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Twilight Zoning

Recent data problems underscore that the Richmond School Board is pushing toward school closing decisions without fully understanding the consequences.



Even by Richmond standards, the May 20 School Board meeting offered a surpassingly surreal moment.

Interacting with board members by speaker phone, rezoning consultant Matthew Cropper said that more than 75 percent of the students at Mary Munford are black. He added that because all Richmond elementary schools had roughly the same racial mix, the proposed rezoning changes would have no impact on racial balance in Richmond's elementary schools.

While members of the audience gasped or laughed, board members and school officials came to the realization that the spreadsheet of demographic data Cropper had assembled for his analysis was wrong — and not just a little bit, but completely wrong.

Anyone who's lived in Richmond for 30 minutes knows that Mary Munford and William Fox are majority white schools, and that many other elementary schools in the city are close to 100-percent black. How could the School Board's professional consultant be unaware of the most obvious facts of elementary school demographics in Richmond, where more than half of the system's white elementary children are clustered at just two schools?

The data problems underscore that the School Board is pushing toward school closing decisions without fully understanding their consequences — and without giving the public ample time to process and evaluate the proposals.

The changes proposed by Option C, the plan assembled by Cropper over a weekend at the request of two School Board members — Glen Sturtevant in the 1st District and Kimberly Gray in the 2nd — was approved by the board 5-4 on May 13.

The impact is substantial. First, the plan closes Clark Springs Elementary School. Second, it shifts children from the entire area north and east of the Downtown Expressway and west of the Boulevard currently zoned for Cary into Fox. Third, it substantially increases the geographic reach of Westover Hills Elementary by picking up the Woodland Heights area.

The plan raises serious questions. No compelling reason has been offered as to why Clark Springs, one of the better-performing elementary schools in the city and an anchor for the Randolph neighborhood, needs to be closed outright. Among Clark Springs' fifth-graders, 93 percent passed the tougher math Standards of Learning test last year, compared with the statewide average of 67 percent. Fourteen city schools failed to reach full accreditation from the state last year — wouldn't it make more sense to close one of those schools?

Likewise, the plan may well decrease the proportion of students at Fox Elementary who are black from its current level of 23 percent. The most recent U.S. Census data for the neighborhoods comprising the proposed new Fox zone indicate that approximately 12 percent of schoolchildren will be African-American. Systemwide, more than 80 percent of the city's students are black.

What about economic diversity? It's estimated that under the proposal, the proportion of reduced and free lunch students at Fox will rise very slightly, from 17.8 percent to 19.4 percent. That still leaves Fox with dramatically fewer poor children than the system average of 71.4 percent. At the same time, the proposed rezoning would increase the proportion of reduced and free lunch students at neighboring John B. Cary Elementary from 50 percent to 74 percent.

A more balanced approach would move at least some of the Randolph-area students now zoned for Clark Springs to Fox rather than Cary, while keeping at least some of the area north of Interstate 195 and west of the Boulevard at Cary. Instead of creating two relatively diverse high-performing schools — Cary has outpaced both Fox and Munford in the percentage of fifth-graders demonstrating advanced proficiency on the writing standards tests during the past three years — Option C in effect creates one overwhelmingly white and one overwhelmingly black school. This is a large step away from a healthy vision for the city's schools — one that most parents want: expanding the number of high-performing schools that provide the benefits of diversity.

Pushing ahead with school closures at this late date also is likely to have lasting repercussions. As Harry Morgan, head of enrollment services for the Richmond schools, pointedly said at the May 20 meeting, rezoning children for next year after open enrollment has taken place is a "train wreck waiting to happen." Morgan, offering his professional opinion, urged the School Board not to proceed.

Last but not least, there's the question of Thirteen Acres, the citywide program for emotionally disabled children, often children who have experienced trauma, which is at Clark Springs. So far the board has offered no plan on where or how this critically important program will be moved. These children are among the most disadvantaged in the entire city, and they're owed the respect of a well-thought-out plan allowing for a seamless transition to a new location.

Indeed, it's extremely difficult to see how implementing the proposed changes can be carried out seamlessly and effectively between now and August. Right now the board is planning to restructure the Capital City Program for students with behavioral problems, relocate adult literacy services, relocate a pre-kindergarten center to a new building, relocate Thirteen Acres, and merge most of Clark Springs with Cary. These are substantial undertakings.

This comes at a time when several top administrators are retiring or leaving for roles in other school systems, and no acting superintendent to replace the departing Yvonne Brandon has been identified. The predictable result of pushing ahead on this schedule is that the proposed transitions will involve a high degree of chaos, disorganization and disruption. These problems will exacerbate the stress and even trauma involved when young children are moved en masse to new environments. It also inflicts emotional distress on families and teachers.

The truly sad piece is that rezoning and school closures won't substantially improve the core academic effectiveness of Richmond schools. The conflicts and chaos associated with this flawed process may wind up undermining the one action the School Board can take that will have the most impact on getting that job done: hiring the most effective superintendent possible. S


Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and faculty-in-residence at UR Downtown.

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