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Charting a Course

Is the city's first charter school an innovative alternative? Or a drain on an already financially strapped school system?

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Levi Nolan is a first-grader at the Patrick Henry charter school. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Levi Nolan is a first-grader at the Patrick Henry charter school.

Dozens of parents are jammed, all knees and elbows, into the benchlike seats at a handful of lunch tables made for much smaller people. They're here on the first Thursday in February for a much-anticipated Parent Teacher Association meeting at the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts.

The school's new home, which sits next to Forest Hill Park, has been open two weeks, but getting here was no easy task: The original charter school application that created Patrick Henry was submitted to the Richmond School Board for consideration back in 2007. It took a year for the board to sign off on it.

As schools go, the look of the building is classic. Completed in 1921, the building overlooks the bend where Semmes Avenue becomes Forest Hill. The facade is painted a pale yellow with maroon-trimmed paneling. The former city school closed in 2007 after failing to comply with federal disability laws. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades later, its four floors include a finished basement of renovated classrooms, complete with windows overlooking the grounds.

Patrick Henry is Richmond's first and only charter school, and it's won broad support politically. In 2008, then-mayoral candidate Dwight Jones, and everyone else who ran to succeed former Mayor Doug Wilder, supported the school, which at the time was just an idea. When the General Assembly passed legislation that eased charter school regulations in 2010, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell brought his pen and the television cameras to Patrick Henry, a stately but aging building, to sign the bill into law.

There are plenty of reasons why proponents tout charter schools: They give parents an educational alternative in a cookie-cutter public school system, a chance to test new teaching methodologies that can be transferred throughout the system and the promise of a more rigorous education.

For the inner city, charters such as Patrick Henry hold the hope of something greater: a critical schooling option that keeps middle-class families from fleeing for the suburbs once their children reach school age.

You can't tell from watching recess, but even after the opening of the Patrick Henry School's permanent home, its fate remains up in the air. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • You can't tell from watching recess, but even after the opening of the Patrick Henry School's permanent home, its fate remains up in the air.

Richmond has experienced a residential renaissance in the last 20 years, with younger professionals and couples eschewing the 'burbs for a more urban neighborhood experience. But public schools are perceived as superior in the suburbs, creating a crippling Catch-22. When families leave, they take their middle-class tax base, and the city remains mired in a concentration of lower-income families and poverty. City schools are left with poor children on top of poor children.

They key to breaking the cycle, proponents of charter schools say, is offering educational options. At Patrick Henry, the curriculum aims to better prepare the school's 200 or so pupils for academic achievement down the line, an idea typically reserved for private and public schools in the surrounding counties.

But not everyone's on the same page. The School Board and Patrick Henry's board of directors have been sniping at each other for months. The School Board charges that Patrick Henry's finances are in disorder, the curriculum is a mess and the school isn't complying with the conditions of its charter. The Patrick Henry board says the School Board is trying to undermine it, and isn't giving the school a chance.

That's left parents feeling anxious about Patrick Henry's future. About 60 of them sit under fluorescent lights inside a cavernous lunch room Feb. 2, waiting on that one lonely table near the front to fill up. It's the one with paper placards emblazoned with the names of the nine Richmond School Board members.

"It was decided to be for the best that the entire School Board and the superintendent not be here tonight," 7th District School Board member Don Coleman says, glancing toward the empty table. Coleman is one of only two School Board members who shows up. He tells the crowd about an agreement reached with Patrick Henry's board of directors that School Board members wouldn't engage with Patrick Henry's PTA while the two sides continued to work toward less contentious communications. In other words, they found that the best solution was to stop talking to one another.

Progress is being made in repairing that relationship, Coleman says, "But there are still some issues."

For PTA head Joy Simpson, the empty School Board table is indicative of how the two groups have been working together — or not — for months. "There's a lot of trust issues," she says. "You have to understand that this is the first time that either of these two groups has been in a working relationship like this, and there are things that have not been getting done on both sides."

Members of the Patrick Henry board of directors, Sharon Burton and Kristen Larson, listen to Don Coleman, a member of the Richmond School Board, explain the absence of his colleagues at a February meeting of the school's PTA. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Members of the Patrick Henry board of directors, Sharon Burton and Kristen Larson, listen to Don Coleman, a member of the Richmond School Board, explain the absence of his colleagues at a February meeting of the school's PTA.

THE SCHOOL BOARD first approved Patrick Henry in October 2008 after protracted, citywide discussion about the efficacy of charter schools. After a few highly publicized missteps, the school opened the doors to its permanent home in mid-January.

The question facing the city is twofold: Can the passionate group of parents and supporters who've shepherded the Patrick Henry project successfully keep it going? And is the Richmond School Board, long thought to be quietly resentful of the charter's passage, offering the support necessary to do so?

These two groups with very different missions have pledged to create a semiautonomous educational institution from scratch — together. No easy task. And the tensions have more than flared since the school opened in August 2010. The founding members of the school have engaged in protracted battles with the Richmond schools, not to mention intense internal feuding. There's a state police investigation into alleged embezzlement at the school, and one former Patrick Henry board member is suing another former board member for defamation.

The current board is trying to bury the hatchet, including Sharon Burton, recently named president of Patrick Henry's board. Ask her about the appearance of tension between the two sides, and you can hear the diplomacy in her voice. Short, with tightly cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Burton dismisses the idea that the School Board's dealings with Patrick Henry have been adversarial. Instead, she describes it as "challenging."

"Each board here has needs," she says. "We're trying to get together to find out what those needs are so that we can move forward."

Likewise, School Board member Kim Bridges, who until recently served as its chairman, rejects out of hand the notion that its members have been "recalcitrant" in their dealings with Patrick Henry's board of directors. "We will be thrilled at their success," she says. "But it is the responsibility of this board to make sure that they deliver on what was agreed to in the charter agreement."

Indeed, in authorizing Patrick Henry's charter, the School Board volunteered to be the school's overseer. Under Virginia law, charters can be granted only by local school boards. Those boards also retain the authority to revoke a school's charter if the charter agreement isn't honored, or if any state or local laws are broken. Ultimately the board is responsible for ensuring that Patrick Henry's educational and fiduciary goals are met, a role it hasn't always embraced with grace.

PTA President Joy Simpson says she's drawn to Patrick Henry because of the specialized curriculum. She wants the governing bodies of the charter school and the Richmond Public Schools to find common ground to ensure it remains open. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • PTA President Joy Simpson says she's drawn to Patrick Henry because of the specialized curriculum. She wants the governing bodies of the charter school and the Richmond Public Schools to find common ground to ensure it remains open.

In a letter dated Dec. 14 that Bridges sent to the board, she outlines the ways that the Patrick Henry Board isn't holding up its end of the charter agreement, as the Richmond School Board sees it.

Among the areas of concern: the integrated science-based curriculum, which Bridges writes was critical to the board's approval of the charter. According to the letter, it has yet to be developed or implemented to the Richmond board's satisfaction.

Also figuring prominently, Bridges writes, is that the Patrick Henry board's quarterly financial reporting to the Richmond School Board is spotty, with some reports arriving incomplete or with incorrect information.

But it's difficult to find a charge included in the letter that school officials don't have an answer for. For example, while it's true that the formal curriculum hasn't been submitted to the School Board, teachers at Patrick Henry are using a Richmond schools model that incorporates the "integrated curriculum," charter-school spokeswoman Kristen Larson says. Administrators are writing the curriculum with plans of submitting it to the School Board for approval within the year.

As far as the financial accusations, Larson says that the board has complied with the conditions of the charter to submit accurate quarterly reports. Setting aside the financial information related to the continuing renovation of the school property, the board's latest budget projections have the school managing to operate on per-pupil funds through 2012.

But this may not be about compliance or budgets — not Patrick Henry's, at least. The school is only 18 months old. "We're still in our infancy," Burton says. If they've stumbled, she says, it's primarily because the school is in, well, unchartered territory. As with any new business or venture, there are going to be mistakes and challenges.

Under the charter agreement, Patrick Henry's organizers promise that the school will be economically and racially diverse. They say they're delivering, with a racial makeup of 55 percent black, 40 percent white and 5 percent other. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Under the charter agreement, Patrick Henry's organizers promise that the school will be economically and racially diverse. They say they're delivering, with a racial makeup of 55 percent black, 40 percent white and 5 percent other.

THE SCHOOL BOARD is now asking for various addendums to Patrick Henry's charter, one of which gets right to the question of whether the roster of the school's board of directors can be successful in its stewardship of the school.

In documents obtained by Style Weekly, the School Board asks Patrick Henry to reconstitute itself in order to "ensure the inclusion of individuals who, at a minimum, possess expertise in the areas of fiscal management, instructional program design and implementation, and school administration."

Antione Greene, who only recently completed a three-year term on Patrick Henry's board, has expressed doubts about the school's fiscal management, educational expertise and political savvy. "We have good, well-intentioned people on the board, but at times I really questioned our ability to execute certain goals with respect to the charter agreement," he says, adding that the board lacks members well-versed in "long-term financial sustainability, development and the importance of maintaining relationships with local and state officials."

Burton concedes that the school could benefit from bringing on a board member experienced in education program design, especially in the coming year while administrators institute the new curriculum. But after discussing the idea of wholesale turnover at the board's meeting last week, she and most other members seem inclined to balk.

"When you look at their [city School] Board, it's fair to examine how many of them have expertise in education, development and business," Burton says. "This is what they're asking of us. I think the difference is that in terms of governing, they have a superintendent and a bureaucracy of experts giving them advice."

Asked about the likelihood of the board agreeing to the changes, Burton says it will solicit more information and will have a response soon. The School Board's proposed addition suggests that the process be completed by the end of the academic year.

Still, the brusque tone of the correspondence between the two boards hints that the tension is due to more than a crisis of confidence.

Burton was voted president of the board of directors in September 2010. One thing she wasn't prepared for, she says, was the politics. "There were always going to be those people were opposed to charter schools from the beginning," she says.

Opinions vary, even among members of the School Board. "We can have philosophical conversations all day long as far as whether charters are good or bad, but the reality is that we have a charter and we need to give them what they need to succeed," says School Board member Kimberly Gray, one of the two board members who attended the February PTA meeting.

But the real conundrum is this: Assuming that the opponents have good reason to oppose a proliferation of charter schools, what's the potential cost of Patrick Henry's success? Depending upon whom you ask, the Patrick Henry School either will distract educators from increasing achievement at all public schools, or serve as a test kitchen for determining what teaching methods could work at all of Richmond's elementary schools.

Put another way, charter schools like Patrick Henry are like "double-edged-swords," says Thad Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies and economics at the University of Richmond. "The very idea of an independent charter school implies that something is wrong with the overall school system," he says. "Any innovation like this is going to attract criticism. So a rocky relationship between a governing body like a school board and the charter school is understandable."

But does a Patrick Henry's success stand as a symbol for all that's wrong with Richmond schools? Or is it an indictment of the black elite that have held power in Richmond for nearly 30 years? Neither, Williamson says: The problem is larger than the real or perceived failings of city's school system.

"It's a lot more difficult than that. You can't blame the people who are trying to help for the segregation policies that created clusters of poverty in this city," he says. "When you have those high concentrations, when you cluster lots of students with those issues together in the same learning environment, education is going to be an uphill battle."

By all indications, those challenges are about to multiply. In the coming year, Richmond Schools must contend with a $23 million budget shortfall because of shrinking contributions from the state.

In contrast to the Patrick Henry PTA meeting, Richmond school Superintendent Yvonne Brandon outlined a number of painful cost-saving strategies last week at a nearly empty budget work session at City Hall. Among them, decision makers have to decide by Feb. 16 between increasing elementary school class sizes or eliminating more than 100 teaching positions — or some combination of both.

Meanwhile, at the Patrick Henry School, pupils scored above the state average in the annual round of Standards of Learning testing, according to recently released reports. Administrators and teachers at the school chalk that up to small average class sizes for the 200 children, as well as the interactive curriculum.

Antione Green, a former member of the Patrick Henry board of directors, worries that it lacks members with specialized experience to deliver on promises made in its charter. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Antione Green, a former member of the Patrick Henry board of directors, worries that it lacks members with specialized experience to deliver on promises made in its charter.

It's good news in a season of bad. More of it could change the perception of city schools, which could entice parents with middle-school-aged children to stick around. For now, more than 75 percent of the city's estimated 23,000 children receive free or reduced lunch. Enrollment at Richmond middle schools dropped from 5,941 for the 2001-'02 calendar school year to 4,455 for the 2009-'10 school year.

"We weren't considering relocating out to the counties," says Joy Simpson, whose son is a fourth-grader at Patrick Henry. She serves as president of the school's PTA. But her son needed smaller-class sizes to excel, she says. That was the draw to Patrick Henry. "Every parent should get some choice to find the curriculum that fits the needs of their child," she says. "Some of our neighborhood schools are offering very little to the kids who have no choice but to attend them."

Increased choice comes with a price, Williamson says. Creating more options for middle-class parents is likely to also create educational environments that actually increase inequalities, he says.

In other words, charter schools are likely to siphon away higher-achieving children from already struggling city schools.

Case in point: For parents, one of the requirements of having a child attend Patrick Henry is participation. It's one of the selling points of the curriculum. Parents who are engaged in the academic lives of their children, and in the school where the child receives their education, help kids achieve.

Drawing academically inclined pupils with motivated parents out of their zoned schools and into the enclave of a charter school indeed may help the individual. But what about the school they leave behind, state Delegate Jennifer McClellan asks. "What worries me is the possibility that if you take the best and brightest from Carver and other elementary schools," she says, "where those types of parents are desperately needed, it will have a negative effect on the schools they left behind."

McClellan, a Democrat who represents Richmond and parts of Henrico County, says that she and other members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus remain concerned about legislation that Gov. Bob McDonnell has championed designed to lessen the hurdles that a charter-school initiative must clear before being approved. "I don't want a proliferation of charter schools causing public schools to be ignored," she says.

Where does that leave Patrick Henry School? The same place it's always been, underneath a microscope with a perhaps hostile lab partner in the Richmond schools.

In all likelihood, the two sides will continue to butt heads, even as they publicly declare a willingness to work together. For example, the Richmond schools are pushing Patrick Henry to shelve its plan to take ownership of the building that it's already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating.

Patrick Henry's board wants Richmond schools and City Council to declare the building as surplus and transfer ownership to the Patrick Henry Foundation, which will allow the board to use the property as collateral and secure additional funds for renovations. The School Board, however, has so far balked at the plan.

"If we surplus any building, by city ordinance we get the funds back into our capital fund," says School Board member Kim Bray. "But if we surplus the building and Patrick Henry defaults on the loan, we lose the building and we lose any money that would have come back from the sale."

The building's renovation is slated to be complete by 2013, but that may not be possible if Patrick Henry can't gain ownership of the property.

Children head downstairs to art class to learn, among other things, about Chinese New Year. It’s just one example of the school’s integrated curriculum, which pulls a variety of subjects across different fields of study. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Children head downstairs to art class to learn, among other things, about Chinese New Year. It’s just one example of the school’s integrated curriculum, which pulls a variety of subjects across different fields of study.

While seemingly petty, the disagreements are steadily coming to define what Richmond Public Schools' relationships with future charter school projects will look like. Indeed, after Patrick Henry's arrival, the Richmond schools are preparing for the inevitability of additional charter school applications, says School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page.

The School Board has recently convened a charter school task force, which aims to improve how it assesses new applications and create barometers for teacher and pupil performance. It's a sign of the School Board's commitment, Page says.

Still, that message may not come across so clearly to those on the receiving end.

"Some of the back and forth has been less than encouraging," Burton says. "There's a better way to communicate. The two boards are going to have to get together and find out what that is." S

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