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OPINION: Hope for Schools

Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras is asking the hard questions.

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This started out to be a story about the Richmond Public Schools' most recent effort to rezone schools and the frustrations and finger-pointing that efforts like that always devolve into, despite the best intentions.  But something happened along the way and it became a story about the joy of being surprised by hope. 

Ever since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, efforts to rezone Richmond's public schools have been contentious and challenging. Our schools have suffered from decades of benign neglect and barely disguised racism and the patrician paternalism of the city's noblesse oblige business leaders who love to tell people how much they care about our children. They invariably end up investing in complicated tax schemes to build arts centers, stadiums, a state-of-the-arts sports medicine facility and the best turf money can buy for the Redskins to practice on three weeks a year that suck resources away from city children. According to Forbes magazine, the Redskins are the fourth most valuable NFL franchise at $3.1 billion, a 5 % increase from a year ago and yet we are still paying for the fields, the facility and the privilege of hosting them. 

Perhaps it was the heat and humidity that prompted Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras seemingly to take leave of his senses and post a tweet likening the criticism of some parents to a draft plan to pair William Fox and John B. Cary elementary schools to sounding "eerily like Massive Resistance 2.0." 

Why would a guy who is clearly determined to get our schools right for the sake of Richmond's children begin a long-overdue and most necessary rezoning process north of the James River instead of on the South Side where three new schools are being built to relieve overcrowding?  The system enrolls nearly 24,000 students and comprises 25 elementary schools, one charter school, seven middle schools, five comprehensive high schools and three specialty schools.

Is he being worn down the Sisyphean challenge of serving as the city's fourth school superintendent in the past 10 years, and the most recent irrefutable data from the Virginia Department of Education that show the system has the lowest reading scores and lowest graduation rate in the state?  Insiders told me that Kamras recently received his annual review and that a clear majority remains pleased with his job performance. Board members acknowledged privately that they know many of the problems the system grapples with today preceded both Kamras and former superintendent Dana Bedden.

Kamras acknowledges that he and his administration have repeatedly been blindsided by the layers of problems stretching back decades and board members are confident he has plans to tackle long-standing problems as well the ones no one expects, which must be handled nonetheless.

And here is where this story becomes one of being surprised by the joy of hope. Kamras showed leadership and sensitivity to concerns that he may have been harsh in his responses to criticism from some parents worried about the rezoning effort. He backed away from his "Massive Resistance 2.0" tweet. This is what he said in his weekly letter to parents:

"First, some of the initial comments that were captured in the online feedback form were concerning in that they sounded similar to the kinds of things that many families said to resist integration in the 1950s and 1960s. To be clear, I'm not equating then and now; much is different today. But we still very clearly live with the legacy of that era. If we're going to move forward as a school division and city, we need to have honest conversations about race and class. That doesn't mean one can't critique this proposal. It's far from perfect. But it does mean that the goal — increased diversity in our schools — must prevail.  

"Second, I have received a great deal of feedback from families of all backgrounds — via e-mail and in person — that have supported the idea of pairing these two schools. In fact, I believe these families actually make up the overwhelming majority of both school communities.

"Third, the goal here is greater diversity in our schools — not the implementation of any one idea or proposal. I would be surprised if any of the initial ideas put forth ended up in the final draft without some modification. The point of this process is to surface the very best thinking of the community to achieve our overarching goals.

"Fourth, I continue to believe that achieving greater diversity in our schools is critical because it benefits ALL students. As recent research from three professors at Teachers College Columbia indicates, 'the benefits of school diversity run in all directions.' Among the benefits for ALL students who attend racially and economically diverse schools: higher SAT scores, higher student satisfaction, higher levels of creative thinking, lower drop-out rates, and reduced levels of implicit bias. Let's be careful not to cast integration as a 'fix' for a so-called 'failing' school. To be more direct: low-income children and children of color don›t need high-income children and white children to be successful. The point is simply this: diverse learning environments have tremendous benefits for all children. We are blessed to have a diverse city. It would be shame not to leverage that inherent strength.

"Fifth, there's more to discuss when it comes to rezoning than just the Fox-Cary pairing. There are many important decisions to be made all across the city. For example, should we close the Thompson building and create three middle school zones on the south side with Boushall, Browne, and the new middle school on Hull Street? Should we also recommend building a new Thompson as part of an updated facilities plan? What about recommending a new elementary on the southside to further alleviate overcrowding? If so, where should it be? Should we close Bellevue (as was raised at the last RAC meeting) and send those students to the new Mason ES? Should we consider a pairing of Holton and Ginter Park to increase diversity on the northside? Should we explore changes to Munford's zone to increase diversity there? And so on.

"We have much to discuss and we need to hear all voices."

Kamras clearly believes it is his job to tell the truth — even if it hurts — and that someone has to ask those hard questions that lead to those difficult, but necessary, discussions that will transform our schools into citadels of success. This rezoning and redistricting effort will not only be the high-stakes test for Kamras, but for our city as well.

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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