John Simpson, the award-winning former Norfolk Public Schools superintendent and national expert on urban education, didn't pull any punches when he interviewed Richmond School Board members during the recent search for a new superintendent:
“Why would anyone want to live in Richmond and be superintendent of Richmond Public Schools?” asked Simpson, who was hired by the School Board as a consultant during its search to replace Deborah Jewell-Sherman.
“First, sell the city, and then sell the challenge,” I answered. “As in, Richmond really is a beautiful and exciting place to live. But, the most exciting thing that needs to happen is that we need to get our schools right.
“The next person who becomes superintendent of Richmond Schools better be ready to go for the glory and honor, ready to be the one who has the right combination of knowledge, power and grace to make real the promises that have defeated other superintendents, our city and our region for the past 50 years.”
Considering Simpson's reputation, I couldn't resist posing another question.
“So,” I asked with a wink and a smile: “Do you think you're ready?”
“Tempting,” he answered, “very tempting … but, I'm retired. However, I promise this: I know what you need and we'll find the right person.”
Notwithstanding valid concerns raised about the lack of transparency in the Richmond School Board's hiring Yvonne Brandon as superintendent, I believe Simpson delivered on his promise.
Six years of observing her work convinces me that Brandon has the brains and backbone to go for the glory and honor of successfully serving our children and our city. A 32-year career-educator relentless in her drive to give our children and teachers the means necessary to improve the school system's Standards of Learning scores, she knows scores alone will not make a successful school district. She knows multiple measures of success — increased enrollment, increased test scores, increased graduation rates, decreased suspensions, drop-out and truancy rates — must be met.
To those concerned that she won't bring change to city schools because she's spent too long in a system oft-criticized for being about “who you know” instead of “what you know,” I simply ask that she be given the chance to prove herself. To that end, I suggest a short list of priorities for the next 100 days:
Work with Mayor Dwight Jones, City Council and residents to bring about serious middle school reform. The proposed closing of Chandler Middle School for failure to become accredited presents a perfect opportunity to expand middle school choices and simultaneously make significant progress to ensure our schools comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If Richmond Community High School were to close and relocate to the Chandler building, the school system could easily add a middle school component to Community's curriculum and provide an additional rich and rigorous middle school choice for Richmond families.
Another easily attainable reform would be to add a middle school component to Franklin Military Academy. If such a concept works for Benedictine High School, why shouldn't public school parents have that choice? Brandon and the School Board could even place Franklin (and its expanded middle school) in the Chandler building and relocate Community High to Franklin's current location.
Franklin is fully compliant with the disabilities act, as is nearly Chandler. Still, each building would need to be upgraded to provide state-of-the-art technology for 21st century learning opportunities. Similarly, Henderson Middle School is nearly compliant and if the School Board and Brandon were to accept City Councilman Chris Hilbert's offer to find money for a middle-years International Baccalaureate (I.B.) program at Henderson, we would have yet another choice middle school.
Both Henderson and Martin Luther King Jr. middle schools are accredited and have successfully used single-gender classes to improve academic performance. It would be unfair to pupils and staff in each location simply to relocate Chandler's children without significantly improving our buildings and curriculum choices.
Either close Community High for possible sale by the city — or hold onto the property and renovate it using historic tax credits, much like tax credits were used to renovate the old Maggie Walker High School and turn it into a regional governor's school.
A state-of-the-art pre-kindergarten through middle school could then be housed in the Community High building and partnership possibilities abound with its proximity to the University of Richmond and St. Mary's Hospital.
Similarly, Binford Middle in the Fan and Open High in Oregon Hill could each be renovated and reopened with an emphasis on the creative arts enhanced by both school's proximity to Virginia Commonwealth University's outstanding arts and dance schools.
The Maggie Walker Governor's School is proof of many things, but most relevant here is that it's possible to find the money to renovate our schools by leveraging state and federal tax credits. It is further proof that if we offer a rich and diverse curriculum, we'll attract students from various private and surrounding county schools.
Net result: five additional middle school choices for Richmond families. Community High and Open High, consistently ranked among America's best high schools by U.S. News & World Report, receive rehabilitated buildings and Richmond parents receive additional middle-school options for their children. Franklin begins a middle-school program and Henderson receives a long-awaited I.B. program.
How will we afford it? The national economic crisis makes the idea of dropping anywhere from $12,000 to $17,000 per year for private or parochial school impossible for many families. By providing additional options for all parents, we'll avoid creating mega-middle schools that will warehouse far too many of our children, many of whom are living at or below the poverty line.
So, Superintendent Brandon, I hope you are ready, because never before have so many Richmonders been ready and willing to be a part of the solution. S
Carol A. O. Wolf is a former Richmond School Board member.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.