Charles and Julie Seabury and their children, Alex and Amelia, who attend Albert Hill as sixth and eighth graders, respectively. (Photo by Jay Paul)
In the spring of 2013, Julie Seabury, a physical therapist, and her husband, Charles, a urologist, had a choice to make: Where would they enroll their rising sixth-grader in the fall? The family didn’t want to bus their daughter across the river to Lucille Brown Middle School’s International Baccalaureate program. They enjoy living in the Near West End, so moving to Henrico or Chesterfield counties was out of the question. Aside from the price tag, private schools were too “homogenous,” Julie Seabury says.
In the end, their decision was made easier by what she estimates were 30 to 40 families banding together and enrolling en masse at Albert Hill Middle School in the Museum District. The school had a strong principal, reputable teachers and state accreditation. “We all kind of wanted to do it together and make sure our kids had a support system there and were comfortable with the school itself,” Seabury says.
The city is seeing a slow — if tentative — return of middle-class families, black and white, who are investing in public schools that have long been considered second-rate. It’s a limited phenomenon, largely isolated to more economically stable neighborhoods. And in some of those neighborhoods, it is has been a process at least a decade in the making. But the signs of gaining momentum are there.
Between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, the number of economically disadvantaged Hill students fell from 56 percent to 45 percent, according to data reported by RPS to the Virginia Department of Education. In 2004-05, that number was 69 percent. In-zone students, meaning those who live in the neighborhood, made up more than half of Hill’s enrollment during that same period, and one in four Hill students was white, more than at any time in at least 15 years, according to the state Department of Education.
Parents say improved quality of life in the city, a desire for diverse neighborhood schools, and Superintendent Dana Bedden’s leadership are changing attitudes.
“We’re a completely different town than we were 10 years ago — five years ago. We’re this younger, more energetic, more creative town. We’re invested in this town. We want to make it succeed and be a part of it,” says Scott Garnett, a local real-estate agent whose children attend Fox Elementary.
“Schools were always the part that was missing,” he says. “People are now getting involved. We’ve got a new administration ... They’re going to change the perception — you don’t have to move and you don’t have to send your kids private.”
Still, even the most conservative measure shows the district had 5,700 empty seats last school year. Annual budgeting woes, decrepit school buildings, lackluster athletic facilities, teacher turnover and state accreditation shortcomings, especially among middle and high schools, make Richmond Public Schools a less attractive destination for parents with choice.
RPS’ grade-by-grade enrollment shows a sharp drop-off between fifth and sixth grade, signifying what has long been known: Elementary school is a much easier sell than the system’s struggling secondary schools. That may explain why parents who choose to stay in the district these days are doing so en masse. There is power in numbers.
In July, 140 parents showed up at a meeting in Hill’s auditorium after learning some electives were on the chopping block. They peppered Bedden and the school’s administration with complaints about communication during the scheduling process. The superintendent agreed on the spot to re-poll parents at the school about their students’ preferred electives and shuffle course offerings for the upcoming school year.
At the start of last school year, enrollment at Binford Middle in the Fan dipped below 60 percent of its building’s capacity. In December, the School Board, responding to community pressure, approved wholesale changes at the school, which now boasts the only combination fine-arts academy, college readiness program in the state. The new program has drawn strong interest from families whose children attend Fox, Garnett says. About 60 families who did not send their students to city schools last year applied to Binford during the district’s open enrollment period, Bedden says.
Parent Adria Scharf says it’s too soon to draw any solid conclusions about what is happening at schools such as Hill. She and her husband decided to enroll their child in an RPS elementary school, which has since seen a boundary change and constant turnover in leadership, among other issues. But, she says, a group of parents has committed to seeing the challenges through.
“I do sense that there’s a growing consensus among parents that we need more socioeconomically mixed schools in our district,” says Scharf, who is also executive director of the Richmond Peace Education Center.
The key is maintaining a socio-economic mix once it is reached, so that a school doesn’t then “tip,” losing the integrated student body that drew parents in the first place. A decade ago, African-American students accounted for 90 percent of district enrollment. Now, they make up 76 percent. Hispanic enrollment has grown to 11.5 percent. White enrollment has hovered around 9.5 percent for the last five years. In the wake of the Great Recession, poverty has grown in the district. Today, three of four students qualify for government-subsidized lunches.
Families who have the means to choose schools outside RPS come in with leverage — they can leave — and thus can exert system-wide pressure on the bureaucracy, says Kimberly Gray, whose School Board district includes Fox.
“All ships rise with the tide,” Gray says. “Keeping in mind that we need to remember the voiceless in our system, the parents who are more sensitive and vocal improve the system as a whole for everyone.”
This year, the Seaburys enrolled their second child at Hill. Julie Seabury estimates as many as 100 families whose students went to Mary Munford and Fox elementary schools did the same.