A coalition of frustrated parents demands an overhaul of an advanced academic program.
BY CAROL A.O. WOLF
The parents sent a scathing, five-page letter July 18 to interim Superintendent Jonathan Lewis demanding new leadership at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, which houses an IB program. They also are asking the district to strengthen the program at Thomas Jefferson High School.
The parents say three years of “holding special meetings, bringing in mediators, conducting a three-day retreat at VCU and generating surveys” has yielded little change.
“We have not noticed any significant improvements to low teacher morale, poor discipline, deplorable communication and an overall climate of fear and intimidation of teachers,” the parents wrote.
The international academic program is known for its high standards and its emphasis on creative and critical thinking.
The parents say it’s distressing that the IB program at Thomas Jefferson isn’t a top draw for the district’s best-and-brightest students. Only six students from Lucille Brown’s IB program went on to TJ’s program last year, according to information provided at a Gifted and Talented program advisory committee meeting earlier this year. Lucille Brown last year enrolled about 200 IB students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The program at TJ enrolled about 120 students in grades 9-12 last year, school officials say.
The high school’s seven-year-old IB program is “not attracting or keeping the best students because of its reputation for academic inferiority, disengaged faculty, mismanagement, and an unsafe learning environment,” the parents charge.
In an unusually quick response, Lewis and School Board Chairman Jeffrey Bourne met with four parents representing the group in a closed-door meeting last Wednesday. Brown’s principal, Denise Lewis, who is no relation to the interim superintendent, wasn’t at the meeting and remains assigned to the middle school in the coming school year.
Parent Yvette Conte, who attended the meeting, says the group understands that Superintendent Lewis has been on the job only a couple of weeks and that seven of the nine school board members took office fewer than eight months ago.
But, Conte says, she hopes the board will seize the opportunity to improve the programs: “This could be a really great asset for our kids and our community.”
Conte helped draft the letter and is one of the 49 parents whose children attend or previously attended the IB programs at Brown or TJ.
Among the letter’s litany of allegations and accusations:
• During the 2011-’12 school year, a Brown teacher reported a student brought a gun to school. It took 30 minutes for the principal to find out who made the report. In the meantime, there was no school lockdown, despite media reports. Parents contend former school district officials lied and said the weapon wasn’t loaded.
• During a school field trip, students were left unchaperoned on a bus and a child was assaulted.
• There’s no toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms. Students must ask for these items, which are kept by the teachers in the classroom.
• Not all teachers are adequately qualified to teach advanced students, “or to teach at all,” specifically in the science and English departments.
Lewis says that once he has done his due diligence, he’ll discuss the situation publicly. He says he’ll also be gathering additional information on the cost of the programs. The district’s website reports that the school system spends close to $2 million on the middle- and high-school IB programs.
Kim B. Gray, who represents the 2nd District and is a parent of two children who attended the IB programs at Brown and TJ, says the letter is “crammed full of verifiable facts and is an understatement.” Board action is long overdue, she says. She confirms the parents’ claim that they were lied to about the 2012 incident involving a loaded weapon at the school.
“The parents are right to feel frustrated and angry with the situation,” Gray says. “We need to look at curriculum and we need to look at how the finances are being used.”
Bourne, who successfully lobbied City Hall for an additional $500,000 in this year’s school budget for IB improvement, says he and his colleagues share a sense of urgency about the IB programs at Brown and TJ. The issues described in the letter, he says, are of “grave importance to our board and to the superintendent.”
Board members Glen Sturtevant, who represents TJ, and Kristen Larson, who represents Brown, say they each have contacted concerned parents.
The future of the district depends upon “finding and improving ways to provide middle-school choices for parents,” Sturtevant says.
More middle-school choices are imperative, Larson says, and fixing the IB programs is a start. Once the board has the facts, she says, it will decide upon a course of action.
Carol A.O. Wolf is a former School Board member and Style Weekly writer and editor who writes a blog at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.