March 12, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


The Insubordinate 

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For a brief few months Tichi Pinkney-Eppes was the spy in the room.

She was unanimously elected president of the Richmond Council of PTAs in April 2006 after her predecessor, then-newly minted School Board member Kim Bridges, hand-selected her for the job.

Pinkney-Eppes appeared to be the perfect spokeswoman for Richmond parents. She was a black woman on a majority-white council of PTAs who dressed well and "spoke articulately." She rarely expressed an opinion that went against the grain of the association's main constituency of active middle-class families.

"From day one I've been the spy in the room," Pinkney-Eppes says. "Because I guess nobody there had been able to figure out my background. They said, well, she looks like one of us, let's embrace her. They did at first."

Then Pinkney-Eppes blew her cover. She had a son in the school system whom school administrators had branded a "problem" -- and had repeatedly suspended for minor infractions. And she started asking questions:

Why do the School Board and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder seem unable to set aside political differences for the sake of Richmond's children?

Why does the allocation of resources within Richmond Public Schools seem to neglect the city's neediest school populations?

Why do dropout, suspension and expulsion statistics seem to point to an administrative policy that worries more about satisfying federal and state testing benchmarks than providing children with their right to an education?

The honeymoon period on the PTA "lasted until the day that I asked 'Why?'" she says. "'Why are we doing things this way?'"

The ongoing political war between Wilder and Richmond Public Schools has dominated the debate over the future of an ailing school system packed with poverty-stricken students. Meanwhile, Pinkney-Eppes is standing at the gates.

Some Schools administrators and disaffected PTA parents from some of the city's most successful public schools treat her as a spy, but Pinkney-Eppes sees herself in a different role: Advocate for the majority that has been without a voice.

"For the parents and the kids and the public will," she says.

Not everyone sees the PTA council president that way — not even Bridges, the School Board member who brought Pinkney-Eppes to the PTA.

The two met while participating in the city's now-defunct "Neighborhood Teams" program, which City Council designed to give a greater voice to neighborhood associations and activists. (The program died soon after Wilder took office.) Bridges had asked Pinkney-Eppes to come on board as PTA treasurer.

"One of the missions of PTA is advocacy," Bridges says. "Depending on how you define advocacy, I guess it's encouraged. The state PTA and the national both lobby at the Legislature, and that's perfectly appropriate."

Bridges says she takes no personal issue with the sort of advocacy in which Pinkney-Eppes has engaged — to a point. Bridges took umbrage when Pinkney-Eppes lashed out in Style Weekly in February that the city's much-heralded "open enrollment" — which allows parents to send their children to schools outside their designated school zones — was rooted in segregationist policy. Bridges started working the phones, calling fellow PTA chapter presidents to express concern about their leader.

Pinkney-Eppes says she believes "wholeheartedly" that Bridges has acted against her because she called for change during the January selection of the School Board chairman and opposed the school system's open-enrollment policy.

"We can't get [school PTAs] to the table because [Bridges] caused the division on an issue that doesn't even necessarily impact them," Pinkney-Eppes says.

Bridges says her calls to local PTA chapter presidents were aimed at reconciling concerned parents at Mary Munford Elementary and other, more active PTAs that benefit from the open-enrollment process with Pinkney-Eppes and her core leadership group.

"The concerns that I have heard from the PTA in my district is just wanting to be part of the process — not about the content of what's being said — just being part of the process," Bridges says. "I tried to put those folks in touch with Council of PTA members — with Tichi and other board members."

Bridges says she was concerned that Pinkney-Eppes chose a newspaper as her first outlet for voicing her concerns about open enrollment. She says she wishes Pinkney-Eppes have waited for the School Board to conclude its re-examination of the program.

That re-examination began when School Board member Keith West, a critic of a system that he says intentionally makes some schools better than others, asked last year that Megazones be eliminated.

Bridges says Pinkney-Eppes' public statements were the first she heard of the PTA board's apparent concern.

"I guess everyone has a right to feel the way they want to about the process," Bridges says. "But my big suggestion was just to be part of the process."

By speaking out, Pinkney-Eppes believes she's angered the constituencies of the school system's most prominent PTAs that represent schools where parents don't want the boat rocked. As a result, she says she's a marked woman politically, a leader with a fast-approaching expiration date. In June, she fully expects forces within the citywide PTA to vote her out.

But more than that, she's rocked the boat at the School Board, which, Pinkney-Eppes says, is sowing seeds of distrust with the PTA boards at Munford and William Fox elementary schools.

She says the School Board and superintendent "are purporting that it's us against them amongst us to cause that division," she says, stressing that PTA advocacy — parent advocacy — is the right of parents.

"If you follow the model that PTA has designed," she says, "Mary Munford parents could get more. Parents over at Blackwell could get more. By a lot of parents not turning up at the table, you're dismissed that way. Ultimately, it is your child being victimized by this."

Rather than taking away from West End schools, she says, any advocacy for less-affluent schools would serve to raise the entire district.

Pinkney-Eppes got involved with the PTA after her own personal brushes with the school system's trigger-happy suspension rate.

It's rooted, she says, in one little-publicized fact that would seem to encourage "zero-tolerance" discipline policies like those at Richmond Schools. She says removing "problem students" from schools where test scores are low improves the odds of that school reaching state and federally mandated educational requirements.

"When it happened with my son, that's when the a-ha moment happened for me," Pinkney-Eppes says. "He was one of the kids getting suspended because they said he was intimidating the teachers. He was not a fighter; it was all for insubordination."

At the time, the system just seemed unusually harsh as it attempted to ride her son, Jerome Pinkney, out on a rail. Suspensions were frequent for "insubordination," a charge Pinkney-Eppes says amounted to teachers being intimidated by her son's size and occasional obstinacy and refusal to sit at his desk.

"When they tell you, 'Well, you've got to go home for three days,' how does that benefit the child … when I can't be at the house with him?" she says, worried at the time that leaving him at home unchaperoned for hours would get him into trouble. "You're setting me up for failure."

In the midst of solving the problem with her son, Pinkney-Eppes says, she failed to recognize that it was part of a wider pattern within Richmond Schools.

State Department of Education statistics bear out her theory. With a total student body of 25,000, a staggering 5,449 students in Richmond Public Schools — nearly 22 percent — had six or more accumulated absences during the 2005-06 school year.

That 5,449 figure compares with 11 and 847 in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, respectively. Both of those districts are larger than Richmond, with student populations nearly double Richmond.

The city's suspension rates offer an even starker contrast to county numbers tracked by the state. The Department of Education tracks discipline, crime and violence by school division and tracks numbers by categories that include everything from bullying to sex assault. In the school year ending in 2003, the state added a category for disorderly conduct, the category Pinkney-Eppes says most of the arbitrary suspensions are lumped in.

In Richmond, for 2006, the most recent year for which state figures are available, 7,425 students were disciplined for disorderly conduct. By comparison, Chesterfield logged 475 and Henrico just 44 students disciplined for disorderly conduct.

Pinkney-Eppes says those numbers illustrate the realities of the system's zero-tolerance policy for discipline. Simple infractions for insubordination resulted in thousands more suspensions in Richmond than in its neighboring localities where zero-tolerance policies are not in place.

She asks why. Does sending children home improve their ability to learn? Do they come back chastened? More likely, she reasons, they come back behind in class work, resentful of authorities and even more likely to lash out from frustration.

Pinkney-Eppes says punishment is used as a form of harassment that eventually pushes students identified as the worst of the worst to drop out.

Again, state statistics show she may not be far off. Between 1997 and 2002, Richmond's dropout rates had gradually decreased from 6.5 percent to just 2.7 percent. Then in 2003, the year Deborah Jewell-Sherman took the helm as superintendent and zero-tolerance policies began to be employed, there was a spike. More than 12 percent of students dropped out that year. The next year, the rate was more than 15 percent — or more than 1,500 students — who dropped out of Richmond Public Schools.

Despite several attempts to speak with Jewell-Sherman or one of her assistants, officials did not meet requests by press time.

During the same years dropout rates increased, the city school system saw a swift rise in schools reaching state accreditation. In 2003, just 10 schools were accredited. By the following year, 23 schools hit the mark and two years later, 45 schools had reached accreditation.

When Pinkney-Eppes watched her son graduate from Huguenot High School in 2003, it was with a great deal of relief, she says. He had survived the system. But others are not so lucky, she says, and some city leaders are spotting a disturbing trend in suspensions in Richmond.

Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Chief Judge Kim O'Donnell watched Richmond's school system fail for 20 years before retiring last year, she says. Most of the failure she witnessed related directly to the school system's unwillingness to confront its inadequacies.

"I'm not an educator, obviously, but from the perspective of the court and what I saw of kids in trouble, I would go so far as to say that 90 percent of those [Richmond] kids had dismal relations with Richmond Public Schools," O'Donnell says.

"It could be because their parents don't care about schools and there may be some truth to that," she says, "but the thing that disturbed me most over the years was the way that RPS continually dropped the ball with these kids."

O'Donnell says she frequently saw children coming directly from the schoolhouse to the courthouse for discipline matters that should have been handled at the school. She blames the district's zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior.

"Kids misbehave," she says. "But in RPS, too often the people who were trying to interact with them and discipline them were not equipped, so they responded in a way that escalated very quickly the emotional response of the student. You bring a law-and-order mentality to a situation with them and it's not productive."

With suspensions, O'Donnell says she witnessed — with alarming frequency — a disregard for legal process on the part of Richmond Schools.

"Kids who interacted with the court were suspended for all kinds of things it wasn't appropriate that they should be suspended for," she says. "It was a common occurrence that kids were told they were suspended, there was no documentation of it, and they were just told go home and there was no reason given for the suspension. You can't refuse to re-enroll a student for whom there was no reason given."

Even when suspension didn't directly result in an appearance in her courtroom, O'Donnell says she's certain statistics would support her belief that kicking kids out of school for days at a time also indirectly resulted in more students in her courtroom.

"My point would be, OK, if you're going to take a hard line like that — if you're going to have the highest suspension rate in the entire history of the U.S., show me that it works," O'Donnell says. "Show me that you're going to have the calmest, most peaceful classroom environment as a result. The zero-tolerance policy in my opinion is just not effective."

School Board Chairman George Braxton, the alleged target of Pinkney-Eppes' January campaign for change on the School Board, has every right to be critical of her politically charged rhetoric. But he says he's not.

"Every leader of an organization has a right to approach leadership the way they feel is appropriate," Braxton says.

He also recognizes that there's more than enough room to improve the district.

"Has RPS done right by every single student? Probably no," he says. "There are hundreds of issues of improvement that our school system needs. We are taking on as many of them as we can."

Braxton says he's never heard the charge that suspensions are used in Richmond schools as a tool to get students out of the classroom.

"This particular one in this particular format isn't one that has come before me," he says. "I am familiar with all of the referrals that we have had and we have as a goal to improve those — but not at the expense of not having an environment where education is what's going on."

He defends any policy that puts learning first, even if that might seem unfair to some of the system's more difficult-to-discipline students.

"Our goal first and foremost should be to support those students who are coming to school every day and seeking a distraction-free education," he says. "We have policies at the high-school level — shirttails in. At some point someone might say they're a repeat offender for not tucking their shirttails in. That's absolutely ridiculous that they'd be suspended for that for two or three days, you'd say.

"What we need to hear from parents in the community is if the policies that we have in place, if they are draconian, then that's something we have to go back and deal with," he says. "What we hear from our teachers and from the [Richmond Education Association] is quite the opposite: that we need to have a greater enforcement of our student code of conduct."

Instances of insubordination may happen with greater frequency in RPS than other districts, Braxton says, but because of Richmond's more-challenged population he wonders if the city "may have to be prepared to accept that."

The bigger question is what the Richmond school system is willing to accept. Some argue that a zero-tolerance policy in a challenged population isn't a realistic solution. For many who lack parental guidance at home, a zero-tolerance discipline policy seals their fate before they walk in the door.

For the sake of her children, Tonya Hocker hopes Braxton is wrong about needing to accept high suspension rates as a part of educating Richmond. A single mother of four city students, Hocker supports her family by working at a local beauty salon. Intent on a better life for her children than what she experienced in Gilpen Court — one of the city's most dangerous housing projects — she recently moved her family to Church Hill.

The life-altering move has proven less positive for Hocker's 9-year-old daughter, Jazmine. At George Washington Carver Elementary School, Jazmine was an honor student with straight As and no record of disciplinary problems. Quiet to a fault, Hocker says, Jazmine's greatest challenge in the classroom was her shyness.

"She shuts down on me when she's nervous," Hocker says. "She's very shy and reserved."

What Carver teachers helped her overcome, her new teacher at Chimborazo Elementary saw as an act of defiance, leading to her daughter's suspension from school twice and her eventual banishment to the Richmond Alternative Program at Blackwell, a self-contained reform-type school reserved typically for kids with chronic, sometimes dangerous discipline problems.

"On paper it looked like she was the most horrible student in the entire city of Richmond," says Hocker, who had been an active PTA member at Carver but found her time at Chimborazo occupied by defending her parenting skills.

After Jazmine's first run-in with her teacher, Hocker tried to be proactive, enrolling her in an in-school mediation program.

Not long after enrolling in the mediation program, Jazmine ran afoul of her teacher again. Overweight and tall for her age, Jazmine battles a number of weight-related health issues, including diabetes. The conditions are embarrassing to Jazmine, Hocker says, so when another student in her class was taunting her for being fat, she told her teacher — who ignored her.

The same day, Jazmine overheard her teacher discussing her weight with another teacher just outside the classroom door. Jazmine was mortified, Hocker says, and returned to her desk in tears. When the teacher returned, not knowing the child had overheard her, she tried to comfort Jazmine, who got up from her desk and went to a back wall of the class where she continued to cry and began kicking the wall.

"She was upset because when school started this teacher told [the students] she would do everything she could do to protect them and keep them safe," Hocker says. "And here she was making fun of her for being fat, discussing her shape with another teacher."

The teacher later told Hocker that she walked between Jazmine and the wall "to get her to stop kicking it." The girl ended up kicking the teacher in the shin. "On paper they made it sound like she went over to the teacher and kicked her.

"They suspended her for two weeks," Hocker says, pending a disciplinary hearing at the School Board to decide whether Jazmine would be expelled.

"She's a very smart and bright little girl," says Hocker, whose older daughters, 16 and 14, are in gifted programs. "I could see if she'd had previous problems at Carver — the thing that really insulted me; they asked me had she had an IEP [Individualized Education Plan]. Had I taken her to the doctor to see if she had any emotional problems? I wouldn't dare take that route to make their job that much easier for them."

More importantly, why had Jazmine suddenly developed behavior problems so serious they required medical diagnosis that would stick with the child for the rest of her school years? Just a year before, Jazmine had been well-adjusted at Carver, performing at the top of her class. "She got upset if she came home with anything less than an A," Hocker says.

Jazmine will spend the remainder of the year in the Richmond Alternative Program.

"I was scared to death because some of the children [there] have been diagnosed with behavioral problems," Hocker says. "I tell her every day, keep your head up. Just because you're in an alternative program, it doesn't mean you're dumb. It doesn't mean you've done something so wrong that you should be there."

Hocker, stung by the experience, has since moved again to an area of the city that means when Jazmine gets out of the alternative program next year, she'll go to John B. Cary Elementary School. Hocker says there's only one other move she'd like to make: Out of the city for the sake of her children. "If I had the means to, I would … because I feel like they failed my daughter."

Stories like these are more than statistics to Art Burton, the man Pinkney-Eppes affectionately accuses of getting her into this whole mess.

Burton has made a name for himself stirring things up throughout the years. He's run for City Council and twice for the School Board, ticking off his share of established city politicians along the way. His detractors say he spreads dissent.

"I have been speaking on school issues for seven years starting with A.V. Norrell and Wickham elementaries," he says, taking credit for helping close both.

But now he wants to open new ones. Pinkney-Eppes credits him with creating the Build Schools Now initiative, which was presented as an alternative to Wilder's much-maligned City of the Future plan.

It was Pinkney-Eppes' invitation to meet with Wilder recently to discuss, in part, aspects of the initiative that resulted in the loss of her day job as a coordinator with the nonprofit Communities in Schools, which partners with RPS.

"The business community provided us with the political climate to put [Build Schools Now] out there," Burton says, referring to last year's push by the business community to eliminate an elected School Board.

"Their letter [calling for an appointed School Board] … for better or worse provided us with the catalyst to be able to say hey, enough is enough."

Now, Burton and Pinkney-Eppes are under fire, they say, for calling on elected officials to do what they've long promised to do, including focusing on the City of the Future plan. Burton says he now understands exactly why many city residents still put up with the city's underachieving school districts. Those with the most political clout — middle class, mostly white West End families — are happy with the arrangement.

Burton makes no apologies to parents at the city's more affluent schools, offended by his call to abolish segregation-era open-enrollment. Instead, he wants them to join his effort to pull up the schools that are less fortunate.

He says it's not enough to look around Munford or Fox elementary schools and call them diverse because open enrollment has added different shades of brown to the complexion of the student body.

"Let's talk about the reality of Richmond Public School system, which is 87 percent black, 80 percent at or below poverty, 70 percent single mothers," he says. "That's the reality in this city. The reality is we're talking about families living in public housing walking around on $9,000 a year."

Burton believes the change in attitude that swept the city in 2005 with the ushering in of the new government got people thinking that things could be better — until they were confronted with a mayor who, many believe, has destroyed much of that public will with a destructive personality, and who's more interested in grandstanding and rhetoric than the business of doing.

"Most people don't realize that if you're black, the idea of having a good school that's clean and safe where children learn and teachers care is a brand-new thing in this city," Burton says. "To Dr. Jewell-Sherman's credit, to a large extent we have gotten there."

But a large extent is not enough. He says he's baffled by the response by Jewell-Sherman and others school leaders who Pinkney-Eppes believes are targeting her for her advocacy.

"We would still like the leadership of this city breaking ground on new schools this year," Burton says. "We would still like to see the school system and the community and the mayor come together. We have not given up on that."

Pinkney-Eppes and Burton know that if they're to have any shot at hammering their message home with school administrators and city government officials they must convince hundreds of West End parents not unlike Cullen Seltzer.

But Seltzer, a local attorney and parent of two children at Munford, acknowledges that Pinkney-Eppes' increasingly political brand of activism concerns him.

Seltzer, who is on Munford's PTA board, says the board "hasn't staked out any particular position regarding the advocacy the [Richmond Council of PTAs] has undertaken," though he acknowledges the chapter's desire to have a greater say in Pinkney-Eppes' message. As for Munford PTA entering city politics, he says: "We don't perceive that as being our role."

Seltzer, who stresses that he speaks only as a parent and not for the Munford PTA, says he believes Pinkney-Eppes' heart and the heart of the PTA leadership is in the right place. "They seem like hard-working, engaged parents," he says, "and the Richmond Public Schools needs more hard-working, engaged parents."

But he says he was blindsided by Burton and Pinkney-Eppes when they decried the city's open-enrollment program as a system of separate but unequal schools.

"I felt very much sandbagged by the whole thing," he says, defending Munford's open-enrollment process. The Richmond PTA "can be an enormously important organization [for advocacy]," he says, "… but I don't like when people who purport to represent me say stuff that I don't disagree [with] without giving me a crack at hearing about it first."

Still, Seltzer agrees with Pinkney-Eppes — and other critics of the political climate in Richmond — that the conversation about schools has devolved into a conversation about the conversation "rather than about the substance of it."

It's more complicated, he says. The broader problem of poverty and how it affects schools goes beyond what anyone at the school system, City Council or even the mayor can fix. So why blame one of the few programs that allow middle-class parents to justify living in the city when they could just as easily move to the suburbs?

The bigger issues — lack of regional cooperation in the effort to lift Richmond Schools — are part of why the Rev. Ben Campbell, a longtime observer of city affairs, says he disagrees with Pinkney-Eppes and Burton's methods. He also disagrees with their contention that some Richmond schools receive less than others.

"I'm not sure that's true, actually," he says, casting most of the blame on the broader issues that have clung with Richmond since the U.S. 4th Circuit Court overturned a 1972 lower court plan to combine Richmond schools with those of Henrico and Chesterfield counties. The only way to truly break up the concentration of poor students in the city is to create a regional school system, says Campbell, leader of Richmond Hill and a longtime booster for the school system in its efforts to improve.

"The problem with the Richmond Public Schools and its resources is created by the suburbs and the concentration of poverty in the city," Campbell says. "It's not caused by three or four schools that have a lot of middle-class students in them."

He acknowledges some disparities within the Richmond school system that he says are far less the fault of top administration and far more the fault of simple human nature: When you pick a career path like teaching, why would you intentionally want to do that job under the most difficult circumstances?

Pinkney-Eppes should work with the School Board and not attack it, he says: "You need allies, not enemies within your own system. It makes no sense for us to be attacking one another within the system. This is the best superintendent we've had in 30 years and people are working as hard as they can."

That's where Pinkney-Eppes has a problem. "When does asking 'Why' cause division?" she wonders. "When did questioning school policies and the School Board become destructive?

"That's been the most devastating thing out of all of this," she says. "Because we won't rubber-stamp what the School Board is doing, they are [saying] we are causing division.

"When you look at the city's organizational flow chart … it puts the citizen at the top," Pinkney-Eppes says. "But every time I've been asked to be heard, you push me away from the table. It's all we've wanted is to be heard." S

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