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A July planning meeting with Pamela Boyd, the new principal, third from right. Jay Paul photo
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From left: State Del. Joe Morrissey, state Del. Frank Ruff, state Del. Rosalyn Dance, state Sen. Steve Martin, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Pat Wright, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson, state Del. Scott Lingamfelter, D. Patrick Lacy Jr. with the Virginia School Boards Association and Rob Jones with the Virginia Education Association gather for a charter-school bill signing on June 22. Ash Daniel photo
An odd mix of bedfellows gather in a stuffy, second-floor classroom of Patrick Henry Elementary School on Richmond's South Side. Policy makers and parents of all stripes — Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative — assemble on this muggy June afternoon.
The occasion is Gov. Bob McDonnell's signing of legislation that represents his administration's first foray into public education reform; the laws he would sign pave the way for more charter schools by improving the application and review process.
McDonnell is flanked by predictable allies, among them Republican state Del. Scott Lingamfelter and Republican state Sen. Steve Martin. But there are also the unpredictable — Richmond-area Democrats including delegates Joe Morrissey and Rosalyn Dance.
Although the classroom is uncomfortably warm, it is fitting that the bills become laws here because, McDonnell says, they will provide "new and expanded access to the American Dream."
His political fortunes — at least to the extent that they're influenced by his performance on public education — have been inexorably tied to Patrick Henry, a decaying, 80-year-old Richmond school that once anchored this neighborhood of Victorian houses surrounding Forest Hill Park.
More specifically, his fortunes are tied to the new Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts; when it opens its doors on Aug. 11, it will become Virginia's first elementary charter school.
In many ways, supporting the new Patrick Henry has made political sense for McDonnell. It's the result of a grass-roots school-choice campaign at its best.
But backing Patrick Henry is also a political risk for the conservative McDonnell — in fact, for any politician hoping to avoid the quagmire of the state's racist past.
Funded with public dollars, Patrick Henry, like all charter schools, will be open to all students, and it will be subject to the usual standardized tests. Still, Patrick Henry, simply because it's a charter school, stirs 60-year-old memories of the state government's efforts to resist a federal order to desegregate and a school-choice movement that allowed white students to attend private schools with public money.
As a result, Patrick Henry's board has struggled to overcome preconceptions, prove itself to black parents and deflect accusations leveled by some of Richmond's black leaders.
In February — after Patrick Henry's leaders discovered that the per-pupil funding used by charter schools wasn't yet included in the School Board's proposed budget — the governor's senior policy adviser Eric Finkbeiner laid out the stakes. "Failure is not an option. … We're committed to supporting Patrick Henry and making it succeed."
That kind of backing is the reason that Patrick Henry's leaders aligned themselves with McDonnell, whose political allies include the religious right. Teaming up with McDonnell presented a struggle for Patrick Henry's supporters, composed of largely liberal, middle class urbanites. Even the school's educational premise — ecology-based outdoor classrooms — reflects philosophies unlikely to be found under the GOP's tent. Some balked when McDonnell's campaign approached them in the months leading up to the November election. But Patrick Henry's leaders viewed alliance with McDonnell as their best hope for success.
"Last September, you know, we were at a point where we needed all the help we could get," says Patrick Henry board member Antione Green; his ties with members of McDonnell's campaign staff — as well as his visibility in the city's black political circles — helped cement the relationship.
The school already has weathered a yearlong delay and faced a new Richmond School Board. Green said that some of Patrick Henry's board members objected to the alliance with McDonnell, "but I had to frame it in practical terms."
In the realm of charter schools, compromise hasn't come easily, as Green well knows. Green's role as president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters eventually came to a messy end when his support of Patrick Henry ran afoul of his fellow activists leaders.
In the case of Patrick Henry, it seems that McDonnell has provided a lifeline for the school, nearly lost many times to the politics and bureaucracy of Richmond.
"No elected official has supported us like the governor — not even our own mayor," Green said in a recent interview. "I think [McDonnell] understands clearly that for there to be a true urban renaissance, we've got to have urban reform."
The Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts is scheduled to open this month in temporary digs at Woodland Heights Baptist Church because it has yet to negotiate a lease with the School Board for the old Patrick Henry Elementary school building. The new charter school will greet about 165 children from racially and economically diverse backgrounds.
Richmond's foray into the contemporary charter school movement comes late. Cities across the nation already are in the middle of a charter-led urban revival.
More than 1.5 million students attend 5,000 charter schools across 39 states, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.
New York's City's success with charter schools was cited in a seven-year study released last September by Stanford University. The majority of the city's charter students come from families with low incomes and single parents who are not high school graduates.
After a review of nearly all of New York City's 30,000 charter school students, the study reported substantial improvement in their state-mandated test scores.
"By the time a charter school's student has reached the end of eighth grade, our estimates indicate that he will be scoring about 30 points higher in math than he would have been scoring if he had remained in the regular public schools," the report concludes. English results were similarly impressive, with gains of 23 points.
The charter movement's success has also been challenged. Last year Diane Ravitch, a founder, scholar and policy maker in the national movement, reversed her views, questioning the value of competition as a means of improving public schools.
But McDonnell, undeterred by some charter school closures in Virginia and buoyed by their successes nationwide, asserts that they could become a powerful tool for education reform in Virginia cities, too. That view makes McDonnell's choice of Gerard Robinson for Virginia's secretary of education all the more relevant.
A key figure at Richmond School Board meetings of late, Robinson is also recognized as a national voice on the issue. Robinson, who earned his doctorate at the University of Virginia, founded a charter school in New Jersey and served as president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of charter schools and other nontraditional educational options.
Robinson says he's been a counselor for both Richmond School Board officials and Patrick Henry charter leaders.
In June — when Patrick Henry board members faced yet another standoff with the School Board over hiring a principal and signing a lease that would have voided its construction loan funding — Robinson swooped in. He sat patiently outside a closed-session of the School Board, pecking at his Blackberry for nearly five hours. Later that night, the School Board finally approved the principal, Pamela Boyd, even though Patrick Henry's board refused to sign the lease.
Robinson readily acknowledges Patrick Henry's importance to the success of McDonnell's agenda.
"It's the first charter in the capital of the state; I think that's important symbolically and politically," Robinson says. "It's the first elementary charter in the commonwealth, and that's important because 46 percent of all charter schools in the country are elementary. And third, the governor, Richmond Public Schools and the School Board have expressed an interest in charter schools — they're educationally important."
Just hours before he spoke with Richmond magazine on June 24, Robinson signed a directive making it easier for public schools to seek instructional waivers from the State Board of Education. The waivers would enable schools to try innovative programs that otherwise would be difficult to implement.
One example: Patrick Henry's outdoor classroom in adjacent Forest Hill Park, which is the centerpiece of the school's green curriculum. The waiver requested would allow Patrick Henry teachers to "conduct walking trips and other excursions" in the park every day. Without the waiver, the trips would be classified as field trips, requiring School Board and parental permission.
Although waivers seem like a simple idea, they carry dark historical baggage in Virginia.
For Virginia's black leaders who either fought the 1956 Massive Resistance or recall the fight, waiver is a loaded term. In that era, waivers allowed white students to leave public schools, take public money and use it for private institutions that did not admit blacks.
Although Robinson understands the visceral reaction that waivers stir, he believes that charter schools have transcended their controversial past. Today's charter schools may not discriminate and must accept students from across the city.
"Charter schools have allowed us to ask questions about how to get it done in the public school setting," Robinson says. "We have to change our understanding of the good, bad and ugly of waivers."
But some black leaders disagree, among them Richmond's NAACP executive director King Salim Khalfani. He has been unrelenting in his criticism of Patrick Henry, describing its organizers as a white-led group seeking to create a white enclave reminiscent of the mid-1950s.
"There should not be a school for specific races, ethnicities or classes," Khalfani told the School Board in March. He recently threatened to sue Richmond Public Schools if Patrick Henry opens. And he has said that Robinson provides Patrick Henry's proponents with "an African face [that makes it] seem it's okay."
Kristen Larson, a Patrick Henry board member, is among the most recognizable figures in the charter school debate. Larson, who grew up in inner-city Delaware and attended racially mixed schools, believes that her white skin is the first thing Patrick Henry's critics see.
"This is where I run into problems, I don't want people to look at me and say … she's creating this little all-white school for her child," says Larson, whose son Everett was described as a prospective Patrick Henry student in McDonnell's inaugural speech.
"I want [Everett] to have an education reflective of where we live," Larson says. "I know some of the school's critics. Their minds are not going to be changed."
But some of the skeptics have already altered their views.
Tichi Pinkney Eppes, a former president of the Richmond Council of PTAs and an advocate for education reform, had her doubts about Patrick Henry. Now she says the black community should recognize charters as a useful tool and refrain from "complaining endlessly about what the system is not doing."
Richmond's schools are not producing as many timely graduates as their suburban counterparts — 67.6 percent of Richmond's high school class of 2009 graduated in four years, compared with 85.9 percent in Chesterfield County.
"Charters are a choice," Pinkney Eppes says, using language from Superintendent Yvonne Brandon's "The Choice" campaign; it was launched last year to recruit and retain city school students, which have decreased from 25,000 to 21,500 in 10 years.
"Are we not pushing ‘choice' in Richmond Public Schools?" Pinkney Eppes asked. "Who are we then to limit what that choice is?"
Art Burton, a longtime black community activist and a critic of Richmond's public schools, says that many African-Americans feel a knee-jerk resistance to anything that undermines the traditional public school system. But he points out that because of Richmond's demographics, its schools are already subject to de facto segregation. A one-time critic of charter schools, Burton now supports school choice, though not necessarily Patrick Henry.
He points out that Richmond Public School's current enrollment is roughly 80 percent black and overwhelmingly poor. Meanwhile, surrounding Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties are majority-white school districts that overall produce higher-scoring students.
"Richmond Public Schools have been obstructionist to the creation of the charter school," Burton said. And he dismisses Brandon's claims that she and other elected school board members have been supportive of Patrick Henry.
"To believe that, you would have to believe that Dr. Brandon sees the need for education reform and the need to do things differently in this city — and I don't believe that," Burton says.
School district leaders strongly object to such characterizations.
"That's been one of the most frustrating things about this process is this constant [accusations] of being not cooperative," School Board Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges said in a recent interview.
"At the School Board administrative level, they are professionals ... and their job is to do what the School Board puts forth," she said.
In a recent interview, Brandon likewise rejected suggestions that the school system has not aided Patrick Henry.
Patrick Henry's difficult road has been "compounded … by the fact that we were in uncharted territory," Brandon said. "We had not had a charter school application that had gone as far as this one did."
In fact, she said, "we even helped in every phase of their meeting process. Our staff opens and closes that building. Cooperation for them has extended beyond just policy and administration and procedures attached to policies."
She cites the $1 million in renovations necessary to bring Patrick Henry Elementary into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act before the school can be used: "We knew, and it would have been less than ethical to not share that information with them."
On the day that McDonnell signed legislation in the Patrick Henry classroom, he also declared Virginia open for charter school business. His remarks came the day before corporate charter companies appeared on a panel before the State Board of Education.
Speaking to the gathered dignitaries, McDonnell said he was "very optimistic" that the bills would lure to Virginia "some companies that have been successful in creating thousands of charter schools around the country."
Brandon, who was among those gathered, cast her eyes downward, as McDonnell continued: "There are places in this city, in Petersburg and in Norfolk," he says, that "need competition." State officials acknowledge, however, that Virginia's new law is vague about whether charter school companies need sponsorship by parents who want an alternative to traditional public schools.
In her recent interview, Brandon was noncommittal on whether room should be made in school districts like Richmond for the corporate competition suggested in McDonnell's speech. But she says more discussion is necessary.
"What elements are going to be used in the evaluation of those parallel school systems?" she asked, concerned that simply doing a side-by-side comparison of a Richmond district school and its hypothetical corporate-run counterpart would be potentially unfair.
"This has the potential to change the face of public education, therefore [the process] should have as many voices to provide input as possible in something so important."
For now, no large charter-school corporations are doing business with Richmond's school district. There is only Patrick Henry.
Kristen Larson was one Patrick Henry board member who didn't attend the governor's bill signing. She was taking a family vacation far away from the school that has consumed her life for the better part of two years.
But when she talks about Patrick Henry and the positive impact that she hopes charter schools will have in Richmond, she echoes what many on the Patrick Henry board say.
Opening Patrick Henry is not about competition with Richmond Public Schools, she says. Rather, it is about cooperating with the school district so that education is a better experience for the 165 kids who will swing their backpacks through Patrick Henry's doors this month.