By Adrian Teran-Tapia
As graduation season approaches, over 720 high school seniors enrolled in the city’s public schools this year hope to change the declining trend that is Richmond’s on-time graduation rate.
Richmond Public Schools have been under the spotlight after coming in last in on-time graduation rates in the state in 2018 and second to last in 2017.
Of the RPS Class of 2018, data shows, 75.4% graduated within four years. That was down from nearly 84% in 2015.
At the same time, statewide graduation rates have been increasing — from 89.9 percent in 2014 to 91.6 percent last year.
Richmond’s suburbs have on-time graduation rates above or around the state average:
- 95.2% in Hanover County
- 92.3% in Henrico County (up from 89% in 2014)
- 90.9% in Chesterfield County
Bottom line: Statewide and in neighboring counties, more than nine out of 10 high school students earn their diplomas in four years — but in Richmond, only three out of four do so.
The flip side of the graduation rate is the dropout rate, and in 2018, RPS also had the worst dropout rate in the commonwealth — more than 20%. For certain groups of students, the dropout rate was much higher: About 60 percent of Richmond’s Hispanic students and students in English-language classes quit school.
RPS advocates note that the city’s public schools have higher levels of poverty and other socioeconomic factors than most other districts face. Even so, why aren’t more RPS students graduating on time — and what can be done to address the problem?
Absenteeism is a chronic problem
Zenobia Bey is CEO of Community 50/50, a community outreach program for inner-city youth. She believes that lack of support from both the community and RPS is to blame.
Bey said one of the biggest reasons for low graduation rates in Richmond is chronic absenteeism, defined as students missing more than 10% of their enrolled school days.
The three largest high schools in Richmond have the highest chronic absenteeism rates in the state.
At Armstrong High School, for example, the rate was 54% — meaning more than half of the students missed more than 10% of the classes. The figure was 46% at George Wythe High and 31% at Huguenot High.
The numbers provide a stark contrast compared with high schools in neighboring counties. For example, the chronic absenteeism rate was 6% at Lee-Davis High School in Hanover County, 10% at Glen Allen High in Henrico County and 12% at Thomas Dale High in Chesterfield County.
To prevent even worse graduation statistics, the Richmond School Board last spring suspended an attendance policy that would have put over 400 students at risk of lowering their GPA and missing graduation.
Changing norms and mindsets about attending school
Whether it is because some students lack ambition or because they are dealing with community or family issues, Bey said that a negative culture around attending school has formed in the city.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, for the first half of 2018, Richmond was Virginia’s most violent city with a rate of 247 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
“How do you expect a kid to worry about school when they’re more concerned about whether they’re going to get shot — or if they’re an older sibling, making sure their younger siblings are going to school and have something to eat because their parents for whatever reason cannot support them,” Bey said.
Bey says this is where the community has failed Richmond youth. Chronic absenteeism has been a problem in RPS for years — and when adults let children skip school, norms begin to form.
“It’s a generational cycle of some norms that a lot of kids are seeing, and it is becoming OK not to go to school,” Bey said.
Jennifer Blackwell, a bilingual guidance counselor at Huguenot High, agrees that the community’s perspective on education and attending school is the key in addressing chronic absenteeism.
“If we can reach them at home, if we can reach their parents, if we can reach community members, I think we will have more of an opportunity to make an impact … especially with changing mindsets in any community,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell also wants inner-city children to understand the legal significance of skipping class.
“It’s not only their right to come to school every day, but it is actually the law to come to school every day — and that’s another thing that kids have to take into account,” Blackwell said.
‘Give them a reason to attend’ — and provide financial resources
Bey says she hopes both the community and schools will tap into students’ interests — for instance, by offering interesting and relevant after-school programs, as well as internships and apprenticeships at local businesses.
It is crucial to give young people a reason to engage in something positive, Bey said.
“These kids aren’t stupid; they get it,” Bey said. “If the community and schools don’t give them a reason to attend, then they will ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me? Why go?’”
Blackwell and Bey both agree that at the end of the day, not much can be done without financial resources.
Blackwell says the goal is not equality but rather equity of funding.
“To get these kids up to the same level of our students that are in county schools, we have to spend more money because these students need more,” Blackwell said. “They need more resources for teachers, social workers, food and mental health services, for example.”
In 2018, counties like Chesterfield ($475 million) and Henrico ($384 million) had significantly more funding for instructional expenses — teachers, guidance counselors and social workers — than Richmond ($256 million).
Another discrepancy between inner-city and county schools is funding for facility maintenance, renovation and construction.
In 2018, Henrico and Chesterfield counties had nearly $220 million combined for facility-related expenses while Richmond had only $35 million.
Bey said that if RPS schools offered resources unavailable at home or elsewhere in the community, children would be more likely to value the importance of school.
“If they don’t have their basic needs being met, how do we expect them to learn anything?” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said RPS also can address low graduation rates by offering different pathways for graduation.
As the bilingual guidance counselor at Huguenot, Blackwell works with many Hispanic immigrant students, some attending school for the first time, and many other at-risk youths. Blackwell said these students often have responsibilities that the average teenager doesn’t worry about — like helping provide for the family.
“Other counties with more money are able to provide different pathways to graduation like night schools, ESL (English as a Second Language) programs and adult programs,” Blackwell said.
“Richmond has nothing. And when you’re a 17-year-old freshman from another country who doesn’t know the language and you’re put on a five-year plan — when every other student is put on a traditional four-year plan — then you lose motivation and ambition to finish.”