Photo by Sarah Walor
Bermuda district representative Carrie Coyner with her 8-, 5- and 4-year-olds in a classroom at Elizabeth Scott Elementary, which her sons attend.
Carrie Coyner knows her children aren’t growing up in the Chesterfield of her youth.
Raised in the predominantly white, working-class community of Enon on the county’s eastern edge, Coyner left to attend college and law school before moving back in 2005 and starting a family.
“When I was in school, it wasn’t a very diverse community. That’s just how it was,” says the 33-year-old Bermuda District School Board representative.
Now, her 8- and 5-year-old sons come home from Elizabeth Scott Elementary, where 44 percent of the student body receives a free or reduced-price lunch, repeating Spanish words they learned from friends on the school bus, and Coyner represents the school district at the epicenter of the county’s demographic shift.
The Chesterfield County School Board elected the attorney and mother of three as chairwoman at the beginning of the year. In her three-plus years on the board, Coyner has worked behind the scenes to illuminate the county’s growing poverty problem and resulting educational disparities in its public school system.
Census data from the past 25 years shows a stark increase in the number of residents living in poverty in the eastern half of the county, which borders the city. As development has boomed in the western half of the county, wealthy families have moved out of the eastern half, and lower-income families have moved in. The result is what Coyner and others in the county characterize as neighborhoods that are not “economically diverse.” Those neighborhoods, in turn, send socioeconomically disadvantaged students to schools unprepared to meet their needs. Individual, as well as schoolwide, performance suffers as a result.
Compared with Chesterfield County Public Schools students as a whole, the county’s low-income students are twice as likely to drop out of school and half as likely to attain an advanced high school degree, according to data collected over the past five years.
“In Chesterfield, it’s not easy to talk about inequity and poverty. People think it’s a city issue,” Coyner says in an interview at her law office off Iron Bridge Road, reiterating a sentiment she told an audience of 250 at a forum held in mid-January at Thomas Dale High School.
“If we decide as a community that being poor is a learning disability, then I guess we can walk away and do nothing. But I don’t believe that, and I don’t think a majority of people do,” she continues. “It just drives me crazy when folks say it’s not a problem here.”
In fact, more people live below the poverty line in the suburbs of metro Richmond than in the city limits, according to census data gathered between 2009 and 2013. As gentrification has pushed low-income residents out of the city, they have increasingly resettled in Henrico County, where poverty has nearly doubled from 5.5 percent in 1990 to 10.7 percent in 2013, and Chesterfield, where about 7 percent were reported to be living in poverty in 2013 versus less than 4.5 percent in 1990.
The trend, coupled with an influx of Latino families to the region, has presented unfamiliar challenges for the counties to address. But they didn’t crop up overnight. “Our school system has been wrestling with these issues for a long time,” says David Wyman, who represents the Dale District, which borders Coyner’s. His district is experiencing similar demographic changes. “Since we made it out of the economic doldrums, we’ve been really focused on providing resources for the most impoverished schools. We’ve been very intentional in that.”
“I wouldn’t say it wasn’t a priority [before Coyner],” says Dorothy Jaeckle, who represents the Bermuda District on the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors. “I’d say it was more of, ‘What do you do about it?’ … It’s hard to blame someone for it.” Coyner puts it more bluntly: “No one person did this. It happened because no one did anything.”
Her honesty has earned her supporters, including Laura Lafayette, a Chester-field native (now living in Henrico) who serves as CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors and chairwoman of the Better Housing Coalition board. “[Coyner] has no patience for people who will deny that the challenges exist or want to ignore them or think they will somehow recede,” Lafayette says. “If she can’t create systemic change, she’s going to rally the faith and civic communities and do what she can to provide educational opportunities for children in her district.”
Coyner has done so by volunteering with her church group in low-income communities like Chester’s Broadwater neighborhood. On the School Board, she has advocated for policies to close the performance gap for students from low-income families, such as reducing class sizes in schools most affected by an influx of disadvantaged students and funding more positions for teachers who specialize in instructing non-native English speakers.
The Chesterfield School Board adopted a five-year-plan to “rebuild equity” in the public schools, Coyner says. One of its tenets is the equal offering of middle school electives to students throughout the system. Currently, students who attend middle schools in the more affluent part of the county can choose from as many as 17 more electives, including multiple foreign languages and art classes, than at any middle school in the eastern half. Next year, all middle schools will offer at least two foreign languages, two career and technical courses and a series of exploratory courses.
But another key part of the five-year plan may soon be delayed. In 2013, voters approved a bond referendum to set aside funding for more than $300 million in improvements to six schools in the eastern half of the county. However, late last year, officials put forth a proposal to build a new $27.6 million elementary school in Midlothian in 2017, four years earlier than originally planned. Doing so would reduce overcrowding at Watkins Elementary School, but would push back the renovations for the older schools, the Chesterfield Observer reported. Coyner has voiced her displeasure with the proposal.
The setback could be the first in what she believes will be a long-term effort that determines the county’s trajectory for generations to come. Further action, she says, starts with a countywide, and eventually regional, conversation — and an honest one. “Failure would be continuing to do the same things we have been doing when we know they didn’t work; they aren’t working,” she says. “Failure would be not taking equal responsibility for all of this.”