Armstrong High School senior Deasha Shaw (Photo by Chet Strange)
In April, 17-year-old Deasha Shaw accompanied a group of her classmates in the Armstrong High School Leadership Program to a march on City Hall. The students joined with hundreds of Richmond Public Schools students and teachers protesting the school district’s proposed closures of five facilities, including Armstrong, as well as a looming budget shortfall for the perpetually cash-strapped system.
“There’s a whole bunch of students [at Armstrong] that have so much opportunity, and you’re just going to shut us down? Not give us a chance anymore?” Shaw said. She carried a sign that read “What about our future?”
In early May, the Richmond City Council allocated the school division $5.5 million in new operational funding after the School Board asked for $18 million more than Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ budget set aside. The district made more cuts, but, still facing an $11 million shortfall, the board weighed the possibility of shuttering the East End school and four others to save $3 million for the upcoming year.
Then, in a surprise vote in mid-May, it tabled the closure plan for the rest of the budget season, sparing the schools. At press time, the board was weighing other options, including slashing initiatives to improve technology and hire more support staff.
The decision, celebrated by many, may have only temporarily staved off the inevitable. Armstrong and the other schools were suggested for closure based on the division’s long-term plan to overhaul its aging buildings. That plan, generated with community input, was adopted with the understanding that City Council would find money for RPS to construct new buildings as old ones were closed. So far, no money has materialized, and city leaders haven’t settled on how they might generate new funding in the years to come, meaning that even though Armstrong was spared this budget cycle, it may not survive the next one.
“We absolutely have to close schools to make our district more efficient,” says Kristen Larson, who co-chaired the board’s facilities task force. She was one of three board members who voted against tabling the closure plan. Efficiency would come, in part, from eliminating the more than 5,000 empty seats across the division. Closing Armstrong alone would have helped fill a combined 1,000 empty seats at John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe high schools, says Tommy Kranz, the division’s assistant superintendent in charge of facilities.
Even though the data shows closures may be necessary, that won’t ensure public support for them. The plan floated this spring sparked weeks of demonstrations and packed public meetings. A month before the board backed off the idea, the public outcry came to a head as about 600 people piled into Mount Olivet Church for a meeting organized by community activist, Democratic Party operative and Armstrong alumnus James “JJ” Minor. The gathering was held to get answers from the division’s administration about its proposal, but it became clear that few there would be persuaded that closing the school was the right course.
“We have 150 years of history to protect,” Minor said at the outset of the meeting. “This is not going to be a save-our-schools campaign. This is going to be a you-will-not-close-our-schools campaign.”
The mostly older crowd, faithfully clad in Wildcat orange and blue, clapped uproariously. Armstrong’s origins date back to the end of the Civil War. Its alumni include the country’s first African-American governor, the state’s first African-American legislator, and the country’s first African-American to command a Naval vessel and fleet. The East End school is a community landmark, its tradition a source of pride for generations of black Richmonders.
But the school has fallen on hard times. Armstrong was one of 22 Virginia schools denied state accreditation last year. Despite gains in recent years, the school performed well below the state average on the annual Standards of Learning tests and has a lackluster graduation rate.
The school serves students from five of the city’s six public housing complexes. Four out of five Armstrong students are classified as economically disadvantaged, according to the Virginia Department of Education. About a third of the school’s students have a disability.
The numbers add up to an immense challenge for teachers, who are working without adequate support staff in a building with myriad maintenance issues, April Hawkins, the school’s principal, said in May before the School Board decision. [Hawkins announced in early June, after this article went to press, that she would not continue as Armstrong's principal.] Last September, the heating and cooling system in the nearly 50-year-old building failed. Temperatures climbed into the mid-80s, forcing administrators to close school for a day. The environment within the building is a regular hindrance, Hawkins said, one that’s a disservice to students.
“It’s bothersome to go into other buildings and see the resources that are provided for those students and then to come here and know the challenges that we deal with,” Hawkins said.
As a teenager living in South Richmond in the mid-’80s, Hawkins was bused to Kennedy High School in the East End. She was an honors students and a member of the school’s cheerleading team with a close-knit group of friends. Then, in the spring of her sophomore year, the Richmond School Board decided to cease busing students across the city. The decision meant she would no longer attend Kennedy, but instead finish high school atHuguenot High.
“That was a traumatic experience for me, so I understand what it feels like to think you won’t be educated at the place that’s become home for you,” Hawkins says. “For many of our kids, this is their home. This is their safe place. This is what motivates them.”
Shaw, who graduates this month, doesn’t want to see the school closed. She plans to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, where she will pursue her aspirations of becoming a doctor.
“We’re a whisper in history if you get rid of us, instead of a statement, a shouting voice.”