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EDU FAQ

EDU FAQ #001: Where do we even start?

We’re breaking down the state of education, one problem at a time. And it may take awhile, because those are a lot of problems!

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Spend any amount of time talking to folks with children, and it won’t take long to realize that no one agrees on what the most pressing issues facing public education are in Richmond.1 What everyone can agree on is that there are problems, big ones, and they are scary.

Unfortunately, most of these conversations devolve into vague ponderings about really large issues that overwhelm even the savviest educational experts. Trying to appraise the state of education at a macro level will send you spinning in a million directions, and the hopelessness that ensues will inevitably force you to consider homeschooling2 or never having children in the first place. But even if kids aren’t your thing, or yours have left the nest, paying attention to education is a necessity for the success of the region’s continued revitalization. Those who graduate from Richmond Public Schools enter the workforce as employees, entrepreneurs, and leaders and having this type of highly educated citizenry has a substantial impact on crime rates, property values, health care costs, economic development, and the future workforce.

But even if kids aren’t your thing, or yours have left the nest, paying attention to education is a necessity for the success of the region’s continued revitalization.

Yet, the issues are vast. Experts tirelessly research and debate them all of the time. Every day, it seems, an article is published discrediting the findings of the last published research that touted the most effective way to do all of the teaching things! What was hot today is inevitably not tomorrow. It leads to confusion, frustration, and a sense of despair.

For those facing education decisions now or in the future, those decisions can be paralyzing, especially when you don’t have the time or energy (you have kids! maybe? jobs! friends! hobbies! who has time and energy?) to do the real reading and research to truly understand the scope of the issues that contribute to quality education. For those without kids, they feel education discussions don’t apply to them, while others wait until they have their first kid to start considering their options, only to find that an investment in education had to start well before the kids arrived if they hoped to impact changes before their kid entered school.3

So, let’s break it all down. Within each of the major categories that affect education, there are many branches we can explore. For example, people accuse struggling school systems of having second-rate teachers. Yet, when pressed, many cannot differentiate between highly qualified teachers or quality teachers in terms of their effectiveness.4 Few outside of the education field can actually quantify what it is about teachers that makes them more or less effective.

No one can solve the “education problem” until they untangle the factors and start targeting the problems at their roots.

Additionally, if our only matrix for judging teacher quality is student achievement, we have failed to look at the effects, both positive and negative, of teacher preparation, professional development, building and district support, resources, and federal and state policies.

We all know education decisions are important and much like voting, should be informed. It is unrealistic for those outside of education, and sometimes even inside, to fully grasp the range of what is happening. There are simply too many things that influence the effectiveness and direction of public education.

The major issues fall, categorically, into:

  • Funding — This covers everything that requires money, including teacher salaries (first up, since Bedden has made it a priority in the FY 2017 budget), Title I, community partnerships, and the budget process (which seems elusive, but really shouldn’t be).
  • Policy — In other words, all the acronyms. We’ve got the ESSA, ESEA, IDEA, NCLB, CCCS, VDOE, SOL, AMO. Confused? Don’t be. I’ve gotcha covered.
  • Student Learning — Anything and everything that affects student learning. Curriculum and instruction. Teacher quality, effectiveness, retention, and training. But also safety, high stakes testing, poverty, school climate, achievement gaps, head start, and the list goes on…
  • Facilities — Really, this is anything that isn’t human. Books, technology, furniture, and buildings.

The reality is that these issues are not mutually exclusive, and no one can solve the “education problem” until they untangle the factors and start targeting the problems at their roots. And untangling is most likely an unrealistic goal, since most of these issues are inextricably intertwined. To save you from poring over the data, the reports, and the research because…kids, jobs, life, etc…I’ll do all the dirty work for you and present the big issues in succinct and informative ways so that the next time you find yourself in that dreaded education conversation you can come to the table full of clarity about what is really happening.

And, I’ll tie it back to RPS to make it meaningful to the decisions you have to make as you navigate educational decisions for your family now, or the one you may plan to have in the future, you know, if you’re into that kind of thing. And even if you don’t plan on kids or yours are grown, if you care at all about the city’s continued growth and revitalization, it wouldn’t pain you to listen up.


  1. There are debates about what to “fix” first in Richmond and how to fix it. Everyone has an agenda. Superintendent Dana Bedden is taking a stab at it in various ways. His FY 2017 budget proposal is attempting to decompress teacher salaries and secure funding to repair and rebuild deteriorating buildings. The RPS Academic Improvement Plan isolates five areas of improvement and eight performance targets to measure growth. While Bedden has seen a large amount of support since coming to RPS, that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with his methods. 
  2. Not poking fun! We have lots of amazing homeschool friends. I also recognize this isn’t a viable option for everyone. 
  3. Ask me whether I have personal experience with that one. And I’m a teacher. 
  4. The federal government defines highly qualified teachers as having: 1) a bachelor’s degree, 2) full state certification or licensure, and 3) prove that they know each subject they teach. Highly effective is determined by the teacher evaluation system in each district that is aligned to state teaching standards. 

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PHOTOS: Democrats and Republicans join forces at Capitol Classic

While Democrats and Republicans often are at odds at the state Capitol, members of the Senate and House of Delegates from both sides of the aisle fought for the same cause at the Stuart C. Siegel Center Tuesday evening.

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By Tyler Woodall and Nick Versaw – Capital News Service

Virginia government officials participated in the ninth annual Massey Capitol Classic Challenge on Tuesday night at Virginia Commonwealth University.

While Democrats and Republicans often are at odds at the state Capitol, members of the Senate and House of Delegates from both sides of the aisle fought for the same cause at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. Adding to the night’s light-hearted feel, the legislators were joined by former NBA center Ben Wallace, NASCAR driver Elliott Sadler and former VCU Ram and second round NBA draft pick Calvin Duncan.

The atmosphere was electric, as raucous choruses from VCU’s Peppas pep band and Henrico High School’s Marching Warriors echoed throughout the arena.

However, in the shadow of VCU’s 2011 Final Four banner, the action on the court was far from the level normally seen at The Stu.

Although the night was filled with air balls and turnovers, the sloppy play got the job done, as the night’s festivities helped raise more than $23,000 for VCU’s Massey Cancer Center. The largest donations came from Ben and Chandra Wallace, the CSX Corporation, the Sadler family and Capitol lobbyists.

The night’s festivities kicked off in front of a crowd of several hundred as the governor’s staff took on Capitol lobbyists. The lobbyists ultimately took home the bragging rights after winning 45-34.

Shortly after, the Senate won the night’s All-Star Shootout by a commanding 81-19 final score. However, the senators’ joy was short-lived as they were unable to bring that same lights-out shooting to the night’s premiere event.

The House, led by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, came out of the gates with the hot hand, taking a commanding 16-5 halftime lead. However, the first half’s action was less-than-stellar, and one announcer quipped, “That’s 15 minutes we’ll never get back.”

The second half was much of the same, with the exception of Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who came out of the huddle looking to carry his team back from the brink. However, Petersen’s efforts were not enough to carry his Senate colleagues past Sadler and Rasoul-led House.

At the final buzzer, the House came out with a commanding 31-17 victory, with Rasoul being named the game’s MVP.

Rasoul said he was happy to take home the honor in front of the friendly crowd and, for once, to join hands with his opponents across the aisle.

“It was great we got to have a good time and do it all for a good cause,” he said. “The one thing I love about this event is, it’s bipartisan. It’s House vs. Senate, and the more we can do in a bipartisan way, the more fun it is.”

Sadler, who helped Rasoul carry the House to victory Tuesday night, said he relished the opportunity to play at The Stu.

“I could’ve performed a little bit better, but the main thing is it’s for a great cause,” Sadler said. “I’ve been here to watch the Rams play, and it’s neat to be able to come here and play on this floor for such a good cause.”

After taking a moment to let it sink in, he added, “I think I’m undefeated on this floor right now, so that’s pretty cool.”

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EDU FAQ

EDU FAQ #006: What would school closings really have meant?

Now that school closure discussions are off the table, let’s think through the repercussions of shelving that solution so quickly.

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“…shuttering schools nearly always sets off a torrent of political backlash, as authorities in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other urban districts have learned in recent years. And for understandable reasons: schools are integral parts of communities; they’re built into families’ routines and expectations, and closing them inevitably causes pain and sadness, even when it’s what’s best for students” (Churchill & Petrilli, 2015)

The city battle to close the RPS budget gap rages on. Just like with our own bank accounts, when the money isn’t there, we have to limit or cut spending. Proposals have been put forth and the public outcry over the potential closing of several schools was heard across the city, with packed School Board and City Council meetings, as well as yard signage all over the city and billboards popping up along the interstate proclaiming, “Support Our Schools.”

Now that City Council has passed the amendments to partially fund schools and the School Board has tabled discussions of school closures this budget cycle, Superintendent Dana Bedden, with the help of retired Assistant Superintendent of Financial Services Ralph Westbay and Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Thomas Kranz, analyzed the budget to determine where cuts will have to be made and presented them to the School Board on May 16th. According to Westbay, “the School Board has the unenviable task of trying to squeeze $4.9 million of teacher salary decompression, $6.2 million of structural deficiencies, $2.3 million for year two of the AIP, and $2.8 million of other initiatives into $5.5 million.”

For starters, closures should not be proposed solely for fiscal reasons.1 If RPS decided that closures were necessary, they should have shown unequivocally from the start that all other options had been explored, that all other viable options would have been detrimental to students (such as cutting services or staff), and that the decision to close would be in the best interest of students and learning (research should show that decisions were made based on best practices). This should have been paired with a substantial long term plan for supporting students and families through the transition. What we saw was the opposite: a knee-jerk reaction to budget cuts that lacked a long term vision for the district and the students who would be affected. At least, that’s the public perception.

The decision to close schools is now off the the table, and major cuts to services are proposed, including special education services and AP offerings. I’m going to cover those next, once the School Board has finalized what exactly those cuts will be. Even though closures are off the table for this budget cycle, they will likely be back. They were always part of the 15-year Option 5 recommendation from the Facilities Task Force that was adopted by the School Board. Before the time comes and schools start shuttering, we should fully understand the potential impacts of such a decision.

The major concerns of parents were wide-ranging, everything from the effect on academic achievement to safety. Others worried about the impact losing a community school would have on a neighborhood. Others still have rightfully decried the further segregation of schools that already sit near or at apartheid settings. Teachers at the proposed closures were worried about their job security and those at schools set to absorb students worried about class sizes and overcrowding–all valid concerns that should have been addressed by RPS and the School Board before they moved forward with any motion, including the tabling that occurred on May 16th.

RPS failed to show their community stakeholders that closures were in the best interest of the students and families for whom they serve.

As I started to dig, I found there isn’t much research about the impacts of school closures on urban districts, although it is growing. Across the nation, the phenomenon of closing urban schools has grown in the last 15 years, adding Richmond to the other 70 large and mid-sized cities closing school doors across the country (Jack & Sludden, 2013). Since 2005, Richmond has closed 17 schools, eliminated 1 million square feet of space and 6,681 open seats. Even so, the district as a whole remains at 81.25% of functional capacity during the 2014-2015 school year. The last RPS school closing–Clark Springs Elementary–took place during 2013, ended up further segregating the affected schools, Cary and Fox, and proved a difficult time for the families affected. Adria Scharf, an RPS parent, said, “Many of us lived through rushed end-of-year school closures a few years ago, and it was terrible. It was traumatic for the children who were affected, and for many parents. Some parents I know simply up and moved out of Richmond in part because of that experience.”

The lessons of the past and the concerns voiced by stakeholders should have been fully addressed to show that any closure would have been done with forethought and planning so that structures and supports would be in place to ensure the least disruption and most success for students. This could have created buy-in from the community, instead of a blanket decision to propose closures that created unrest and push back. RPS failed to show their community stakeholders that closures were in the best interest of the students and families for whom they serve. Maybe this is what they wanted so that the proposal would ultimately be shut down by the Board due to parental pressure.

It’s worth asking though, what would have been the potential effects for students and schools if the consolidation discussions had been allowed to move forward? Or what could be the effects in the future, if and when they do move forward with right sizing the district? There’s a lot of conjecture floating around–some holds water and some doesn’t.

FALSE: Bigger schools mean more discipline issues

I don’t know a single person who wants to send their kid to a school they think is unsafe. Perceptions about school safety are usually based on raw data from VDOE Report Cards, media sensationalization about specific incidents, and word of mouth from other families who may…or may not…send their kids to a specific school. All are problematic.

VDOE Report Card data is self-reported by schools. While RPS has a standardized Codes of Responsible Ethics (PDF), ultimately, building staff make final decisions about the individual course of action for each infraction. Ideally, these would be aligned to the Code’s Levels of Interventions and Consequences. This isn’t always the case. With all of this said, the available data is far more appropriate for use in making decisions than solely basing opinions off of any media report or rumor that has the potential to come from a place of unconscious biases or false information.

To try and understand the district wide discipline landscape, I first used Suspension & Expulsion in Virginia School Divisions 2013-14 School Year by Jason Langberg from the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program. I reached out to Langberg as well for more updated information on the state of RPS discipline. This data can be heady so here is a bulleted list to make it slightly easier to consume and less discouraging…maybe.

  • In 2013-2014, RPS led the state in number of short-term suspensions and came in sixth when looking at rate per 1000 students.
  • In 2013-2014, RPS had the third highest number of long-term suspensions and ranked number one in rate per 1000 students.
  • From 2013-14 to 2014-15, the number of RPS students long-term suspended increased by over 75%.
  • In 2014-2015, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School long-term suspended 71 students, which was more than all but nine Virginia school divisions.
  • RPS had 1.87% of the Commonwealth’s public school students but issued 16.80% of all long-term suspensions.
  • The district also has the highest risk difference in the state for White students. Black students were 76.1% of the total student population in RCPS, but were issued 93.4% of short-term suspensions, 98.0% of long-term suspensions, and 97.4% of expulsions.

This data shows there is certainly an underlying discipline crisis in RPS. When you compare this to the VDOE Report Card data, for the most part, it seems discipline issues are isolated to certain schools, with six elementary schools accounting for 70% of referrals and 12 making up 89% of all referrals.2 The other half of the elementary schools account for a mere 11% of all discipline issues for RPS.

Some schools are also suspending a large percentage of their students. Langberg’s data reported that Swansboro suspended 17.1% of its students; Fairfield Court suspended 26.6% of its students; and Woodville suspended 30.1% of its students. At the high school level, Wythe made up 54% of the referrals by itself, while three schools (Wythe, Armstrong and Huguenot) made up 84%.

So, what does all this mean for RPS? One of the concerns we heard was that bigger schools meant more discipline issues. With a crisis already boiling in RPS, the last thing any stakeholder wants to see is a further increase in discipline issues for RPS.

Therefore, I researched the effect of school size on instances of discipline.3 What I found does not support the claim that discipline rates increase with school size. Educators and students perceive an increase in safety issues (Bakioglu & Geyin, 2009), and frequency may rise because there are more students. But the rate (when you account for the increase of students) of bullying, threats, and physical violence not only didn’t rise, but were in fact, lower in larger schools (Gottfredson, 1985; Klein & Cornell, 2010). The more likely factors that attribute to increased incidents are “administrative problems, such as breakdown in communication, inadequate feedback about performance, and lack of staff involvement in decision-making” (Gottfredson, 1985). Additionally, studies found that it’s not school size but class size, specifically teacher to student ratio, that had an impact on discipline and acts of violence (Gottfredson, 2015).

TRUE: Overcrowding lowers achievement

Research shows the negative impacts of overcrowding on student learning and achievement, especially for our highest need kids (Rivera-Batiz & Marti, 1995). This concern is related to, but not the same as, school size issues. This is a building capacity issue. Schools become overcrowded when their enrollment exceeds the amount of students the building was designed to serve. If we go back to EDU FAQ #005, I talked about the capacity reasons for closing schools. RPS has stated that their ideal goal is all schools at 85% to 90% of functional capacity. This chart from the task force’s report (PDF) shows the student-teacher ratios from which capacity numbers are created based on the number of classroom spaces in each building.

Grade RPS Functional RPS Maximum
PK 15:1 18:1
K 18:1 24:1
1 – 12 22:1 25:1
EE 9:1 9:1

There is no School-Board-mandated percent at which a school is considered overcrowded, therefore we used the administration’s own target and assume any building over RPS Functional Capacity is considered “overcrowded.” From this, three Northside and six Southside elementary schools are overcrowded, none of which are affected by the closures.

Of the four elementaries named to absorb students from closures, Blackwell, Redd, and Fisher could all potentially be pushed into “overcrowded” status depending on enrollments for the following school year. As for high schools, only Huguenot is over 85% of functional capacity. Like last time, assuming an unrealistic straight split of students from Armstrong distributed to the three other high schools, none would be pushed over 100% functional capacity, but Marshall could come really close.

Virginia Department of Education ratios are higher than state ratios, but still aligned with best practice in regards to impact on student learning and class size. RPS class sizes reflect the district’s recognition of the unique needs of their student body and an attempt to keep their classes sizes below state maximums.4

Grade State Maximum
K 24:1
1 – 3 24:1
4 – 6 25:1
6 – 12 (English) 24:1
Secondary 21:1

Secondary includes middle and high school. The ratio is a bit different. It is a school-wide ratio of teachers to average daily attendance. In other words, if there are 210 students in a building, they need 10 full time teachers. This does not mean classes are that small.

If we push our definition of overcrowding to the VDOE state maximums (shown above) only two elementaries and no high schools are over 85%.

So are RPS buildings really overcrowded?

A couple factors to consider. First, if RPS schools were properly staffed, meaning they had enough teachers and aides, teachers wouldn’t feel as stressed by the possibility of adding more students due to consolidations. When there aren’t enough teachers in a building, class sizes grow, squeezing more kids into rooms with less adults. These bigger class make teaching extremely hard. Shucks, we have ratios for a reason.

For secondary teachers, their loads can grow from 100 kids (five classes at 20 kids each) to 150 (five classes of 30 kids each). Sadly, I’ve seen it grow even more than that. Frankly put, this is overwhelming for teachers and does a disservice to the kids. Students lose the one-on-one interactions, achievement declines, and students fall through the cracks. This isn’t the fault of the teacher. They are working their tails off to help every kid. There simply isn’t enough time when class sizes grow. These bigger classes feel like overcrowding because even though the building may not be overcrowded, that classroom sure is. What RPS failed to articulate clearly was whether teachers would move with students during the consolidations. Although teachers normally consolidate to new schools with students, this isn’t always the case.

Second, building leadership needs to figure out how to properly create master schedules. When schedules are made poorly, one class may have 35 students and another has 15. Again, this leads to teacher perceptions of overcrowdedness.

Lastly, what feels like overcrowding is at least partially a building issue. What I mean is, the VDOE has guidelines (PDF) for public school facilities in Virginia, and these include the minimum square footage of classrooms. The feeling of overcrowdedness certainly has to do with the current classroom sizes in these very, very old school buildings that simply aren’t up to the square footage needs of 2016.

The VDOE guidelines state that an elementary classroom needs to be 975 sq ft. A teacher at Fisher Elementary measured several classrooms for me. Her numbers are estimates because she only had her small tape measure, but the kindergarten, first and second grade rooms were about 20 feet by 26 feet. The third and fourth grade rooms were about 23 feet by 29 feet. That is 520 sq ft and 667 sq ft, respectively, and well below state guidelines for classroom size.

And there, friends, lies a big issue that no one is talking about. While yes, schools may be under current capacity numbers determined by number of classrooms, actual space has seemingly not been considered. Teachers are squeezing a large number of children into a very small space. It isn’t about finding the classrooms, it is literally about not having the space–the square footage–to house more children. Can we fit more kids in these rooms? Sure. Should we? No.

TRUE: Poor conditions impact student learning

Research has shown that the effects of poorly maintained buildings can lead to lowered achievement (Holmes, 2012; Tanner, 2008), less engagement (Branham, 2004), and increased behavior issues (Bishop, 2009), as well as lower attendance and higher dropouts (Earthman, 1995). In one study, achievement increased when students were moved from an older building to a newer building, suggesting that school facilities do have an effect on academic achievement (Lumpkin, 2013).

Deferred maintenance has left many RPS schools in need of major, multi-million dollar renovations. Knowing that building conditions can have a significant impact on student outcomes, it’s disappointing to know that Richmond City has historically and recently placed so little emphasis on maintaining its buildings and ensuring that students have a healthy and safe building to learn in. For the most part, students in neighboring districts and more affluent schools are certainly not subject to such abject conditions.

How bad is it? We went into this a bit in EDU FAQ #005, but here is a quick refresher.

There are two places we can look to better understand the physical state of our schools. The Capital Improvement Plan lists the essential repairs necessary for safety and health. The three elementary schools proposed for closure have nearly $3 million dollars combined in needed repairs, of which Cary accounts for $1.5 million. These needed repairs include electrical, HVAC, roofing, and plumbing. Armstrong has nearly $2.9 million in needed CIP repairs.

The full Facilities Task Force report included everything from essential items to aesthetic upgrades, including windows, flooring, and lighting, all of which are necessary to bring old buildings up to base levels. The task force assigned four ratings to buildings, including complete renovation/replacement, major renovations, moderate renovations, or minor renovations. Remember that Cary only needs minor renovations plus an addition, while both Swansboro and Southampton need complete renovation/replacement. Armstrong only needs moderate renovations compared to the other three high schools that all need major repairs, but Armstrong is in Henrico, so money spent on an RPS building would be best spent on a building whose property taxes benefit the city.

City Council only approved $4 million of the requested $39 million in CIP funds. RPS is going to have to triage these needs and figure out where the bandages can be placed and where they can continue to defer. A group of parents and concerned community members are currently working to crowdsource funding to pay for repairs. It will be interesting to see how that works out. Organizations like HandsOn Greater Richmond have worked with major corporations to fund some minor repairs and aesthetic upgrades in RPS schools, but funding major health and safety repairs is a new and Herculean feat.

DEPENDS: Closures decrease student achievement

There is research to suggest enrollment has a stronger effect on learning for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and high concentrations of minority students (Gershenson & Langbein, 2015; Lee & Smith, 1997; Leithwood, & Jantzi, 2009). Therefore, if RPS had consolidated schools and increased enrollment numbers, achievement could have been impacted. Stated differently, schools with predominantly minority students and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds have higher achievement in schools with lower enrollments. The optimal size is hard to peg, but based on what I’ve read, it appears to be somewhere between 600 and 900 students for secondary schools and slightly lower for elementary students. Yet, enrollment is only one very small piece. To truly understand what is happening in RPS schools, one must look at all of the potential variables: teacher quality, teacher retention, trauma, school resources, leadership…and the list goes on…

There is also body of research that shows when schools do close, displaced students fare better academically and show greater achievement gains when they move to higher quality schools, defined as having higher achievement results (Carlson & Lavertu, 2015; Research for Action, 2013). On the other hand, there is additional research that shuttering a low-performing school and sending kids to a higher performing school alone is not enough and only “imitates an inevitably continuous pattern of academically harmful displacement for children already disadvantaged” (American Federation of Teachers, 2012).

In this regard, there is no real consensus. This may be why when, in our interview, I asked Bedden, Kranz, and Westbay about the impact of achievement on their decision, Bedden said it was not taken into consideration. Although, when you look at the proposed closures, every single closing school is moving students to a higher achieving school. No way that can be a coincidence. Right? I only wish RPS would have acknowledged the potential benefits of this kind of move and used the available research to support their long term plan. Because, acting in the best interests of children shouldn’t be something we shy away from talking about even in the face of external pressure.

FALSE: Closing community schools destroys neighborhoods

One of the main objections to consolidation is the loss of neighborhood schools. It has been argued that with these closures would come a mass exodus of families to the county or to private schools. It is true that schools are an important determinant when selecting housing. For those invested in public schooling, this may mean moving to a neighborhood or district that is perceived as having excellent educational opportunities. For others, this means opting for private schools.

Specifically, affluent families benefit from opportunities to “buy in” to better school districts (Siegel-Hawley, 2013), otherwise known as housing identity privilege, or “a historically supported system of advantages in America that is based on how much house one can afford, and it is correlated directly with the degree of educational choices one can afford”(Gooden & Thompson Dorsey, 2014, p. 771). In other words, not everyone has the ability to move to neighborhoods deemed to have “good” schools or opt for private education. Those of lower socioeconomic status are priced out of neighborhoods perceived as having the best schools. These designations of “good” and “best” are linked to areas with more wealth, which translates to more property taxes benefiting schools.

Research also shows that “the racial composition of schools’ student bodies plays a salient role in parents’ selection of the most appropriate school, particularly among white parents,” (Billingham and Hunt, 2016, p. 111) and White parents continue to choose schools with low African American student bodies. This privilege is reserved for those with means and leads to greater segregation among race and class lines in neighborhoods and schools. For instance, in the Mary Munford district, approximately 75% of students attend private school despite Munford having the highest enrollment of white students in the district (Siegel-Hawley, 2014) and the lowest concentration of poverty.

Post Brown vs. Board of Education, de facto segregation continued due to White flight from cities and persists today in the form of neighborhood and school choice. In a study of Richmond Public Schools, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley (2014) stated, “…supporters of neighborhood schools touted the benefits of making schools the center of community life–including closer links between surrounding residents and the school, increased parental engagement, and resource sharing. Yet research has not necessarily born out these assumptions.” She goes on to say, that one of the major themes emerging from her research is “that black and white families displayed clear preferences for schools in low poverty, predominantly white neighborhoods. This runs counter to the widespread notion that all groups prefer neighborhood schools (Armor 1996). Instead, the open enrollment policy has normalized and even made desirable the use of non-neighborhood schools.” This type of school choice has led to significant increases in school segregation in Richmond due to the way that white and/or affluent parents have used the system to their advantage.

TRUE: Segregation would persist (without rezoning)

The city proper and the surrounding region are increasingly diverse, and yet we have seen a continued increase in segregated schools5. Had a consolidation of schools without rezoning taken place, these effects could have multiplied, taking us even further back. According to Siegel-Hawley’s report Race, Choice and Richmond Public Schools: New Possibilities and Ongoing Challenges for Diversity in Urban Districts (2014), “the district’s accommodationist approach to school choice has been linked to the overrepresentation of white students in various schools.”

The current segregation trends in RPS are concerning, to say the least. In this regard, I could lay out all the statistics about school demographics, or I could show you a chart. OK, two charts, but two charts that speak louder than any words ever could.6 Keep in mind as you look at these that in RPS, White students account for approximately 9.44% of the population this school year

File-May-20-12-37-57-PM

File-May-20-12-38-23-PM

What this shows is a segregation of elementary schools by race, with certain schools catering to White and affluent families (possibly in hopes of drawing them into district schools.) If we fast forward to middle school, the small percentage of White families who were in the public schools have largely fled. Some appear to come back for high school, but only at select schools.

In Richmond, the most recent closing of Clark Springs is a prime example of the way rezoning has impacted school demographics. In a 2013 report Increasing Diversity in City Schools: Unexplored Paths of Opportunity, one chart showed that during the 2013 consolidation and consequent rezoning, lines were redrawn in such a way as to shift the racial demographics of some schools. Prior to the closing of Clark Springs, the Cary district was just over 61% White. After, it dropped to 16%. The Fox district, on the other hand, slightly increased to 77% White in 2013. Other district saw similar results, such as Westover Hills, which increased from 25% White to 56% White, while Blackwell decreased from 25% to 0%. Richmond does not have a great, or even moderately good, track record of rezoning and equitably integrating their schools.

How would this time have been any different? All of the schools that would have been affected by consolidations are predominantly (over 85%) students of color, again showing RPS’ and the School Board’s unwillingness to touch certain schools.

Where the schools differ is in their socioeconomic status. Districts use free and reduced lunch as an indicator of poverty concentration. The district’s student population qualifying for free or reduced lunch is about 75% as of September 2015. Three of the schools have higher concentrations of economically disadvantaged students (Swansboro, Blackwell, and Carver), one is at the district average (Redd), and three are below (Southampton, Fisher, and Cary).

File-May-20-12-38-33-PM

 

Closing Cary without rezoning would have moved students to a school that already has a higher percent of economically disadvantaged students, consolidating poverty and racial segregation at Carver while maintaining the disproportionately low poverty concentration at Fox and Munford.

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Splitting Southampton would have sent some students to Redd, which has a higher concentration of poverty, and Fisher, which has a lower concentration of students in poverty. Either way, this would have increased the percent of economically disadvantaged students at both schools. Likewise, moving Swansboro students would have further consolidated poverty at Blackwell.

Parents have decried the failure of RPS to include a rezoning of districts affected, specifically families from Cary who would be bussed around Fox to get to Carver. They aren’t wrong.

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As noted previously, though, only the school board has the legal power to rezone. A rezoning would be best to ease the overcrowding of Fox, which sits at 110% of functional capacity while both nearby Cary (60%) and Carver (61%) are well below. Two other nearby schools, Holton and Munford are also over functional capacity. Any rezoning should rework the boundaries for those five schools (as well as other Northside schools) to equalize capacity issues and create less segregated schools. As we saw above, Cary and Carver are predominately African-American schools with high poverty, while Fox and Munford are predominately White schools with very low poverty that disproportionately affects Black students. Holton is predominately African American, but has the third largest White population in RPS.7

I’m not sure Richmond has ever seen a School Board willing to make that kind of change in the face of the political storm that would erupt from White and affluent parents zoned for Fox, Munford, and Holton. In a school district where only 9.44% of the school population is White, the school board decisions around rezoning have been influenced to preserve these three schools which are disproportionately White. This is the city’s perpetuation of a disgraceful legacy of racial and socioeconomic segregation borne of the refusal of parents and Boards to integrate schools equitably. We need a School Board willing to do the right thing and we need white and affluent parents who aren’t scared of integration. Too often, parents equate integration with “sacrificing” their child, despite the evidence to suggest that white children benefit from integrated schools.8

Until we have a school board willing to take desegregation on head first, this continued gerrymandering alone is reason enough to hold off on any consolidation that hasn’t been fully planned and supported to equitably serve all students in the district…not just those with the privilege and means to advocate loudest.

Note: I’ve used a lot of references in this work because I wanted to make sure everything was supported with evidence instead of being the opinions of just one lady hanging out on her couch writing things about education. I realize there is also conflicting evidence out there for many of these opinions. Data is funny that way. I’ve tried to choose research about Richmond when possible. In other areas, I’ve done my best to provide the most recent and commonly accepted research-based understandings with the knowledge that there may have been a different theory previously and that this too may change someday. Instead of boring you with the list of references here, if you want the full citations, go to the EDU FAQ page on my blog.


  1. I know that the closures were not originally proposed solely to close the budget gap. With this most recent roll out of named schools though, the perception is budgetary limitations expedited the potential for closures and was behind the selection of these specific schools. 
  2. There are 25 elementary schools in RPS. 
  3. And because I fancy myself someone who doesn’t believe in plagiarism (I am an English teacher after all…), I’m including those pesky in-text citations below because the ideas aren’t mine and I don’t like getting in trouble. 
  4. From Guidance Regarding Maximum Class Size and Student-Teacher Ratios in the Standards of Quality(PDF) 
  5. Not just segregation by race, but double segregation, meaning that people of color and those in poverty overlap in specific areas of the city and therefore, specific schools. 
  6. Data from the VDOE Fall Enrollment Data 
  7. Munford and Fox are well below the district average for economically disadvantaged students. Only 12.5% of Munford and 20.7% of Fox students are considered economically disadvantaged. Yet, their African American population is disproportionately disadvantaged. Munford is only 10.8% Black, but 51% of their economically disadvantaged students are Black. Fox similarity is 16.9% Black, but 55.8% of their economically disadvantaged students are Black. 
  8. NPR ran a piece recently on this. 

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EDU FAQ

EDU FAQ #005: What’s the reasoning behind closing schools?

Richmond Public Schools proposed closing a handful of schools recently, and it didn’t go over well. Here’s another hard look at the data.

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Emotions ran high over the now-famous proposal to close Armstrong High School and three elementary schools, as well as transfer one elementary school to a vacant building.1 The proposal–lacking transparency about the reasons for each selection, and in all reality, a political game of chicken between RPS and City Council–had parents and teachers scared and angry. Because of the way this announcement was rolled out to the school board and the community, a lot of misinformation about the impact and effectiveness of school closings has swirled around.

The major concerns all surround impact on student learning and the actual amount of overall savings. Teachers are worried about layoffs and parents are worried about sending their kids to under-achieving, deteriorating, and overcrowded schools. A lot goes into a decision to close schools, and these announcements aren’t made lightly. Names aren’t picked out of a hat (at least, good grief, I hope not). After speaking with Superintendent Dana Bedden, his administration fully realizes that school closures are emotionally charged, as stakeholders are invested in their community schools. Without all of the facts, it can be easy to take the closure announcements as a personal assault. Yet, there are times when school closures are necessary and appropriate. I’ve met with school officials and I’ve spoken to concerned parents to fully understand both sides of this complicated issues. I’ve scoured a lot of data, including the five proposed options (PDF) laid out by the Facilities Task Force that weighed cost and complexity issues. Option 5 was adopted and always included closures from its inception.

How did this information lead us to the named schools? Let’s investigate…

The Budget

In FAQ #004.1, we broke down the $18 million budget gap that RPS is facing for next school year. Some updates on this number have come out since we last spoke of that dang squirrelly operating budget.

Ralph Westbay, the retired Assistant Superintendent for Financial Services, proposed cuts at the April 18th School Board meeting that only equaled $4.9 million, including transportation, technology and staffing cuts, but had taken out school closures.2 This is down from the $9.7 million in possible reductions proposed at the April 4th meeting, which was what started this whole uproar about closures in the first place. In other words folks, school closures may end up being the least of our worries.

After the General Assembly adopted the state budget, the school system only faced a $17.4 million gap. On April 18th, the school board adopted $1.2 million in savings by agreeing to modify transportation to a hub system, close two office buildings, and demolish the vacant Elkhardt Middle School building. On May 6th, City Council agreed on a mere $5.5 million in additional school funding.3 I’ll do that quick math for you…the schools still need to cut $10.7 million from their operating budget to make ends meet. With only $7.7 million left from the original April 4th proposal, including closures, the City still needs to find another $3 million…from where, nobody yet knows.

With the possibility of a fully funded system now off the table, Bedden and the School Board will be forced to consider ways RPS can balance the operating budget. Bedden has made it clear that teacher pay decompression is a priority. The fate of the proposed closures is still unclear, but simply put, the math doesn’t add up to keep schools open AND decompress teacher salaries next year.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, the money isn’t there to do either.

Another kink thrown into this whole budgetary nightmare is that on Tuesday, May 3rd, City Council voted to appropriate funds to RPS by VDOE categories (explained in EDU FAQ #003) instead of a lump sum.4

Essentially, this is an attempt by the council to control how the district will spend money.5 They can say they funded salary decompression ($4.9 million) and funded the opening of Summer Hill Elementary ($200,000), plus gave an undesignated $327,000, but in reality, they don’t have the power by law to designate how the board will spend their funds. If the board decides there are other more pressing priorities than what is listed above, they can reallocate money, as long as it is within the category to which the funds were appropriated. Because the board can’t carry over funds to other categories without mayor and council approval, they have to pay even closer attention to spending to ensure they don’t overspend.

With this new way of appropriation, schools will now have to ensure they stay within seven budgets instead of one. If the board wants to move funds, they are at the mercy of Mayor Jones and City Council. Oy vey! I should digress here. Because really, there is so much more I could say…like the CAO warning Council the City will likely overspend their own budget by $9 million five months before the fiscal year ends and now trying to control how the school board spends their money, too? Double, no, triple oy vey!

The Proposal

During the April 4th School Board Meeting, Westbay shared several balancing options, for a total of $9.7 million in possible reductions. We’re going to work off of this proposal, here, since a new one hasn’t come out and this is closest to covering the $10.7 million deficit. From the proposal, just over $3 million would come from closures, including:

  • the consolidation of Armstrong into John Marshall, George Wythe, and Thomas Jefferson High schools;
  • The consolidation of three elementary schools, Cary, Swansboro and Southampton into four other schools;6
  • Relocating Overby-Sheppard to Clark Springs;
  • Merging two speciality centers into two other campuses. 7

The Factors

I met with Bedden, Westbay, and Thomas Kranz, Assistant Superintendent for Support Services, to discuss how the decisions were made in terms of which schools would close and where consolidations would take place.

Bedden said, “Operations is what is eating up all the money on the academic side. It was a question for me of how do we stop the bleeding on the operational side.” The district understands that there are a lot of inefficiencies in the operating budget, including the number of buildings, capacity issues, and rezoning. These snowball into other wasted resources in areas such as transportation and staffing, specifically those required by the Virginia Department of Education’s Standards of Quality which outline the requirements that must be met by all Virginia public schools and districts.

Bedden issued a directive to Kranz to only consider certain factors as he began parsing through ways RPS could cut expenditures to balance the budget. Kranz was the only administrator present in the Facilities Task Force meetings that discussed closures–this was to ensure the committee remained impartial and to create a buffer between the Office of Superintendent and the decision-making process. He did not want to influence decisions about which schools should stay open or close based on any factors other than the criteria that was outlined. “If I start putting my emotion in, I’m human…Is it fair because I know you less? I have to go home knowing that all these faces, these bodies we are talking about are kids who at one point or another I have probably seen. They have run up and hugged me. I may not know their name anymore because I’ve passed them once. But that doesn’t matter. But if I start playing that game, I’m as guilty as past sins of being influenced by my feelings about this school or that school….You pay me to take care of all schools.”

Bedden noted it had to be a numbers game. We have to trigger the conversation by bringing the numbers up and educating people about how decisions were made, Bedden said. Specifically, Kranz outlined via email the four data points that were analyzed when determining which schools would be proposed for closure. These, plus the secondary factors, are all found in the task force’s report (PDF).

Those included:

  1. Facility condition
  2. Land availability for building additions
  3. Projected enrollments
  4. Building capacity

Rankings

To pull all this data together and make some sense of it, I created a rating system. Schools received one point for each of the following criteria based on Kranz’s information and the reports found on Richmond Forward. Schools with the most points (4) were the best candidates for closure:

  1. In need of a complete renovation/replacement to overcome functional obsolescence
  2. In need of an addition to meet program requirements, including classroom space or multipurpose space
  3. Declining enrollment
  4. Under 85% capacity according to RPS Functional Capacity

Southampton and Swansboro were the only elementary schools that met all four criteria, placing them at the top of the list for possible closure. Four schools had a score of three. Cary was the only one of those that would need an addition to meet program criteria. So, while the other three schools may need to be completely renovated or replaced, they don’t need new construction additions. Maintenance on these buildings will continue to be deferred due to lack of funding. Then, when you factor in capacity issues, it would be the difference between moving 265 kids from Cary to one other school (Carver), versus having to split up one of the other schools between several elementaries because no school in proximity had the capacity to absorb their students. One consolidation that keeps the Cary kids together seems better than splitting a school into several other existing schools. Addition needs, paired with the steep declines in enrollment and the lowest building capacity of the four, marked Cary the prime candidate for closing over Woodville, Bellevue, and George Mason.

The high school process appears to be a little different. Armstrong actually ranked the second lowest of the high schools. It has steady enrollment and is near the desired 85% capacity. It only needs moderate repairs. John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and Wythe all rank much higher, as they all have declining enrollments, under 70% capacity, and are in need of major repairs.

So, how did Armstrong end up on the chopping block? One thing that often goes unmentioned is that the Armstrong building is actually in Henrico County. Perhaps this played into the decision? Other factors that people cower from discussing include the fact that Armstrong has the largest concentration of public housing and poverty (80% overall and 100% of their African American population), the least amount of diversity (96.4% African American), the lowest achievement scores, the lowest graduation rates (80%), and a concerning attendance rate (70%). And while these weren’t officially considered in the decision, we can’t pretend they don’t matter.

Looking at each criteria separately will help us better understand how they impacted the decision-making process.

Facility Conditions

Kranz said via email that the Facilities Task Force looked at each school in the district to determine how much money would be needed to bring schools up to a base facility level. These levels were based on the four newest buildings in RPS: Oak Grove and Broad Rock Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle, and Huguenot High. Buildings were coded into four categories: complete renovation/replacement, major renovation, moderate renovation, or minor renovation.8 The results of these findings aren’t shocking when you consider that 81.4% of RPS schools are more than 20 years old, a third are more than 50 years old, and another third are more than 70 years old. Seven elementary schools were listed as needing complete renovation/replacement, including Swansboro and Southampton. According to the Capital Improvement Plan (PDF), Swansboro alone needs $800,000 in renovations over the next five years, including electrical, roof, and HVAC repairs. Compare that to the Facilities Needs Report, and Swansboro actually needs closer to $8 million dollars to meet program requirements and bring the building up to a base facility level.9 I asked Garet Prior from Richmond Forward via email about the difference. He stated that the CIP includes only those items essential to safety and health, while the full task force report includes everything from essential items to aesthetic upgrades, including windows, flooring, and lighting, which are necessary to bring the building up to base levels.

The schools that would absorb students from Swansboro and Southampton only need moderate (Redd), minor (Fisher), or no renovations (Blackwell). North of the river, Cary only needs minor renovations while Carver needs major renovations. Therefore, condition alone was not enough to put Cary on the chopping block.

As for the high schools, Armstrong only has CIP needs totaling $2.9 million and needs moderate improvements to meet base levels totaling almost $24 million. This is the least of any of the other three high schools, two of which come in over $30 million. That said, it doesn’t actually make sense to drop money into a building that isn’t actually in Richmond City.

Additions

This is an interesting piece to me. Why do buildings need additions if they’re under capacity? Kranz said via email, “We looked at whether the current school site had sufficient land available to add to the school. One of the primary assumptions of the Facilities Task Force was that new schools would be built to handle a larger enrollment. For elementary schools, we used an RPS Functional Capacity of 1,000 students, for middle schools we used an RPS Functional Capacity of 1,500 students and for the high schools we used an RPS Functional Capacity of 2,000 students.” In other words, in order to bring current buildings up to base facilities level, they had to consider whether schools who didn’t have this capacity had the available space to add additions and how much additional space would be needed for each.

Declining Enrollments

All of the proposed elementary schools have seen declining enrollments, between 8% and 12%. Cary’s decline was significantly below projections last year, and if the trend continues, Kranz said, we could see Cary fall below 200 students in the upcoming school year. The reality is, though, that 17 of the district’s 27 elementary schools have declining enrollments. Of the 10 showing growth, seven are located south of the river. North of the river, there are 13 elementary schools and one preschool program housed in the Ginter Park Annex. Of these, only two elementary schools and the preschool have shown growth. The biggest declines in the district are taking place north of the river, with seven of the 11 schools losing anywhere from 5% to 19% of their enrollment.

High schools are faring no better. All but three of the City’s high schools have declining enrollment. Huguenot, which has a brand new building, Community, which is a speciality school, and Armstrong all saw growth last year. I should mention that Armstrong’s growth was negligible, increasing by only two students. We should also mention that of the 974 students enrolled at Armstrong, over 300 are bussed in, many driving past Wythe to get to Armstrong each day. Of the remaining four high schools, three saw only between 3% and 4% declines. Thomas Jefferson, though, declined by nearly 14%, losing approximately 100 students.

There are dire consequences for dwindling districts. These declines mean decreased funding, which impacts the ability to maintain top teacher talent, as well as provide services and programming for students. But wait; there’s more!

Capacity

Capacity refers to the number of students in a building divided by the number of students a building could potentially hold based on classroom space and a standard pupil/teacher ratio. In other words, if a school has 50 classrooms and the standard is 24 kids to each classroom, the building capacity would be 1,200 kids. If I only have 600 kids enrolled, capacity is at 50%.

Let’s move to analogy…one where money is not a factor. A family has nine kids. When they purchase their home, they need a big house, one with ten bedrooms. As the first five kids grow up and move away, they don’t need that big house anymore. So, they downsize. See where I’m going with this?

Based off of RPS Functional Capacity, RPS has a total of 924 open seats in elementary schools north of the river and approximately 2,067 seats in the high schools. Interestingly enough, the south side elementaries are over capacity, with approximately 379 more students than they have seats according to their Functional Capacity. This does not mean RPS is out of compliance for state-mandated pupil-to-teacher ratios. Functional Capacity is well below state capacity numbers, and only two elementaries come anywhere close (and slightly exceed) state capacity numbers. What it does mean is that RPS’s house is too big. And since rezoning is out of their purview, this is where rightsizing a district comes in. Declining enrollments lead to school districts operating the same amount of square footage for less students. More money per student goes to operating buildings that aren’t housing anywhere near the number of students they could. Much like we may move out of our large houses once our kids move away to help cut down on utilities and decrease our mortgages, schools needs to begin the laborious task of downsizing when the kids don’t enroll, especially in times of budget crisis.

All of the proposed elementary schools are below the ideal 85% functional capacity, as are three of the four schools set to absorb students. Redd is the only one not below capacity, growing from 92.7% to 93.7% in the last two school years. Preliminary numbers show that consolidation will push Blackwell, Fisher, and Redd over 100% of functional capacity. Carver would approach 95% if Cary students were moved. Many have questioned why students wouldn’t be rerouted to a closer school, such as Fox, which Cary students would have to bypass to get to Carver. During this school year, Fox is already at 110% functional capacity. Adding an additional 250-plus kids would push them well beyond any other school’s capacity numbers. The only way to remedy that would be rezoning and, well, School Board has sole rezoning authority.

Splitting Armstrong between the three schools, assuming a straight split–which of course likely won’t happen–won’t push any school over 100%, but will push both Marshall and Wythe into the 90s, while Thomas Jefferson will still be under the 85% benchmark.

None of this is inherently bad, in fact, this is what rightsizing a district looks like. Remember that analogy above about moving to a house that is appropriate for your family based on the size of your family? Well, this is what RPS is looking to do by closing schools, moving kids into schools with space, and eliminating the empty seats to create efficiency and appropriate use of funds.

So What Now

All of this, taken together, is a lot to digest. As we look over the facts and data, we will have to make tough decisions about what we are willing to support and what we believe is right. This answer may not be the same for all of us. What we will all have to agree on is that somewhere in the budget RPS will need to find $10.7 million dollars in cuts. And as of right now, the answer to this remains to be seen.

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Read the rest of our EDU FAQ and/or come to RVANews Live and talk about it in person!


  1. Some are reporting they proposed to close four elementary schools. This is incorrect. RPS proposed Overby-Sheppard be moved to the empty Clark Springs Elementary School building. It is not being consolidated with another school. The other three schools are Cary, Swansboro, and Southampton. 
  2. Staffing cuts were proposed positions that had not yet been filled. 
  3. The rest of the $9 million is for capital improvements. 
  4. To keep from boring you with state code stuff, you can read up on this more, only if you want to feel a pop in your head…Universal Citation: Virginia Code 22.1-94 (2014) and Universal Citation: Virginia Code 22.1-115 (2014). Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 
  5. I smell a rat. 
  6. For more information about the proposal, including where the additional 6 million would come from, check out Board Docs
  7. No specific schools were named. Early guesses include moving Open to Community, which is currently at 25% capacity. 
  8. For a full description of these designations, look at this report. Full descriptions are on the last page. 
  9. We have waded through the facilities budget in EDU FAQ#004.2 but if you want to really dig into the base facilities levels, Richmond Forward has the District-Wide Educational Specifications posted, as well as the specs for each new school. 

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