"While test scores are terribly low and changes are necessary, putting this on the teachers is a fraud and a shirking of responsibility by Superintendent Dana Bedden and the Richmond School Board."

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The announcement came last week: Because of low academic performance, half of the teachers at Richmond’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School will be replaced for the next school year, and any who choose to remain must reapply for their jobs. This is said to include all teachers in core subjects plus special education, with administration and teachers in electives apparently safe for the moment.

The next day, the Times-Dispatch broke the news that Superintendent Dana T. Bedden was one of four finalists for the superintendent’s position in Boston. With Bedden considering a departure after only 14 months on the job, I have to question his commitment to the Richmond Public Schools.

What I don’t question is the dedication of the teachers at King, and I am calling bullshit on this attempt to sacrifice them for the failure at the school. While test scores are terribly low and changes absolutely are necessary, putting this on the teachers is a fraud and a shirking of the greater responsibility by Bedden and the Richmond School Board.

This middle school and all of its feeder elementary schools were fully accredited as recently as 2010. But since former Principal Aaron Dixon left, longtime staff members have seen the school decline precipitously. Dixon’s replacement, Valerie Harris was allowed to stay for two and a half years of plummeting student performance until being replaced in the middle of the school year in January 2014.

I worked at the school during this time, and can attest firsthand to the chaos that was allowed to permeate the school. Food fights became common, the halls were wild, students rarely faced consequences for their behavior, and teachers were essentially abandoned in the name of chasing biweekly test scores.

I confiscated bullets, weed, knives and handcuffs — all from students who allegedly had been searched on the way into school. I was threatened and physically assaulted by students, cursed at on a daily basis, and called upon to break up fights weekly. All the while I was given more paperwork and reports to fill out explaining how I was teaching my students and why the test scores weren’t where they were supposed to be.

When Harris’ retirement was announced, 6th District School Board Member Shonda Harris-Muhammed said, “We are in a sense of emergency, not a sense of urgency.”

Here we are just over a year later, and by all accounts, the lack of order and discipline inside the school have been allowed to continue under the new principal, Ricky Hopkins. Students recently broke one of the inside windows of the new, award-winning school building. Despite a state-of-the-art video security system, nothing was done about it.

In May, teachers at the school released a letter to media describing conditions there, detailing threatening, disruptive and disorderly students, and the administration’s lack of response. A cry for help, the letter put it bluntly:

“Students are disruptive in their classes and administration refuses to enforce any level of discipline. Students are allowed to come in and leave their classes at any time without teachers having any authority to do anything. Students have made threats towards teachers and those students have been allowed to remain in the teachers’ classrooms. … MLK can best be referred to as a hostile environment. Students do not feel safe at our school. The environment is not conducive to learning.”

This followed complaints by teachers at the end of the previous year after a student with a knife threatened a teacher.

Want some numbers to back this up?

According to the school and system report cards on the Virginia Department of Education website, the Richmond Public Schools reported 11,997 school safety violations system-wide during the 2013-’14 school year, 7,776 of which were for disorderly or disruptive behavior offenses.

Martin Luther King Middle alone was responsible for 3,082 of these school safety violations, or 25.6 percent of all in the system that year. In addition, King was responsible for 2,539 of the disorderly or disruptive behavior offenses reports, or 32.6 percent of the system total. The numbers would be worse, except that behavior considered reportable at other schools is so commonplace that teachers don’t bother to put the paperwork in.

For some context: There are about 40 schools in the system. For more context, there were 198 total offenses at Richmond’s Albert Hill Middle School (93 for disorderly or disruptive), 113 at Chesterfield County’s Robious Middle School (35 for disorderly or disruptive), and 443 at Henrico County’s John Rolfe (144 for disorderly or disruptive).

For even more context: King and four of its feeder elementary schools are among the 15 poorest in Central Virginia. In addition to the greater Church Hill area, the middle school pulls students from Mosby Court, Creighton Court, Fairfield Court, Whitcomb Court, Blackwell, Fulton and Highland Park.

This middle school is a difficult place to teach, perhaps the most challenging educational environment in the region. For the most part, teachers are at King because they want to be there, to be where they’re needed the most.

To blame the teachers for the school’s failings is misguided and mean. It’s been shown that Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School can succeed under a strong principal and there is order at the school. S

John Murden is a former teacher and serves as editor of the Church Hill People’s News, online at chpn.net.

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



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