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A Little Green?



A group of mostly South Side parents are attempting to trump the status quo and get the Richmond School Board to go green. The parents proposed the state's first charter school focusing on a "green" curriculum that integrates ecology and environmental lessons into all areas of study.

They first submitted the proposal to the School Board Oct. 6, and the board's review is ongoing. But there are hurdles -- namely, the School Board's malaise of internal dysfunction and political infighting with City Hall, not to mention a history of resisting charter schools.

"We rarely get people saying, 'No, that's not what the city needs,'" says Richard Day, president of the Patrick Henry School Initiative, the green South Side parents group. The group hopes to win approval from the board to use the shuttered Patrick Henry Elementary School as its schoolhouse — and the adjacent Forest Hill Park as its backyard laboratory.

"It's an absolutely perfect spot to have a green school," Day says. "My sense is there's a good chance [the School Board] will shoot it down, but they won't probably give us any solid, supportive reason."

Day's solid, supportive reason the board should vote for the plan? "In my opinion, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain," he says.

The school would incorporate a number of other initiatives much bandied about in education circles that frequently run aground on the treacherous rocks of bureaucracy. A year-round school calendar, mandatory uniforms and binding parent contracts mandating participation all are built into the Patrick Henry proposal.

"Charter schools are started to implement things the public schools can't do," says Day, who carefully qualifies the statement with a reminder that charter schools are still public schools and that Patrick Henry would be open to all city students.

The charter school question is nothing new in Virginia or around the country. The idea started catching fire in the early 1990s and culminated about seven years ago as President George W. Bush thumped into office promising education reforms and "No Child Left Behind."

Elsewhere in the country, charter schools have thrived and done little to prove critics' fears that they draw needed resources away from public schools or set up dual education systems in some districts. But criticism remains, with questions often tinged in subtle hues of race or class divides.

In Virginia, charter schools are more tightly regulated and tend to focus on specialty programs — such as math and sciences — or professional trades.

"We've had charter schools that have opened and subsequently closed," says Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education and the State Board of Education. "At one time, we had a dozen or more charter schools. Now we have, at present, three."

Fewer than 250 students in the state attend charter schools.

"In our second year we'd double that number," says Day, who expects 345 students at Patrick Henry by the school's third year of operation as a kindergarten through sixth-grade facility. He promises the school would reflect the complexion of Richmond, likely drawing as much on the surrounding, majority-black neighborhoods as on the core parent group — mostly white — that has championed the proposal.

The State Board of Education reviewed the proposal for the new school, which would be called the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, at its Feb. 21 meeting. Given no legislative authority to approve or deny such proposals, the board's review provided advisory criticism that Day says his group plans to incorporate into its evolving plan.

Day says he's prepared to answer less neutral critics, including those who've questioned the group's credentials. Those credentials, Day says, "include no less than a dozen" former and current public school teachers, including Greg Stallings, Richmond's 2006 Teacher of the Year.

What started as the vision of one Woodland Heights parent, Gina Wojtysiak, has since grown to include 150 active supporters and more than 300 petition signers.

School Board Chairman George Braxton is initially positive, but noncommittal, about the Patrick Henry proposal — particularly about the group's hope of using the Patrick Henry Elementary building.

"Obviously, it having not come before us, I can't express an opinion," Braxton says, but "I think they have some extremely intriguing concepts that I've been on record supporting."

There's no stigma around the charter-school concept in Braxton's mind: "So, is there a charter school that can work well within Richmond Public Schools and provide our students with something that's beneficial?" Braxton asks. "I have no doubt. Is this the one? We have to wait and see." S

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