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Unchartered Territory

Will the city's first charter school help fix a failed educational system,
or become a tool that further divides Richmond?



It's coming-of-age time for Richmond's first charter school, the Patrick Henry Initiative. But what kind of citizen will it be when it grows up?

After a difficult, sometimes secretive birthing process, the Patrick Henry School Initiative has reached that awkward age of defining itself within the society it serves. For some of the school's earliest critics — largely made up of leaders in the black community — there's nothing cute about the school's clumsy, precocious first steps.

They view the charter school as a renewed effort to re-establish racial and socio-economic divisions within the city schools. The last concerted effort to create a separate stratum of schools, after all, came shortly after 1954's Brown v. Board of Education ruling, when Virginia's white political structure launched Massive Resistance to shield white children from black in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the city continues to repopulate with young, middle-class families, the public school system remains the greatest obstacle. Politically, almost everyone agrees — including the four mayoral candidates — that the city's greatest challenge is keeping middle-class families from vacating to the suburbs when their children reach middle-school age.

Charter schools are nothing new. Recently, however, charters have gained traction alongside President George W. Bush's promotion of school vouchers. But where vouchers allow parents to send their children to private schools with public money, charter schools are, in essence, public schools.

The charter school alternative in Richmond is floated as the only realistic option for those parents who simply don't want to send their children to city schools, in which 70 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line.

That desire to avoid the public school system still irks critics who view charters as a tool to divide further pupils along socio-economic lines. Some states have found success redrawing inner-city school districts to diversify the base, breaking up the concentration of poorer pupils. A system of Richmond charter schools, critics say, would do just the opposite.


Efforts undertaken to block the Patrick Henry Initiative by black leaders such as Melvin Law, president of the Richmond branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and School Board members Chandra Smith and Evette Wilson (Smith and Wilson abstained by walking out on the board's recent vote to approving the school's contract) find their motives in the city's past.

Their efforts have to date been unsuccessful. The path has been cleared for the school to open as the Patrick Henry School for Science and Arts, perhaps as early as September 2009.

At this critical juncture in the Patrick Henry Initiative's young life, what it learns about the community it was born to serve may well make a significant difference. The school is being called by some School Board members, supporters such as board Chairman George Braxton, a potential guidepost for Richmond's education future. It's not only a charter school, they say, but also a laboratory for ideas that could translate to the rest of Richmond's struggling schools. The key to success, critics and supporters alike agree, will be to ensure that the charter school doesn't become simply a safe haven for white, middle-class children.

It must be diverse to succeed politically. Proponents must quantify its plan for achieving racial and economic diversity — ensuring that its tiny population of a few hundred children represents an equitable microcosm of Richmond's broader population.

“It's pretty important that the school be able to demonstrate that it's not merely a haven for any particular socio-economic group — on its face that it is a charter public school and in that respect, should reflect what Richmond looks like,” says Eugene W. Hickok, a former U.S. deputy secretary of education under President George W. Bush, who resides in Richmond.

An advocate in charter school initiatives elsewhere, Hickok — merely an observer to this local initiative — acknowledges that finding a balance at the new school could be a challenge. Just consider the city's school-age makeup, which is majority black and overwhelmingly low-income, as well as the changing demographic toward moderately affluent white families along Semmes Avenue where Patrick Henry is located.

“The whole argument behind Brown v. Board was to desegregate the schools,” Hickok says. “Now … they still look segregated. There's not much diversity in Richmond schools.”

It's an admittedly difficult road with no road map, acknowledges the Patrick Henry Initiative's president, Richard Day, but perhaps not so impossible considering the school itself seemed so unlikely just a few short months ago.

“It's been a difficult thing,” says Day, who has announced he will step down soon from his leadership post — and likely from the school's board — for private reasons after successfully steering the group this far. “The [Richmond] NAACP refuses to even sit down with us and hear us out.”

It's a measure of how much resistance remains among black leadership, Day says. But it's also perhaps an indicator of how leaders don't always reflect those they represent.

“A lot of young African Americans have approached us saying they're excited about this and can't wait,” he says. “If [people] have the facts, they'll understand that [exclusion] is not the intent with this school. That's the bottom line.”

But even as some of the city's black leaders continue to grumble over the school, other former Patrick Henry critics such as the president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, Antione Green, have seen reason to join the effort to help establish the school. After all, as all good educators know, children learn by example.

Green, who initially took heat from his membership when he signed on as the only black member of the Patrick Henry board, is a member of the school's diversity committee. He's pushing for the School Board to ensure — perhaps by mandate — a diverse population.

The Patrick Henry Initiative, as envisioned by Green, serves not only the stately renovated Victorians surrounding Forrest Hill Park, but also — and ideally to a greater extent — the low-income neighborhoods around nearby George Wythe High or even the subsidized Gilpin Court housing complex across the river.

“Basically, if there is not a legitimate diversity plan that I think is going to ensure diversity …  I think I will be unhappy, as well as others,” says Green, who acknowledges that he put himself in a politically risky position by joining the school's board. “I'm putting a lot on the line at this point, but I think in the long run … it's definitely worth it.”
Despite the fact that Sen. Barack Obama, the country's first major-party black nominee for president, supports charter schools, some local black leaders aren't buying in.
“Failure to get a resolution as it relates to getting a legitimate diversity plan will only reaffirm [many black city leaders'] opposition to charter schools — and this particular charter school,” Green says.

David Hicks, a former Richmond commonwealth's attorney who is campaign chairman to mayoral candidate Dwight Jones and a frequent commentator on citywide issues, thinks those holdouts need to come to grips with the times.

Every candidate for mayor has endorsed and voiced his support for charter schools. Only Jones, at a recent mayoral debate sponsored in part by Style Weekly, answered with a qualified “Yes, maybe,” to whether he'd have voted for the Patrick Henry school.

“Charter schools are a reality of the future,” Hicks says. “It's not a matter of whether, it's a matter of how.” He notes that the past in Richmond can be a powerful foe: “Massive Resistance was not that long ago. We had [racial] clustering in the city in the mid-'90s. It was documented. We're not talking about stuff that happened in the '50s — the sooner we realize that, the sooner we'll formulate a strategy. … to navigate this.”

Part of that strategy, according to Hicks, should have been the School Board and other city leaders getting publicly involved earlier to steer the process. If there's an Achilles heel to the Patrick Henry school, which will serve elementary-aged children, it may be simply that it's the wrong school to start the community dialogue.
It's the middle schools, Hicks says, where the weaknesses are glaring. It's here where discipline breaks down, when children reach middle-school age and the classes diverge: In the inner city, it's a period when children are most susceptible to the lure of the streets. It's also at this age when more affluent families — black and white — pack up and leave for the educational safety of the suburbs.

Over the years a handful of strong elementary schools have popped up in the city, such as Mary Munford, John B. Cary and William Fox. That wasn't always the case. “Historically, the thing in Richmond is not finding quality elementary schools,” Hicks says.

“The Patrick Henry vote shouldn't have happened now because this is too important and potentially divisive an issue for lame-duck leadership to have left for its successors to deal with,” he says, pointing to the fact that the School Board soon will be unrecognizably altered by the election.

He says that it's imperative that whatever leadership emerges after Nov. 4 gets in front of the issue fast, working closely with Patrick Henry's board.

“Otherwise it's going to be done with resentment and it's going to fail,” Hicks warns. “We don't need our first one out of the gate to be a failed experiment.”

Resentment over the school's passage runs deep. The School Board spent months dragging its heels and debating the proposal. Members sharply divided on whether substantive diversity could be achieved. Unlike some states in which charter schools operate outside the local public school system, reporting directly to the states' education departments, in Virginia charter schools must be granted by local school boards, which also have the power to revoke such charters.

“They're the ones that dragged their feet over the last four or five months,” says Day, showing a tinge of the lingering resentment over the School Board's recent vote requiring a more comprehensive diversity plan. “They've got to give us time to perform.”

At Patrick Henry, there doesn't appear to be any clear or easy path to achieve diversity. The charter doesn't include public transportation. The school is prohibited from aiding directly in organizing car pools, and the Richmond Public Schools make no provisions for buses. Instead, parents whose children are lucky enough to get one of the fewer than 200 slots at the school will be personally responsible for getting their children to the schoolhouse door.

Without public transportation, it may be impossible to include pupils on the lower end of the economic spectrum who live in more distressed parts of the city.
There's also the selection process. Richmond Crusade's Green, along with outgoing School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf, are considering proposing a dual lottery system, wherein a percentage of slots would go to children whose families exceed certain economic markers, while another percentage of slots would go to low-income pupils. both point to the city's not-so-distant past as reason to provide safeguards for the public.

On the other hand, Day and others advocate a more holistic method of reaching diversity. They raise concerns over the legality of a dual lottery system, but acknowledge that some form of lottery may be necessary to cope with expected demand for the available slots.

“But I want the diversity to be something that's organic,” Day says, somewhat resentful of the sudden help from Wolf. “Carol Wolf has come in asking for something that's mandated. To do that, she'd have to get the contract amended [and] … get consensus from us. I don't know if that consensus is there.

“Another of the problems I have with the diversity quota is ... it also, as Mr. Braxton pointed out, with a lottery you know, you could end up getting 90 percent of your students just from Blackwell or just Southampton or Westover Hills.”

Day says, too, that there's simply a misconception that the school's founders don't already value diversity enough to ensure that it is fundamental to the school. “It's written into our initial charter,” he says.

Under the roll-of-the-dice scenario Braxton suggests, the school is not certain to represent the city's socio-economic makeup. “[Diversity] absolutely is what we want,” Day says, “but we want it to happen naturally.”

Wolf says she's not trying to mandate, only to ensure the same equity that Day says he wants. “We need to have socio-economic integration,” she says. “I'm sorry if that bothers people, but that's the way it is.”

Day's natural approach to achieving diversity might well have happened had the earliest organizers attempting to reopen Patrick Henry had their way.

Gina Wojtysiak began the effort a few years ago after being advised by members of the School Board that they were more likely to find success reopening the neighborhood school as a charter school than as a regular public school. The natural makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods — which is somewhere around 70 percent black — would have meant a neighborhood school that was just as diverse as any contrived plan could hope to make it.

Now Wojtysiak, a member of the diversity committee, is more supportive of Day's position not to mandate diversity than Green's because the School Board is not making it easy to support mandates for low-income pupils. Her own child, and the 20 or so children of the other parents who worked to get the charter, are not guaranteed slots at the school. Having a dual lottery would only lessen the likelihood of winning a slot at the school, she says.

School Board Chairman Braxton dismisses the idea of providing guarantees to the children of charter founders, saying he believes there will be plenty of available slots.
The charter founders' goal of self-preservation helps illustrate some of the burdens placed on the school's larger chances of success by the School Board and the city school's administration.

But it's also the sort of politics that the school will have to overcome if it hopes to win over a staunch opponent such as Melvin Law. A former School Board chairman, Law is president of the Richmond NAACP branch and strongly opposed the charter because anything that can be done in a charter school should be done in Richmond Public Schools.

“If the parents who are clamoring for the Patrick Henry building to be a charter school had enrolled their children in that building when it was a public school, it would not have had to close,” Law says. “I know there are some well-meaning parents who are not racially motivated who are supporting the charter school — I am trying not to paint everybody with the same brush. I'm suspicious when there are components in the community who do not use the public schools — they use private schools to educate their children — who are supporters of this charter school.”

Law also dismisses the conclusions drawn by Hicks. “I don't really accept the fact that charter schools are coming, ready or not,” he says.

Others disagree. According to Day, there are at least three other groups across the city that have been consulting with or attending meetings of the Patrick Henry group. Each has a vision for a charter — one plan is for a charter trade school, and another would be for at-risk children. All are looking for help and suggestions on how to start their own charter schools in the near future. 

Even one of Law's allies in the unsuccessful attempt to resist the Patrick Henry charter, Art Burton, says there's no sense in trying to predict a future without charters in Richmond. He says that Green's presence on the board already is “hedging our bets” in trying from the inside to ensure that what develops at Patrick Henry provides the best possible template for those charter schools that may follow.

Burton says that a successful charter may well stand as a stark counterpoint to the city's failure to address the broader problems in city schools.

“The charter school is going to continue to be a symbol of everything that's not right about the school system and our leadership,” says Burton, a candidate for School Board and a longtime advocate for city pupils.

Burton takes the metaphor of Patrick Henry being a toddling infant who needs to be parented and turns it on its ear.

“It's like you're talking about the birth of an animal that's never been born before,” he says. “Maybe I'm just not being hopeful enough about it, but where does it exist now in Richmond Public Schools? And now you're saying we're going to place the burden of that on the people at Patrick Henry? Is that fair of us, to say that they have to create this new animal that doesn't exist?

“You're asking them to do what [members] on the School Board can't do,” Burton says — “or won't do.” S





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