to the City Council.

School names

The three new schools are all set to open with new names.

The School Board in September voted 8-1 that it intended to rename Mason, Greene and the new middle school, which is replacing the current Elkhardt-Thompson Middle.

“Changing a name is but a symbol,” Kamras said at the time. “But symbols matter, especially today when so many Americans of so many backgrounds feel increasingly under attack.”

George Mason Elementary was named for the slave-owning author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as a basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights. He owned approximately 100 slaves throughout his life, according to the website for Gunston Hall, Mason’s 18th-century mansion near the Potomac River.

Greene was named for a former Chesterfield County teacher, principal and superintendent. Thompson Middle was named for a Chesterfield schools superintendent before being combined with Elkhardt Middle four years ago because of facilities issues. The school is being rebuilt on the former Elkhardt site on Hull Street Road.

The schools are among at least three in the city named for Confederates, five for slave owners and five for Chesterfield educators.

Another school, Amelia Street School, adopted Thirteen Acres School in 2019, and the school system is looking for a new name for the combined school.

A vote on new names is scheduled for early 2019.

Principal turnover

The churn of principals in the city school system continued for the third straight year.

The district replaced principals at 10 schools after the school leaders were put on improvement plans. New principals, including the 10 replacements for those ousted, were announced in June.

“As with everything in life, leadership is critical. Our kids, but also our teachers, need great leaders who can lead with love,” Kamras said at the time. “Leading with love is having high expectations for kids. Leading with love means you care about the whole child. Leading with love means it’s about social justice and changing lives for kids.

“We just want to make sure that every Richmond public school has a leader who leads with love.”

The schools with new principals this school year are Bellevue Elementary, Blackwell Elementary, Fairfield Court Elementary, George Mason Elementary, Ginter Park Elementary, George Wythe High, E.S.H. Greene Elementary, Henderson Middle, John Marshall High, Overby-Sheppard Elementary, Richmond Community and Thomas Jefferson High.

Students at George Wythe High walked out of school one day in April in protest of the ouster of their principal, Reva Green.

Budget cuts

The schools budget now in effect eliminated a net total of 49 central office jobs.

The budget, adopted by the School Board in June, eliminated 74 jobs downtown while adding 25 for a net of 49, or a fifth of what it had before the cuts. The cuts were part of a broader $13 million slashing that allowed the money the district got from the city to fund a teacher raise and the second year of the RPS strategic plan.

The board approved the budget in February without revealing which jobs would be cut. Those positions were released in early March, roles that included people who enforce attendance and analyze student test scores.

The budget also cut funding for the MathScience Innovation Center, an action Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties also took. The center was established in 1966 with federal grant money by the superintendents of six school districts to ensure students in the region had equal access to math and science education.

The center has cut half its full-time staff and shuttered its popular aquarium, among other changes, as it deals with the budget cuts.

Graduation rate

The city school system retained the lowest graduation rate in the state in 2019, with just 7 in 10 city seniors finishing high school on time last school year. In 2018, 3 in 4 students graduated on time.

The drop was foreshadowed months before the Virginia Department of Education’s October data release.

The RPS administration told the School Board in May that for an unknown number of years, educators in the city school system were rubber-stamping student work, choosing to use an alternative test instead of giving students the common state test, and putting students on individualized education programs to circumvent state graduation requirements. All of those practices inflated the graduation rate.

Nearly 1 in 4 students who would have graduated this year dropped out of school, according to state data.

Diversity and inclusion

RPS made several changes this year to try to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

The district started requiring gender-neutral caps and gowns this year, ending the decades-long practice of having separate colors for men and women. The move was made, the superintendent said, to make sure every student feels welcome at graduation.

“We want to make sure our transgender and nonbinary students don’t have to suffer the indignity of being forced to express their gender in a manner contrary to their identity,” Kamras said. “Graduation should be a day of joy and celebration — not discrimination.”

Chesterfield County is the only other school system in the area that has single-color graduation attire. Hanover County leaves it to schools to decide, while Henrico County has two colors across its schools.

In June, the School Board approved a new Student Code of Responsible Ethics that says students “must not be kept out of activities because of gender (except as allowed under Title IX), color, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” while also saying that the enforcement of the school district’s dress code should be consistent for all students, no matter their sexual orientation or gender expression, among other things.

“Our LGBTQ+ youth deserve to feel affirmed, respected and supported, and these policies help set the tone for this culture across the district,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Liz Doerr said.

The district is planning on gender-neutral bathrooms across the city starting in 2020-21.

English learner students

RPS continues to struggle serving students learning English.

The school district revealed in July that it didn’t properly count more than 1 in 4 students who speak little to no English. The error cost RPS hundreds of thousands of dollars and increased the workload of the district’s English as a second language teachers.

“Shame on us,” School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said. “It’s just another issue that we must and we will address. We’ve done a disservice to our children. It’s unacceptable.”

The undercounting meant the district didn’t receive money it qualified for from the state, which could have paid for the type of teachers and resources the district has pushed for in the past. The uncounted students would still get help from ESL teachers, which resulted in teachers with up to 40 students in a class when the district could have had money to hire more teachers.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” said Tori Pierson, an ESL teacher at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School.

Richmond’s English-learning student population has climbed significantly over the past 10 years, rising from 879 in the 2009-10 school year to 3,184 this year, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.

Carver aftermath

Fallout over the cheating scandal at Carver Elementary School continued in 2019.

Three former George W. Carver Elementary School teachers — Betty Alexis, Stephanie Burgess and Chireda Cotman — filed complaints in federal court in July accusing Kamras and the board of defaming them and violating their due process rights. A fourth former Carver teacher, Troy Johnson, filed a similar suit in August.

Kamras and the city School Board have asked the judge in the case to dismiss the suits.

The four were all teachers at Carver last year when a state investigation found a cheating ring at the school had improperly helped students on state tests. Some teachers would help students if they raised their hands or would give indications to students of whether items were correct or incorrect, among other things, according to the Virginia Department of Education report.

Carver had been a National Blue Ribbon school for its strong performance on state accountability tests, but the U.S. Department of Education rescinded the school’s Blue Ribbon status because of the cheating scandal last year.

In 2019, just 1 in 5 students at the Leigh Street School passed the state’s science tests, and 1 in 3 passed in reading. Fewer than 1 in 4 passed in history, and about 1 in 3 passed in math, making Carver the second-lowest-performing elementary school in the city.

The school system, though, will begin work in 2020 to implement a specialty curriculum at Carver in hopes of, like the district as a whole, turning it around.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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