Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Partnerships for RPS (Part 1: Neighborhoods)

Burlington Yoga Conference, 2014 

The need is clear. Public education in the City of Richmond is failing. The most important gaps in this current system are…
  • Development of key workforce skills to fill market gaps and non-cognitive or coping skills, necessary to develop resiliency.
  • Engaging students with their local community to give them a sense of place and perspective.
  • Instilling a life-long love for learning and seeking out diverse experiences and opinions.
My experience as a high school teacher, community planner at the local and state level, and work in Richmond’s faith and service community, has brought me to believe that a solution can be found through key targeted public-private 
partnerships. These partnerships break down into the following categories:
  1. Neighborhood Connections and Sponsorship (pre-K through 8th grade)
  2. Business Connections and Sponsorship (9th through 12th grade)
  3. Technology
  4. Marketing
Why an emphasis on public-private partnerships?

One of the major reasons is funding structure. Due to Virginia’s moratorium on annexation and other factors that affect revenue in urban areas, a solely public funded education system in Richmond will never be able to achieve REF’s vision.

Honestly, even if Richmond Public Schools (RPS) could, it should not strive to do so. By developing partnerships with private industry, non-profits, and community groups, public education system can better engage with local residents and businesses, thus improving not only the application of services, but changing one of the most damaging current factors, perception. 

The following key partnerships detail my thoughts on current needs, solutions to be provided through community partners, and where this might already be happening. Please let me know your thoughts and feel free to chime in. My hope is that we are starting a conversation, not ending one.

Key Partnership #1

Neighborhood Connections and Sponsorship (Pre-K through 8th grade)

Neighborhoods need to be connected with local schools. This is especially important for preK-8 education where the largest need to provide services to students is required. I learned this as a substitute teacher who would walk into an elementary classroom and be handed a three-foot stack of classroom activities for the day, as compared to the high school Latin class where I was given a single sheet of questions and a DVD. Also, parent involvement during childhood is key to meeting developmental goals, which some say are direct predictors for future success (e.g. 3rd grade reading level predicting prison population).
As for the need to connect middle school students, take a look at the following presentation from Good Ideas for Cities. The results were based upon feedback gained from a group discussion on middle school disenrollment in the city, which was moderated by Dr. Harold Fitrer, President and CEO of Communities in Schools of Richmond. One of the findings went as far to say that middle school should be abolished and just combined into K-8 schools, a recommendation that should be given serious thought.  
GOOD Ideas for Cities at Virginia Historical Society, 2012 (Richmond.com)

Individually, this starts with local residents (with economic choice) getting involved and sending their children to local schools. A terrific example of this happening is Bryce Lyle’s efforts to get more local residents to send their children to Westover Hills Elementary. By actually interacting with the system, instead of letting perception guide one’s action, boundaries are being broken and the education within that school is improving.

The counter-argument to Lyle’s efforts is that it is going to be your (and my) children’s future at stake. But, what is life without risk? I don’t mean to be cavalier about this, but so much more is to be gained. Take a look at Fox Elementary, which is loved and embraced by its surrounding community. As the morning bell is about to sound you see families walking hand-in-hand readying for the day, children running around on the front school-yard lawn, and neighbors conversing with neighbors. Fighting for a future this great should be worth the “risk” for families of economic choice because what we have seen is that this future could be closer than you think.

Bryce Lyle at Westover Hills Elementary, 2013 (Scott Elmquist, Style Weekly)
To help Richmond families local faith based institutions, non-profits, and other neighborhood groups, should “adopt” their local schools by teaming with school administration, parents, and engaged citizens (e.g. Bryce Lyle) to form local action teams.

Organizations such Dr. Fitrer’s aforementioned Communities in Schools of Richmond and the Partnership for Families Northside (Pre-K and elementary) work directly within the schools to provide students and families with programming and facilitate services. The faith-based coalition of The Micah Initiative provides another great example of how one can give of their time to be a mentor and tutor. But, these should just be the start.

My church, Area 10 Faith Community (A10), has started down this path with John B. Cary and Fox Elementary. In each of these schools, representatives from A10 have sat down with school principals and parent-teacher association leaders to provide services and plan events for school improvement (e.g. backpack drives, landscaping, coffee for teacher conferences, ect.).  Where this could, and should, go next is to develop an action team of local stakeholders to provide solutions to the school’s Strategic Action Plan.

You may be thinking, how can these actions really improve the systemic failure that is RPS?

To that I would say that change has to start somewhere. By anchoring PreK-8 education in local neighborhoods, children would better understand and interact with their environment, thus instilling a desire to give back, or one day move back, to the place that shaped them. Also, by alleviating the school’s burden on providing and paying for certain services, which many times is passed on to the teacher, educators can spend more time focusing on student achievement of academic and non-cognitive learning goals. 

Continue reading for Partnership #2: Business