The Broken Rule 

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When school starts in the fall, my kindergarten-bound son will be one of the thousands of Richmond city residents not attending Richmond Public Schools.

This is not a decision my wife and I have come to easily. For one thing, my serving on the School Board ensures that our choice will attract more attention than the typical couple who simply adds dropping the kids off at private school as part of their morning routine. It also rankles me to pay the highest taxes in the area, which pays for a school system with the highest per-pupil expenditure rate in the region. All this for a service that my wife and I, along with many other parents, are afraid to use.

Fear I think is the right word. While there are many students who receive an adequate education in Richmond schools, you don't have to be a statistician to figure out that many more do not. Which group is your child going to fall into? You would hope that a home life emphasizing learning would make a difference. Mostly you would be right. But in the back of your mind, when your child is off at school, you're left wondering what is going on or not going on that you don't know about.

Beyond the learning is a host of intangibles with corrosive effects that could be far more difficult to unravel than a faulty knowledge of ABCs. Will your children learn the value of honesty and hard work? Is cheating really tolerated in some classes? Will they show and receive proper respect and courtesy? Will they learn to love learning?

In some classrooms the answer is yes. In a few schools the answer is yes. But consistently across the entire school system, the answer is no.

The difficult thing about judging an entire district is the range of performance. In every job category from custodian to central-office administrator you will find sterling examples of effort and ability working alongside people who aren't doing their jobs and shouldn't be drawing a paycheck. You will find some teachers who are imbuing a love of literature in their students, and others writing evaluations with made-up words and nonexistent grammar. You will find some principals prowling the halls gently correcting the transgressions of their little ones, and others hiding in their offices.

The question is, again, in which situation will you find your child? Some parents are able to navigate the pitfalls. They spend a great deal of effort working to get into the handful of coveted schools, or they make the policing of their children's schooling a part-time job. The successful ones will tell you that putting children through Richmond schools is not a spectator sport.

Although everyone should monitor their child's education no matter where they go to school, I want a greater level of confidence. I don't want to feel like I have to second guess the number of assessments, or ponder the thoroughness of a math curriculum, or worry if the threatening note a classmate wrote is serious or not. I want to see my children off each morning with a feeling that I'm doing right by them.

I don't want anything that different from what most parents desire: for my children to learn in a safe and nurturing environment, for them to receive a solid academic foundation, and for them to spend the day in an atmosphere that reinforces the values that will lead them to success and happiness.

Obviously I do not have confidence in our public schools being able to deliver these things. I am not alone. The rate of city children not attending our public schools is twice that of surrounding jurisdictions. That number does not even take into account the many families who move from the city as their children near school age.

This comes as a great disappointment to my wife and me, ourselves products of public education. It is more than a disappointment to contemplate the adjustments we will have to make to afford an alternative.

But at least we will have an option. The real shame is the number of kids the school system will fail, who have no choice and who will have even fewer choices as they enter life unprepared.

I know there is a tendency to shrug shoulders and say, "What do you expect?" Everyone knows that we have a mass of poor kids, many of whom aren't getting everything they need at home, much less at school.

That being a fact, we can design a system to address these problems or continue to use them as excuses for poor performance. It would require more money in some cases, but mostly it would mean simply doing things differently. Our employees would have to be trained how to recognize issues and summon help. They would need to practice conflict management so each incident doesn't lead to a suspension. They would have to accept as their responsibility the development of the whole child and not simply the rudiments of learning defined by the Standards of Learning tests.

We must also bring education into the information age. Initially that would mean systemizing the information we collect about each child, putting it in one place and analyzing it to improve education for the child and education across the district.

Finally, we must provide parents choices of various methods and curricula to address the varying needs and abilities you find in any group of children.

These are the elements I brought forward last fall as part of the New Direction plan, which I doubt will be implemented in any meaningful way. That is because they have nothing to do with our various lawsuits, or where the mayor wants our offices to be, or who goes to which meeting, or any of the other inanities the School Board spends most of its time on.

If our government-operated schools can't get their act together and deliver what is required, then should we not be examining other options?

Short of that, if we are to progress we must have a School Board that understands its role and is willing to act to give the city a better school system. As we move toward electing a new School Board in November, that is my No. 1 electoral wish. Until it happens and we get some real change, you won't find my children's names on a Richmond Public Schools roster. S

Keith West, owner of travel Web site, represents the Seventh District on the Richmond School Board.

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

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