Mayor Dwight C. Jones hails the Capital City Program, Richmond's disciplinary alternative school for at-risk students, calling it central to his plan to revitalize education. But some longtime education advocates worry that Jones' first policy salvo is booby-trapped.
Jones trumpets the city school program in an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Dec. 30, writing “there is no question that this program can be expanded to serve more students in need.”
There's no disputing the program's success, say even its most vocal critics. For two years, it was the only alternative school in the state earning state accreditation. Students completing the program are far more likely to graduate from high school or attend college than their peers.
“CCP is a success,” says Art Burton, a school advocate and recently unsuccessful 6th District School Board candidate. “But let's be honest, CCP represents less than 3 percent of the Richmond school population.”
Critics are concerned that Jones has singled out the program as a priority when the city school system, as a whole, has many other more pressing needs. Then there's the school's unfortunate nickname: Colored Children's Prison. And the fact that it's privately operated — a charter school in all but name.
Jones office did not respond to requests fo
U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott, a Jones supporter who attended the mayor's Dec. 31 swearing-in, supports the program but calls for a comprehensive approach to fixing schools.
“You cannot criticize investment at any level,” Scott says. “But it has to be at every level. You have to have a continuum of strategies.”
The timing of Jones' editorial — the day before he was sworn as mayor — has critics nervous about questioning the mayor's focus on such a divisive program. One was warned it was bait to draw out the opposition.
“I guess I'm naA_ve enough to think it's okay to comment,” says one civic leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If you say anything against those folks in a position of authority you will be labeled as an adversary, even if your motives are pure.”
Carol Wolf, who recently ended her tenure on the School Board, says she's also concerned. “People are worried that it's a setup for a fight … and they're probably right,” Wolf says. The program remains exclusive, she says, unable to accept students with disabilities — mental, emotional or physical.
Then there are the crime statistics. CCP's own data, provided during a May presentation to the School Board, provides a disturbing slice of life in Richmond schools, where yearly suspensions outnumber the total enrollment for the district.
The program's presentation shows year-over-year increases in the number of students entering the school with either a criminal arrest record or charges pending.
Their data was supported by the Richmond Police Department. In 2007, of 655 students in the program, 83 percent had an arrest record.
That compares to the previous year, 2006, when only 35 percent of 704 students had an arrest record. The year before, it was 31 percent.
“They'd better start thinking of the whole instead of just the little pieces of it.” Wolf says. “If CCP is doing such a great job, why don't we hire them to do all of our high schools?”