Two of the lowest performing middle schools in the state will have a fresh slate come August.
The Richmond School Board voted unanimously Monday night to merge Thompson and Elkhardt Middle Schools, both on the city’s South Side. Elkhardt’s 500 students have spent the last three months in the previously empty Clark Springs Elementary School building. In February, a mold and air quality issue led Richmond Public Schools officials to move students from the 75-year-old middle school. Renovating the building would cost about $23 million, money that RPS officials would rather spend elsewhere.
“We merge the two schools with the caveat that a new middle school needs to be built,” says Tommy Kranz, RPS assistant superintendent. In three years, the school district projects that combined enrollment for the two schools will exceed the 1,000-student capacity at Thompson, which currently has about 500 students.
If the city does not move to design and fund the construction of a new middle school south of the James, Kranz warns, “All we’ve done is kicked the can down the road. It’s going to come back.”
As a result of the merger, the two schools will technically both close, most likely at the end of June. A “new” school that is conditionally accredited for its first year will open in the building that houses Thompson. The School Board has not yet settled on a new name.
Both schools will lose federal priority status, given to underperforming schools, and the requisite improvement dollars that come with it. As a result, the school system will have to return an estimated $500,000 in funding to the state, says Janice Garland, Richmond’s executive director of school improvement. RPS could ask the state to reallocate those funds to other schools in the city, but it will be up to the state whether to do so or not, she adds.
Some parents in attendance voiced concern about crowded classrooms after the merger. Cherita Ellis, whose seventh-grader attends Thompson, asked why Elkhardt students couldn’t remain at Clark Springs and why they all had to be housed at Thompson instead of splitting them up between the South Side’s other two middle schools, Boushall and Brown.
Responding to Ellis’ and other parents’ concerns, Superintendent Dana Bedden says that staffing after the merger would ensure a 22-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio in each classroom. “With regards to the merger and other options considered, that was done,” Bedden says. “Other schools were looked at. This was the best option.”
Nathan Johnson, a second-year teacher at Thompson, questioned whether doubling the size of the student body at the middle school would also bring more funds for building security.
“We need security for these students,” Johnson says. “If we’re not going to ask them their concerns, we at least need to protect them. That’s our job.”
During the 2013-14 school year, there were 309 documented incidents of disorderly or disruptive behavior at Thompson, according to the school’s report card on the Virginia Department of Education website. At Elkhardt, there were 185 during the same school year, down from 221 the prior year. Offenses against students tallied 32 at Thompson and 27 at Elkhardt, the reports show. Offenses against staff tallied 32 at Thompson and 15 at Elkhardt.
Prior to the board vote, Mamie Taylor, 5th District, made a motion to allow parents of children attending Elkhardt to enroll their child in any of the city’s middle schools. Doing so would slow down the projected growth at the new school, and address empty seats in classrooms at other schools district-wide, she says.
A heated exchange between Taylor and Jeffrey Bourne, 3rd District, ensued, with both Tichi-Pinkney Eppes, 9th District, and Kimberly Gray, 2nd district, joining the fold. Taylor ultimately withdrew her amendment.