Armstrong High School senior Deasha Shaw protests the proposed closure of her school at City Hall. (Photo by Mark Robinson)
Richmond Public Schools teacher Andrea Hamilton was late for a rehearsal with her theater students as the clock neared 9 p.m. at Monday’s Richmond City Council meeting. The mother of three stood in line, dressed dutifully in red, and waited her turn as speaker after speaker implored the nine-person council to close an $18 million budget gap between the proposed schools budget and Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ proposed budget.
She had already powered through a work day on two hours of sleep by the time she arrived at City Hall, joining the crowd of hundreds overflowing from the building’s steps, rallying for more funding for Richmond Public Schools
When her chance finally came, Hamilton decried the conditions she and other teachers worked in. Her voice rose as she told the council members that she would never send her children to the school system that employed her because she doesn’t want them to go through what her students have to go through as a result of funding shortfalls, year after year.
“I love my students, and I fight for my students,” she said, her voice cracking, “even though I’m beat down daily.”
Hamilton and more than 70 students, parents, teachers and citizens spoke in support of funding the beleaguered school system during an emotional three-hour public hearing on the city’s budget. They offered personal pleas, historical appeals and threats to vote council members out of office in the November elections.
Council delayed a vote on the matter until its next meeting on April 25.
Last week, the RPS administration proposed closing five schools, and consolidating three others to save $3 million. The School Board has not yet voted on the proposal, but its suggestion was the equivalent of splashing gasoline on a fire.
The proposal was the impetus for a student walkout on Monday afternoon. At 2 p.m., about 100 students filed out of Open High. They made the trek from Oregon Hill to downtown, where they did laps around City Hall as their ranks swelled.
Naomi Thompson, a 15-year-old sophomore hailing from Church Hill, led her classmates’ in protest chants.
“Who are we?” she screamed through her megaphone.
“What do we want?”
Thompson helped organize the walkout “to change something I’m a part of every day,” she said, adding, “We’re going to fight regardless. We’re going to stand up for what we believe in, no matter how hard it is. That’s what we got to do.”
Students from Armstrong High School, Community High School and George Wythe High School joined in the demonstration.
“Armstrong is a part of history,” said Chelsey Trammell, a sophomore. “The way I see, they’re trying to erase it.”
Deasha Shaw, a senior at the East End high school, said closing it would do more harm than good.
“There’s a whole bunch of students in there that have so much opportunity, and you’re just going to shut us down? Not give us a chance anymore?” she said.
The student march bled into a 5 p.m. rally organized by Richmond Public Schools teachers timed to precede the City Council meeting. More than 300 people assembled. Motorist honked in support as they whizzed by.
Richmond School Board chairman Jeff Bourne smiled as he took in the scene.
“This is a great demonstration for what’s right in our city,” he said, “which is to make additional investment in Richmond Public Schools.”