For Richmond resident Brian Sites, it was hard to imagine his 4-year-old daughter, Sabine, attending preschool at Maymont Elementary School.
They had hoped that Sabine could go to a public state preschool program at Mary Munford Elementary School, within walking distance of their house; Sites looked forward to taking Sabine there on his bicycle. "Everyone lives in this area because they want to send their kids to Mary Munford," Sites says of the program that introduces both numbers and literacy so children will be prepared for kindergarten.
But several weeks into the school year, he's comfortable with Maymont, even though Sabine has to travel more than five miles on a school bus to get there. And in that sentiment, he's like many of his neighbors.
For more than a decade, the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) took place in Mary Munford, as well as in numerous other neighborhood elementary schools. The free preschool is open to children who are "at risk but above the income eligibility for Head Start," says Ron Robertson, VPI program manager. These risks include having single parents, two working parents, or a family history of drug abuse or mental illness. "It covers a gamut of risk factors that's not generic to one community — that's all over the city," Robertson says.
But last June, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Yvonne Brandon approved consolidation of several VPI programs, including Munford's, into a centralized program at Maymont. The other VPI programs consolidated into Maymont include the Preschool Development center near Church Hill, and preschool programs at William F. Fox Elementary School in the Fan, at John B. Cary Elementary School near Byrd Park, and at Clark Spring Elementary School in Oregon Hill.
The change was unwelcome not only for Sites but for many parents accustomed to sending their children to schools in other neighborhoods. But by joining parent advisory committees and taking ownership of school planning, parents were able to establish roots in unfamiliar territory.
Sites says that though he once envisioned problems, he now sees advantages. "We're fine with the program," he says. "I think the fact that Sabine is going to be exposed to a diverse population from across the city is fantastic."
When Sites, whose wife, D Madore, works as a pediatric dietitian, filled out the application for Sabine to go to the VPI program earlier this year, he assumed that if she got in, she'd be going to Munford. At that point, "There were some rumors that they were moving pre-K to a centralized location," Sites notes, "but no one knew where, and so we didn't think much of it."
When he got the acceptance letter, Sites took Sabine off the enrollment list for the Jewish Community Center preschool program in the fall, because that would save the family $800 a month in tuition. "Everyone got their acceptance letter, told their private preschool they were going to the VPI program at Munford," he says. It wasn't until mid-May that parents heard that the VPI would be consolidated elsewhere. "Here it is mid-May, and they're saying, ‘Well, we're moving to Maymont,' " Sites says.
In response, some parents put their children back in private schools, and others, angry and determined, flooded School Board meetings to lobby for rejection of the consolidated preschool proposal.
"There were about 40 or 50 parents there, and none of us could really quite grasp what [the school system's] plan was, because it didn't seem to us that they had a plan," Sites says. "[The parents] kind of got everyone together and said, ‘Look, can we stop this? We're not comfortable sending our kids to Maymont.' "
Superintendent Brandon countered that the move would save an estimated $115,000 per year in rental fees. "We definitely understood as a board that the timing wasn't ideal, but given the budget crunch that we were under, we just didn't want to look at paying that rent for another year," says Kimberly Bridges, the Richmond School Board representative for District 1, Munford's area.
Additionally, schools with kindergarten waiting lists would be able to admit more students from outside their district, adding an estimated $400,000 in per-pupil funding to the school district's budget. Other proponents said a preschool-only facility would ensure that 2- to 4-year-olds would not get lost among elementary-school students.
But to Sites and many other parents, the consolidation seemed like nothing more than a last-minute budget crunch.
"The concerns we had were, ‘Who is going to be the principal?' " Sites says. "Is there going to be a school nurse? How are you going to get the kids there? Is there going to be pre-care and post-care? But because of where they were in the process, they didn't have any answers for us."
Realizing the consolidation plan lacked support, Richmond Public School administrators started an advisory committee to get parents' feedback.
Parents could join committees dealing with the playground, before- and after-school activities, curriculum enhancement and open-house planning. "You can tell RPS has done a great job enlisting the help of the parents," says Richmond resident Megan Pollard, who attended a September open house at Maymont.
Meanwhile, parents in the Maymont district voiced different concerns. The flurry of upgrades to the run-down Maymont building in preparation for preschoolers from wealthier neighborhoods stirred resentment. "Why, if the building wasn't good enough for the incoming VPI community, has the building been ‘good enough' for Maymont students and staff?" one parent commented in a local blog, Fan of the Fan.
Vicky Oakley, chief academic officer for Richmond Public Schools, says the upgrades are not out of the ordinary.
But Maymont's new sinks, cubbies, blacktop, corkboards and portable A/C units, as well as a plan to replace rusty slides and swings with new equipment, left some Maymont parents a bit skeptical.
"Well, I think [the renovations] should've been done a long time ago, but then I think it's great they're doing it based on this whole new initiative," says Anthony Allen, who attended Maymont Elementary School 30 years ago.
He now lives about a block from the school, and this year, his 4-year-old son, Tony, is enrolled in the VPI program.
His wife, Abigail, says the consolidation didn't bother her. "I know some people were upset about it, but I wasn't. I think it's a great thing that they get to see kids from all over the city rather than just their own little neighborhood."