A year ago, State Sen. Donald McEachin and Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson demanded to know why 75 percent of Henrico County’s school suspensions are of black students, who make up only 37 percent of the student body. It reportedly is the highest disciplinary disparity in the state.
Not surprisingly, a recent report from the Virginia Department of Education reveals that of the 17 Henrico public schools recently denied full state accreditation, all but one were from majority black eastern districts of the county. Ten were in the Varina District and were accredited with warnings, six were in the Fairfield District and one was in Brookland. By comparison, all schools in mostly white western Henrico districts of Tuckahoe and Three Chopt were fully accredited except Kaechele Elementary, which was too new for full evaluation.
Recently, I was one of eight finalists for the Three Chopt seat on the Henrico County School Board. The board selected another candidate, real estate lawyer Robert G. “Rob” Boyle Jr. But I remain deeply concerned about Henrico schools — largely because of these segregationlike disparities that are stark and consistent in the mostly black schools of eastern Henrico County.
School Board members expressed alarm and frustration about the initial accreditation reports. Such findings fly in the face of the board’s own strategic plan, which declares the district’s commitment to fairness across race and class — an ideal not reflected in the reality of actions and outcomes in the school system.
The plan declares a belief in “accountability” and “excellence with equity,” and it acknowledges that “respecting diversity enriches the individual and community.” The plan also vows: “We will never tolerate discrimination.” “We will never compromise excellence.” “We will always base our decisions and actions on the best interests of students.”
If those words mean anything, the School Board would be operating in a state of emergency. In fact, board member John Montgomery, who represents Varina — the district with the most failing schools — has asked what will be done differently to reverse the trend.
I have a different question: Why has nothing been done by now? Sixteen schools, all in majority black, impoverished districts, were denied full accreditation. The conditions that led us here did not happen overnight. It took years of erosion. And now, in order to reverse the trend, the School Board must not only retrace its steps, but every one of its members must take leadership.
To its credit, the board, in response to the racially disparate suspension rates, announced a partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which is a legal advocate for low-income people. The board also claims it has made significant investments in the eastern Henrico schools, investments, it argues, that have been trumped by the states’ repeatedly raising the educational performance bar and by the increasing rigor of the Standards of Learning tests.
Board members could keep making excuses, scratching their heads and musing at the reports. But there is no mystery here. Whenever black people of any age or economic background are given an opportunity to compete upon a fair and balanced playing field, we have excelled. This is true is sports. It is true in music, health, medicine, science and technology. It is true in education.
The fact that those majority-black schools still are failing indicates the playing field is not yet even. If new testing standards are being met in the majority white schools and not being met in the majority black schools, there’s clearly something imbalanced, missing or broken in the system. It is the School Board’s job to fix it. The solutions call upon the board to not only find imbalances on the playing field, but also show genuine care and attention on-site — in the schools — where it is long overdue.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Henrico School Board itself — with two white men, two white women and one black man — needs to become more diverse. Diversity can lead to much-needed policies. In its absence, the next best strategy is for board members to reach outside their own districts to address the needs of Henrico schools as a whole. None of us has the luxury of silence.
In 2007, when board member Montgomery was running for the School Board, he said his West Point training had taught him the power of communication in every successful organization. He promised to hold town hall meetings at least once a semester in every school in order to improve communication.
These meetings, whether or not they’ve been consistent, must intensify. The entire School Board must be in the room along with students, parents and teachers to gather crucial information on the districts hurting the most. In medical administration, my main field of expertise, this is called triage.
Frank discussions and open dialogue are required in order to determine the root causes of the ailments in our failing schools. I challenge each board member to care about more than his or her own district, to join with Mr. Montgomery and with Mr. Lamont Bagby, representative of the Fairfield District, to deal with the issues as a body.
I challenge the board to make new commitments to deal with the problem and to keep them. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Terone B. Green is a parent and resident of Henrico County.
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