If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals. — Susan B. Anthony
When Jason Kamras was sworn in as superintendent in February 2018, he became the highest paid, at $250,000 a year, superintendent in Richmond history and inherited a set of challenges that make the labors of Hercules look like a short list of errands. Full of bravado and some say naiveté, he promised to have all of Richmond’s schools accredited in five years.
He remains undaunted by recent reports from the Virginia Department of Education that show only one additional school became accredited during his first year as superintendent and worst of all, Richmond still has the lowest graduation rate in the state for the second year in a row and the highest drop-out rate.
Echoing presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who frequently notes that she has a plan to fix what ails the country, Kamras says he, too, has a plan to transform the schools into citadels of learning and accomplishment. To see the plan, go to the school system’s home page.
Adding to the myriad academic challenges, many schools are in serious need of renovations and repairs, repairs that will likely cost at least a billion dollars, according to school officials. Interestingly that amount is nearly the same as what Mayor Levar Stoney and Dominion Energy Chief Executive Thomas Farrell say is needed for the Navy Hill project.
When Kamras became superintendent, Richmond had the third lowest reading Standards of Learning pass rate in the state, the second lowest in writing, the second lowest in history and social science, the fourth lowest in math, and the third lowest in science. Richmond’s Martin Luther King Middle School was, in terms of pass rates, the worst school in the state.
On this year’s tests, shortly into Kamras’ term, Richmond was dead last in reading, third from last in writing, second from the bottom in history and social science, second to last in math, and fourth from last in science. Despite having some truly excellent teachers, the system’s culture previously encouraged time in service rather than teaching effectiveness.
Despite the fact that Richmond’s spending per student is among the highest in the state, its teacher salaries are low-to-mid-range and its teacher-pupil ratio among the worst. He has a plan for that, too.
For far too many years, there has been a spring migration of families moving from the city to the adjacent counties when their first children reach age 4 to 5. City residents who can afford private or parochial school do so while grumbling that they are being double taxed because of the city’s high real estate taxes and the tuition costs of alternative education for their children.
In response to recent criticisms, Kamras and the school system say they were too busy to explain why — nearly six months after they promised to find out why the price tag of building three new schools increased from $110 million to a whopping $140 million — they have not yet even begun to study the issue.
Kamras balks at the notion that it would cost at least $300,000 for a study “showing us what we already know.” Noting that he has been told that there are plenty of studies gathering dust on shelves within the cavernous bowels of Richmond City Hall, Kamras says he would like to find some previous studies and simply update them. “I prefer to spend money on classrooms not consultants, books not bricks.”
To be sure, Kamras, his administration and the School Board have been running around crazily since he was sworn in. Judging from their frenetic and frequently unfocused pace, they appear at times to have bitten off more than they can be reasonably expected to chew. If they aren’t careful, they just might choke.
They have undertaken a dizzying redistricting effort and attempted what can be described at best as a controversial attempt to pair some schools to achieve greater economic integration and equity in some elementary schools. Even if this works, it will only nibble at the overall problems of poverty and parity.
And, for sure, he won no friends when he likened initial parental resistance to the plan as Massive Resistance 2.0. And as is the Richmond way, many parents and teachers have been openly supportive of the idea.
Critics say he is too cozy with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and that Kamras needs to focus more on raising achievement and less on playing politics with Stoney and the power brokers behind the controversial Navy Hill project.
Still, he managed to get an influx of sorely needed money to fund key components of his plan to turn around the schools and to perform some much-needed repairs and renovations in the buildings.
For the past 40 years, the school system has been a bit like the houses that real estate agents describe as a “great little fixer-uppers.” School superintendents and School Board members come and go as do mayors and City Council members.
And never mind that for years, officials at the Virginia Department of Education have blithely accepted whatever data that former city school officials have claimed without launching any investigations without being specifically asked or shamed into taking a second look.
The struggle to fix our city schools is a noble one that is at once Sisyphean for those trying to change the system and truly sad for our students and families, the majority of whom live at or below the poverty line.
Until key corporate leaders and elected officials decide to place the needs of Richmond’s children over shiny new playthings like the Navy Hill project, Redskins Field and others dubious developments that have never delivered on promises of more money for our schools, our children will continue to suffer and so will our city.
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.
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