How to Save City Schools 

Mayor Dwight Jones says the children are “crying out for help.” So let’s help them.

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Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones has put school reformers in a tough spot. He recently conceded to having spent 20 years wrongly defending the school administration.

During his State of the City address last month, he decried the School Board’s tendency to “celebrate mediocrity” by trumpeting decreases in truancy and the dropout rate, and meeting minimal state accreditation standards. “And I must admit that I myself have participated in these celebrations of mediocrity,” he said. “But we’ve got to stop.”

The mayor offers no excuse for cheering feel-good statistics that put him in a positive light despite pleas from many, including President Barack Obama, the military and independent researchers, who knew that the truth is so sad for so many children, especially poor, black youngsters.

Jones says the children are “crying out for help.” So let’s help them. This 10-point Sound Mind, Sound Body initiative doesn’t require any new taxes or huge new blank checks to Richmond schools. It’s paid for by fiscally responsible actions that put families, children and neighborhood schools first, and by cutting back on bureaucracy and eliminating crony contracts.

1. The Arthur Ashe physical fitness program: A recent study cited by President Obama gives us the hard truth: A huge percentage of our children aren’t physically fit. He, like tennis legend Arthur Ashe, believes sound minds and sound bodies go together. Richmond needs to become the first city in the state to make passing a physical fitness test an integral part of 12th grade. This can be built around our coaches, now underused and underpaid.

2. The Michelle Obama health initiative: We need to make Richmond the first city in the state to require periodic mandatory health examinations for all schoolchildren. There long has been a cadre of medical professionals prepared to help. We should heed the first lady.

3. Use category budgeting to force smart education spending: The new city charter that ushered in our elected mayor system led to powerful-yet-still-unused budgeting authority that can cut the bloated bureaucracy, excessive administration salaries and crony contracts imbedded in the Richmond schools budget.

4. Back to basics learning initiative: Our kids won’t be able to compete in the new global economy if they can’t read, write and do math. The Chinese got it. So should we. A recent poll suggests that America’s young people lack basic knowledge of real events because they don’t read outside-of-school books. This is unacceptable. We need for the Richmond Free Press and the Richmond Times-Dispatch to prepare a special weekly section to be made required reading. The funding easily can come through budget savings.

5. The Martin Luther King Jr. merit scholarship program: Richmond needs to honor its best students, teachers, principals and PTA members with scholarships and other appropriate rewards. Local business and state higher education institutions can be persuaded to make appropriate matches.

6. Create a pilot middle-school program featuring a parental assistance coordinator: Research shows that the most important single factor in improving children’s’ performance is increased parental involvement. But for many parents, life’s realities make this a challenge. We need this to change. A pilot program in our middle schools offers a start. Each school would be assigned a parental-assistance coordinator whose sole job is to work with parents to navigate road blocks. Instead of relying on academic theories, let’s get the real facts. Then a practical solution can be developed.

7. Get smarter about school construction and reap savings that can be better spent on classroom needs: U.S. Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Rep. Eric Cantor, using the Maggie Walker Governor’s School modernization project as a template, are backing legislation that would save Richmond from wasting hundreds of millions in education dollars. Meanwhile, Richmond’s elected officials find time for taxpayer-funded junkets and AWOL vacations, but can’t manage a short trip to Washington to lobby for legislation that would save the city millions.

8. The lead-by-example education innovation trust fund: The mayor agrees that leaders must lead by example. He can start by reducing the bloated top-tier City Hall bureaucracy. The school superintendent and School Board must put an end to wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal counsel. State law allows the Richmond schools to use the city attorney. Over time, these actions, along with category budgeting, will total millions of dollars in savings. This education money should be put in a trust fund controlled by a panel of top independent professionals and used to reward bold new thinking to improve the Richmond Public Schools.

9. The college ready job skills initiative: Richmond must be the first city in the nation to insist that seniors graduate either college-ready or with tangible, real job skills. Most good jobs won’t require a four-year college degree.

10. The city’s high schools should be placed under the guidance of a second elected school board: Not long ago, Richmond’s high schools were labeled dropout factories. The current School Board regime has failed the students. We need tough love, not more social promotion. If the voters agree, state law would allow an innovative solution that is a win-win for all the schoolchildren and their families. We need to ask them.

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist and was senior policy adviser for former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

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

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