Opinion: Make Richmond's Schools the Cornerstone of Our Local Wealth-Building Process 

click to enlarge Parents, students and others protest the state of the schools budget at the City Hall rally April 11.

Ash Daniel

Parents, students and others protest the state of the schools budget at the City Hall rally April 11.

Dear Superintendent Bedden and Mayor Jones,

We have an opportunity to improve public education in Richmond. Let’s figure out where we can agree.

I have seen firsthand that in the Richmond Public School system, there’s an earnest striving for excellence. We even get national recognition. In many respects, Richmond public education is doing some great things.

At the same time, our public education is plagued by half-implemented initiatives and professional development pathways for teachers existing in name only and not in deed. While we have a forward-thinking superintendent, he’s hobbled by halfhearted funding. And, critically, a great number of our students face the realities of poverty on a daily basis.

In 2013, Voices for Virginia’s Children reported that 14,649 youngsters in Richmond — 38 percent of them — live in poverty. I personally know of a teacher with more than four homeless students in the classroom. Systemic poverty affects students’ ability to attend and focus at school, not to mention their likelihood of graduating on time.

Despite Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ 2013 launch of an unprecedented strategic plan to eliminate poverty in Richmond — including bringing on Thad Williamson from the University of Richmond to lead the Office of Community Wealth Building — measurable advances are still few and far between.

All of this creates a school system and community that are reaching for greatness while scrambling not to sink into mediocrity or, worse, failure.

We in Richmond could learn something from what’s taking place on the national stage in education during this election year.

I was recently invited by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to be a TeachStrong ambassador. In this capacity, I’m a spokesman and advocate for the TeachStrong campaign, which, through the Center for American Progress, has brought together more than 40 organizations to put aside differences and rally behind elevating and modernizing the teaching profession and making it a top education policy priority in 2016.

In Richmond, we need to mirror the TeachStrong campaign and coordinate our efforts in a way that builds on our collective strengths as a community. Our policymakers need to directly and proactively address poverty and focus on creating deeper learning for all students through loosening restrictions on teachers themselves.

For instance, the mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission and the superintendent’s cadre of teacher leaders lobbying for necessary school funding have an opportunity to form a coalition. I have seen how such organizations as the University of Richmond, Communities in Schools, and Hope in the Cities are all working to end poverty in our city. Many public school teachers in Richmond are showing leadership in similar missions. It is time for the Richmond Public Schools to join the effort, come together as a community, and pursue a set of principles to guide our work — the way TeachStrong is doing.

As we work to modernize and elevate the teaching profession in our city, we could, for instance, adopt the proposed Richmond schools budget that would adjust teacher salary levels to more accurately reflect the step system in place. We also could open up our professional development to include teacher contributions to their schools and the community at large, which would translate into tangible efforts to combat poverty. Richmond schools educators could work collaboratively with the mayor’s commission to design, implement and evaluate programs to maximize how schools can combat poverty, which in turn would strengthen how the community understands curriculum and instruction, as well as improve how non-academic programs, such as nutrition services, affect learning.

Further, instead of fracturing our communities by closing schools we need to make them cornerstones of our local wealth-building process. Community schools are central to combating poverty. Similar efforts are underway in Highland Park, where Overby-Sheppard Elementary, one of the schools slated for closing, is looking forward to increased partnerships with the University of Richmond Center for Civic Engagement. The proposed moving of Overby-Sheppard students would further disenfranchise a community that is otherwise on the rise.

We have an opportunity. It hinges on two ideas: First, we are on the same team and we must combine our efforts. Second, we need to expand our perception of the role of teachers in our community. We need to trust in our teacher leaders and provide them flexibility to reach beyond their classroom walls with their expertise. We need to redefine professional development to include service to the community. Finally, we need to reprioritize decisions from the top down and the bottom up in order to work toward the goal of ending poverty in our city, and not just raising test scores or looking good on paper.

That is why I challenge you to become TeachStrong champions by working to create systems in our community that can turn opportunity into reality.

John Holland has taught in the Richmond Public Schools for 19 years. He is a national board certified Head Start teacher and a TeachStrong ambassador. Holland is also a frequent guest lecturer at Mount Holyoke College’s master’s degree in arts in teaching leadership program and a thought leader for the Center for Teaching Quality.

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