"About Damn Time" for Long Overdue Middle School Reform

Richmond Public School Superintendent Yvonne Brandon recently proclaimed in her "State-of-the-Schools" speech, that RPS would be focusing on middle school reform.  As one long-time RPS parent succinctly noted: "About Damn Time."

Two years ago, I published the following column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that welcomed her on board and suggested that she show some leadership by focusing the district on middle school reform. 

Check it out and be sure and let Dr. Brandon and Mayor Dwight Jones know that there is more to middle school reform than simply building new schools.  Reform of the rigor and content of curriculum choices for our middle schools is critical to any true improvements that will create real choices for Richmond families.

And, please let them know there is more to building new schools than simply bricks and mortar. Scott Burger reminds me that during the last campaign season, the Sierra Club Falls of the James group cosponsored a candidates forum with the Crusade for Voters. That night, every single School Board candidate promised to support more green building and energy conservation for schools.  "We need to make sure we hold them to that," he says.  "Don't get me wrong. The designers for the four new City schools are doing green things with the buildings, but we need to make sure officials know we expect even more."

According to the Church Hill People's News, The City of Richmond’s Office of Special Capital Projects, along with Richmond Public Schools, will host a community meeting to provide updates and gather additional input on the construction of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School on February 16, 2011 at MLK from 6-8 p.m.  If you cannot attend the meeting, please send your comments to me at this blog and I will make sure they reach the proper people. 

Unless we want to end up with school buildings that use four to five times the amount of energy as the old buildings, it is critical that citizens weigh in on this issue.  To see an example of what is possible, click here.

Here's a To-Do List for Superintendent


Published: February 17, 2009

John Simpson, the award-winning former Norfolk Public Schools superintendent and national expert on urban education, didn't pull any punches when he interviewed Richmond School Board members during the search for a new superintendent:

"Why would anyone want to live in Richmond and be superintendent of Richmond Public Schools?" asked Simpson, one of the consultants hired.

"First, sell the city, and then sell the challenge," I answered. "As in, Richmond really is a beautiful and exciting place to live. But, the most exciting thing that needs to happen is that we need to get our schools right.

"The next person who becomes superintendent of Richmond Schools better be ready to go for the glory and honor, ready to be the one who has the right combination of knowledge, power, and grace to make real the promises that have defeated other superintendents, our city, and our region for the past 50 years."

Considering Simpson's reputation, I posed another question.

"So," I asked with a wink and a smile: "Do you think you're ready?"

"Tempting," he answered, "very tempting . . . but, I'm retired. However, I promise this: I know what you need and we'll find the right person."

Despite concerns about the lack of transparency in the Richmond School Board's hiring of Yvonne Brandon as superintendent, I believe Simpson delivered.

Six years of observing Brandon work convinced me that she has the brains and backbone to go for the glory and honor of successfully serving our children and our city. A 32-year career educator relentless in her drive to give children and teachers the means necessary to improve RPS' Standards of Learning scores, she knows scores alone will not make a successful school district.

She knows multiple measures of success must be met: increased academic opportunities and enrollment, improved SAT scores and graduation rates, coupled with decreased suspension, drop-out, and truancy rates.
TO THOSE concerned she won't bring change to city schools because she's spent too long in a system oft-criticized for being about "whom you know" instead of "what you know," I simply ask she be given the chance to prove herself. To that end, I suggest a short list of priorities for the next 100 days:

Work with Mayor Jones, the City Council, and residents to achieve serious middle school reform. The closing of Chandler Middle School for failure to become accredited presents a perfect opportunity to expand middle school choices and simultaneously make significant progress to ensure our schools comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If Richmond Community High School were to relocate to the Chandler building, RPS could easily add a middle school component to Community's curriculum and provide an additional rich and rigorous middle school choice for Richmond families. 

Another easily attainable reform would be to add a middle school component to Franklin Military Academy. If the concept works for Benedictine High School, why shouldn't public school parents have that choice? Franklin (and its expanded middle school) could even be moved to the Chandler building and Community relocated to Franklin's current location. Franklin is fully ADA-compliant and Chandler is nearly so. Still, each building must be upgraded to provide state-of-the-art technology for 21st-century learning opportunities. Similarly, Henderson Middle School is nearly compliant. Were Brandon to accept City Councilman Chris Hilbert's offer to find money for a middle-years International Baccalaureate (I.B.) program at Henderson, we would have yet another choice middle school.

Both Henderson and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle Schools are accredited and have successfully used single-gender classes to improve academic performance. It would be unfair to both just to relocate Chandler's children without similarly upgrading each building and curriculum choices.

Either close the Community High building for possible sale by the city -- or hold on to the property and renovate it using historic tax credits, much like tax credits were used to renovate the old Maggie Walker High School and transform it into a regional governor's school.

A regional state-of-the-art middle school could then be housed in the Community High building. Partnership possibilities abound with its proximity to the University of Richmond. Similarly, Binford Middle in the Fan and Open High in Oregon Hill each could be renovated and reopened with an emphasis on the creative arts, enhanced by each school's partnership possibilities with nearby Virginia Commonwealth University's outstanding arts and dance schools. The Maggie Walker Governor's School is proof of many things, but most relevant here is that it's possible to successfully renovate our schools by leveraging state and federal historic tax credits. It is further proof that if we offer a rich and diverse curriculum, we'll attract students from various private and surrounding county schools.

NET RESULT: five additional middle school choices for Richmond families. Community and Open, consistently ranked among America's best high schools by U.S. News & World Report, receive rehabilitated buildings and parents receive additional middle-school options for their children. Franklin begins a middle-school program. Henderson receives a long-awaited I.B. program.

How will we afford it? The national economic crisis makes the idea of dropping anywhere from $12,000 to $17,000 per year for private or parochial school impossible for many families. By providing additional options, we can achieve economic diversity and avoid creating mega-middle schools warehousing far too many children who live at or below the poverty line.

So, Superintendent Brandon, I hope you're ready -- because never before have so many been so ready and willing to be a part of the solution.

Carol A.O. Wolf served six years (2002 to 2008) on the Richmond School Board representing the city's 3rd District. She can be reached at Wolfies@aol.com.