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Chimborazo Elementary School principal Cheryl Burke arrived at her school in 1996. Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo by Jay Paul
There's nothing elementary about educating children, especially in schools where many children arrive at the door each day without the benefit of simple things — a good breakfast, books, homework time with a mom or dad — things that many families take for granted.
There's no shortage of state and federal statistics to support the fact that schools in poor neighborhoods are far more likely to struggle. But there are also factors that can predict success, even when a school faces seemingly overwhelming odds against them.
In fact, it might even be boiled down to a pretty simple recipe that relies always on the same three ingredients: parents, community and a principal.
"You can never as a principal do it on your own," says Arcelius Brickhouse, principal at Richmond's G.W. Carver Elementary School, where as many as 99 percent of kids come from families that are at or below the federal poverty line. "There is no ‘I' in school."
Carver is just one Richmond school that's figured out the formula to success, and for that reason it is one of three elementary schools in Richmond Public Schools that we are profiling. Relying on a collaborative community where kids come first, these schools are examples of how parents, local businesses and community partners — and, of course, principals — can work together to defy the odds against them.
There's no prouder day for a newly minted school principal than the first day she or he arrives at a new assignment. But as Cheryl Burke sobbed on the back steps of Chimborazo Elementary at the end of a hot August day in 1996, she wasn't weeping with joy.
There were "drugs all around and syringes on the playground," Burke says, mincing no words as she remembers wondering how any child could thrive in an environment like the one she found around her new school.
"I came here ... to a place that was heavily burdened with one of the most heavily infested drug and crime areas in the city," she says. "The houses were all abandoned — it wasn't unusual to maybe see a dead body on the street."
By the next day, Burke had run out of tears and had started tackling the challenge ahead — by pulling the family pickup truck around to the back of the school and carting away load after load of trash.
"My first thought was to address the culture, which I thought could be changed in a year," she says. "I found that it took many years."
At first, she got lots of hard looks. But then people started showing up to help. Neighbors and parents caught on. Burke began paying kids in quarters to pick up trash off school grounds — she was asking them to take pride in their community.
But pride only goes so far when you inherit a school performing as poorly as Chimborazo had been.
"The test scores here — we were celebrating 9 percent" pass rates in 1996, Burke says. "Can you believe that? When we got to 23 percent in a [subject], we thought we were on our way."
Most of the school's students lived in poverty; nearly all were receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
Burke knew she and her parents couldn't do it alone. She has sought outside help, often through grants. For instance, she received a state grant that enabled her school to work with Yale University's James Comer School. Ultimately, teachers and parents received conflict resolution training at Yale. Rather than focus on fault and failure, Burke says, the program espoused near-alien concepts in this neighborhood: Collaboration, consensus and mutual respect.
"That really helped us to bring about the change," Burke says. "Not just with the children, but with the parents and the community as well. No fault. It wasn't the teachers' fault. It wasn't the parents' fault because they were incarcerated and Johnny couldn't read. It wasn't the School Board's fault, and it wasn't the governor's fault."
The message got through. The school where only 9 percent of students were passing some state Standards of Learning tests in 1996 was fully accredited by 2002. In the past three years, Chimborazo's overa average pass rate was 81.3 percent. (See chart)
Now, after a bit more than 15 years on Burke's watch, Chimborazo is about to take another bright turn as it prepares to implement the Richmond region's first elementary school International Baccalaureate program.
This latest development might not have been possible without a major change — and addition — to the neighborhood around Chimborazo.
Sarah Widmer, the school's incoming PTA president, was a part of that change.
"We've been in Church Hill for almost eight years now," Widmer says. "We came to Richmond when I was pregnant with my daughter, who is now a rising first-grader."
Widmer's husband, Corey, is assistant pastor at Third Presbyterian Church, a church that abandoned its Church Hill roots during the 1950s and '60s but more recently began a ministry to heal the wounds of the past. That effort actually belongs to a nationwide movement called Christian Community Development, which stresses social justice and engages abandoned communities.
"Sarah, along with a few other mothers in the neighborhood, moved in and remodeled houses and started coming in to volunteer," Burke says. At first, she was stunned by the sudden surge in volunteerism from young moms and dads whose kids weren't even school age. "Most of those people had babies ... but they'd already become involved in the school."
Corey Widmer is also co-pastor at East End Fellowship, a title he shares with the Rev. Donald Coleman, who represents the area on the Richmond School Board. Coleman has championed the elementary International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum regulated by an international body, for Chimborazo.
"We're in the process of raising $411,000 to get this program in place," Burke says, emphasizing the most amazing aspect of what's been accomplished so far at Chimborazo. "We're doing this with the community pushing. This came to us not by the School Board, but by the diversity that's now in place, by the community involvement that's now in place in the neighborhood."
International Baccalaureate is expected to start at Chimborazo by 2014.It's a remarkable place to be when Burke looks back on that hot August day in 1996 as she cried on the back steps of her broken school. "Can you imagine the opportunities we'll have here now? And we're still at [an] 80 percent free or reduced lunch [student population]."
Shooting for the Moon
When Brenda Phillips arrived at J.B. Cary Elementary in July 1999, she found a school with "a rich legacy of academic excellence," but it faced the same issue that still confronts many Richmond schools: A notion that city schools can't compete with those in the counties.
Richmond's schools have long suffered from declining population, which has forced Phillips, who took the reins as principal in 2003, to find creative ways to maintain Cary's legacy. In the 1980s, Cary was the district's only model school. Today it's the district's (and the region's) only NASA Explorer School, which gives teachers and students access to visiting NASA scientists as well as other benefits.
In 1980, the school was the educational hub for the neighborhood around it, serving students from nearby. Today, it draws a student body from all over the city. "What we are doing now is creating the mirror image of what was going on [in the 1980s] by the same type of community engagement with the celebration of the diverse backgrounds of our staff, faculty and students," Phillips says. Rather than considering it a weakness, Phillips sees her school's federal Title 1 status — more than 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch prices — as a strength.
"We are from one end of the continuum to the other when you talk about socioeconomic status and the geographic locations from which my students come," she says.
Despite solid academic performance, recently the school has dealt with a dwindling enrollment. Three years ago, about 250 kids attended Cary. This past school year, it was fewer than 200, most of them coming from outside of the school's zoned attendance boundary, leading the School Board to consider closing this little school that could.
Again, Phillips is looking to reinvent the school, this time as a means of survival.
As part of its 5-year-old partnership with NASA, the school has adhered to a rigorous S.T.E.M. curriculum — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Now, Phillips says, she wants "to build on that" by increasing collaborative efforts with area universities that she hopes will foster relationships "so that our students will have a feeder pattern to go to those schools."
As with any successful school, Phillips' success relies on partnerships, not only those with NASA and local universities, but also with her students' parents. Elle Merkle, a parent of three students who've passed through Cary's halls, says the Cary renaissance would be nowhere without parental buy-in. That support is on display during PTA nights. Including teachers, the school's PTA boasts about 250 members.
"It wasn't overnight that people recognized the quality of Cary," Merkle says. "It was because the staff and the community filled out grant applications and rolled up their sleeves, and stayed up nights and worked to make that happen."
That work continues. With parental support, Phillips is moving to expand her current K-5 school into the district's only K-8 school. Also, this summer she began training staff in a new teaching method that stresses leadership at all levels and that is based on Stephen Covey's book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh, N.C., piloted the program, and it rescued the school from closure. It also inspired another Covey book, 2008's The Leader in Me — How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time.
It's a process "infused in everything we'll do here," Phillips says. "We'll teach children each of those [seven habits] from K through fifth grade."
Cooperative tasks and ongoing group projects also play a big role in the Covey model, Phillips says: "It's taking that corporate model and teaching that to children on their level. We want children to learn those kinds of skills now, because they can."
Back in 1991, George Washington Carver was one of the city's most deeply troubled elementary schools, but the Carver Promise was a game changer.
An ambitious effort created by leaders at four area colleges to combat the triple whammy of low parental participation, very little community involvement and weak administration, the program took more than 150 third-graders at the school and gave each of them a mentor. Those mentors then became a surrogate support system, following each child to high school graduation.
And the promise didn't end there. Each student was offered help getting into, paying for and staying in college.
Today, the Carver Promise has evolved from its ambitious beginnings. There's no longer scholarship money available, but the program's foundation, along with the transformative work of a retired RPS principal, Iris Page, continue to provide solid footing for Carver's students. Every pupil from first grade through fifth grade works with a mentor.
By all statistical measures, Carver should still be a flailing school. "Right now we're probably 99 percent free and reduced lunch, " says current principal Arcelius Brickhouse, referring to the percentage of the school's students who receive federal assistance.
Drawing its student body primarily from Gilpin Court, one of the largest and oldest public housing projects on the East Coast, Carver's kids come predominantly from single-parent households, which often survive on annual incomes of less than $10,000.
Most education experts and federal statistics conclude that schools in which more than half of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunches are statistically far less likely to produce successful students. Often, high poverty concentrations are an indicator of high dropout rates later, and more immediately, high poverty often correlates with low test scores. Instead, about 80 percent of Carver's students pass the state's Standards of Learning tests each year, and a good percentage of those students receive "pass advance" scores, a distinction to educators that indicates those students have truly mastered the material.
Key to that success is Carver's ability to encourage parent involvement, says PTA president Phaedra Boyd. A third-grade teacher at the school, she says the PTA had about 75 members last year. That's an impressive number in a city where some PTAs have single-digit membership.
"Once you have the parent involvement and the teacher involvement, the students understand that education is important. Then behavior improves and achievement goes up. When we're working together, everything goes up."
Brickhouse followed Page as principal five years ago, carrying on her legacy of improvements, which included not only the PTA and Carver Promise, but also a general insistence on sprucing up the school and making it an oasis for Gilpin Court children, many of whom witness violence on a daily basis in their neighborhood.
"When I came down, my job was to sustain the gains we had made," Brickhouse says. "When I arrived, they had made their accreditation, and they had made [the Annual Yearly Progress federal benchmark], so my job in coming to the school was kind of a little harder in that I had to sustain the achievement that they'd had. That's sometimes a more difficult task — to keep the momentum going."
Brickhouse's first day on the job was also the first day for nearly a dozen of the school's teachers: "We rolled up our sleeves, and we made accreditation."
Carver Promise has remained important to that, providing a key ingredient — community involvement — to what makes schools successful.
"We probably have one of the largest mentoring programs in the state," he says, crediting the involvement of not only the four area colleges — University of Richmond, VCU, VUU and J. Sargeant Reynolds — that founded the Carver Promise, but also many area business and civic organizations that have stepped up to expand that mentoring program.
Many Carver Promise graduates are not only the first in their families to attend college; they're also the first to graduate high school.
"Our students get the opportunity to talk with their mentors, and they get to ask questions about what they do, and they learn more about college through working with their mentors," the principal says, emphasizing just how important it is that Carver students come to see a future that includes college. "You always have to set the stage and make sure there are no limitations," Brickhouse says. "Regardless of where they come in ... we want them to go out and be able to compete, and to say we helped to ignite those dreams they were able to accomplish.