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The Tudor-style architecture and soaring leaded-glass windows of the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies were supposed to lend gravitas to the annual meeting of the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts.
Instead, the cavernous room felt claustrophobic as parents, emotionally exhausted after years of uncertainty about the school's survival, struggled to confront an older threat. That threat — the ugly specter of racial divisions in public education — is one that experts believe will bear down more frequently on other Richmond-area schools in coming decades.
More than half of the 50 or more parents who came to the June 7 meeting spoke up, their faces twisted with emotions, which many later said they'd had no intention of sharing publicly.
The frustrations they voiced weren't concerns about the quality of education their children receive at the city's first charter school. Instead, the meeting became a confessional of sorts. Perhaps the beginning of a catharsis. Black and white parents talked about a deep divide between them — and the need to close it for the sake of their children.
"There is so much anger in the air that has been allowed to grow — we need to address it now," said Jen Britt, a white parent, whose impassioned call that night for the removal of Patrick Henry's principal, Pamela Boyd, served as a focal point for some of the divisions between white and black parents. Boyd has been under a cloud of scrutiny since a raft of revelations hit the media this spring, including that bank accounts that she opened and oversaw were allegedly mismanaged.
Jacqueline Malone, a black grandmother of a student at the school, held nothing back in answering Britt's call to address the anger. She praised the school for the education her granddaughter had received but blasted school leaders for, she says, allowing a teacher to treat white and black children in her classroom unequally. She defended Boyd, who also is black.
"There's some racism going on here … and it needs to be dealt with," declared Malone, whose husband, Reggie Malone, once served on the Patrick Henry board but then became an outsider who publicly charged the school with racism. "There's a lot of discrimination, and we're going to deal with it."
How Patrick Henry's parents and leaders manage to deal with the divides of race may serve as a model — or a warning — for the Richmond region, where education remains in many ways as racially divided as it was during segregation, Massive Resistance and latter-day passive resistance. Patrick Henry's classrooms are nearly 50 percent black and 50 percent white, an anomaly among public schools in the city of Richmond.
"One of the great, great tragedies is that our schools are so segregated that the one institution that we have relied on for so many decades, that we have relied on to bring us all together, the public schools are so very, very segregated," said University of Richmond professor John Moeser just a few weeks after the Patrick Henry meeting when he addressed the Richmond School Board.
Referencing the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that sought to desegregate the nation's public schools, Moeser told the board that his recent work analyzing U.S. census data showed the entire Richmond region has failed to live up to one very important obligation to its children. "In many respects we are more segregated now than we were prior to the Brown decision."
The city's schools are burdened with a much higher rate of poverty than the rest of the metro area. Three-quarters of city students live at or below the poverty line, a number that likely is higher but under-reported, Moeser said. Most of that poverty is centralized in subsidized housing like Creighton and Gilpin courts.
Meanwhile in Henrico, subsequent "black flight" from Richmond city schools has led to a district with nearly as many black students as white. But school leaders have not closed the racial divide between mostly black eastern Henrico schools and predominantly white western Henrico schools. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education is now conducting an audit of the county public-school system's compliance with civil rights law. In May, parents told federal officials that their children in eastern Henrico Schools did not receive the same resources as others schools. County school officials have cited two new schools and renovations at Varina High School in eastern Henrico.
Patrick Henry's leaders say they have begun to realize that their regional significance is in achieving in a single year what no Richmond public school has managed in more than 40 years. By creating a school where 60 percent of the students are black and about 40 percent are white, Patrick Henry is more reflective of the city of Richmond than Richmond Public Schools. Although about 30 percent of school-age kids in Richmond are white, only about 8 percent of Richmond Public Schools students are white.
A goal of the charter school was to have the school reflect the city, says Kristen Larson, who recently became vice president of Patrick Henry's board, calling the discomfort around the race conversation "a golden opportunity."
"This is what [children's] neighborhoods look like, they're going to school, and this is what their school looks like," But, she says, "for the adults, everybody grows up in a different environment and you bring different things to the table — there's cultural differences. You're coming from your own perspective, and we need to look at everything from everybody's perspective."
What is surprising is where those perspectives diverge.
The call for principal Pamela Boyd's ouster may have been the sour note needed to remind parents of a vast divide between them. That divide existed despite the school's racial balance — and despite the school's executive board comprising nearly equal parts black and white representatives. The board's president, Sharon Burton, is black.
"I was totally blindsided," by the racial split between parents, said Irvin Charles, a parent who also serves as director of security at Maggie Walker Governor's School. He objected strongly to white parents' attacks on Boyd. "I was angry. A lot of the minority parents, we're just bringing our kids to this school to be part of something historic, but on the back side of that, I always feel like there's a hidden agenda to it," Charles told Richmond magazine in a later interview.
Charles recalls a meeting just before the beginning of last August, when the school faced a crucial vote by the Richmond School Board that could have prevented the school's opening. At that meeting, Richmond NAACP leader King Salim Khalfani suggested Patrick Henry was an effort to re-segregate Richmond schools, aiming to create exclusively white schools, and to subvert the leadership of the Richmond School Board with separately governed schools within the district.
"A lot of what they were saying was true — is true," Charles says. "As of right now, I feel like a fool because everything those guys said with the NAACP was true."
Charles says Boyd's seeming undoing only underscored that warning — making race seemingly impossible to ignore as a factor: "The lynching that they just had [of Boyd] kind of reinforced the ideas they had about the charter school." (Boyd was placed on administrative leave with pay in mid-June. An interim principal has been appointed.)
Today, Charles remains committed to his dreams for the school, "but two things I will not bend on are the principal, and second of all, as great as we want to be and as great as we are, it has to be done fairly."
Meanwhile, many white parents say they were stunned by the willingness of many black parents to overlook Boyd's faults.
"The whole crux of the whole conversation we're having now really speaks to the politics of race on a micro level," says Antione Green, a member of the charter board and its former chief operating officer. Patrick Henry, he says, has become a small-scale model of what all Richmond metro-area schools should look like.
A Boyd supporter, Green says what divides Patrick Henry is the same between black and white parents anywhere. White parents often take a more hands-on approach to educating their kids, wanting a place at the management table and in the classroom, Green says, and that has created some of the tension at Patrick Henry. Meanwhile, black parents, he says, are more likely to stand firmly behind school leaders and teachers they trust to educate their children without interference. "This conversation can serve as a catalyst for the conversation that needs to happen citywide."
It would be naive to suggest that conversations — or confrontations — like the one during the June 7 Patrick Henry meeting are so simple as just a difference in management styles. Countless national and local organizations, like the Richmond Crusade for Voters and Hope in the Cities, were founded to address facets of race relations and the long, slow evolution toward integration.
The near future is likely to bring greater urgency to these confrontations, experts say, as population and demographic shifts mean more white middle-class families attending city schools and more black families attending county schools. And these discussions often are made that much more complicated as modern parents, many of whom grew up in a "post-racial" generation and attended integrated schools, begin realizing that not seeing race doesn't mean they won't have to talk about it.
Lacy Ward is director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Prince Edward County. The museum preserves Moton High School, which became an integral part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that sought to end school segregation. Ward sees conversations like the one occurring at Patrick Henry as far-reaching.
"Getting through the civil rights period was so painful," he says, theorizing that avoidance of the next steps to integration was normal. "It's like the World War II generation, just winning the war and putting it behind them and not talking about." Now, as that generation's children and grandchildren begin educating their own children in the 21st century "post-racial" environment, there are new challenges to face. "How do you have a post-racial discussion about race?" he asks. Even where enlightened parents work side-by-side for schools like Patrick Henry, the elephant in the room is still there, and it needs to be discussed.
"I suspect your parents are talking about the birds and the bees," says Ward. "They don't want to, but if you don't talk about it, you learn it somewhere else. I think it's time we talk about the birds and bees of race. It's not going to be comfortable, but it's time."
Ward says many of the furtive conversations over the years have been half-hearted. Most parents, as has been the case in the Richmond region, don't have any skin in the game. Because there has been no political will to meaningfully integrate schools, conversations about integration have been theoretical. Patrick Henry, he says, is different because parents have no choice but to learn to live together.
James Ryan has similar thoughts. A University of Virginia law professor whose book Five Miles Away, A World Apart examines the long-deferred chore of desegregating the Richmond area's school districts nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Ryan says that in the short term, what happened at Patrick Henry is the tip of a very big iceberg.
"Diversity is coming whether people like it or not, or whether they're prepared for it or not," says Ryan, crediting shifting demographics brought on in equal parts by the current economic downturn, by reinvestment of middle-class families in urban centers and by the slow but steady march of concentrations of black poverty into the suburbs. "These conversations are going to start happening more and more often in both suburban and urban districts as we move forward."
In Richmond, efforts are under way to accelerate the tide of middle-class white and black families returning to the district. A campaign called "The Choice," initiated by Richmond Superintendent Yvonne Brandon shortly after she took the helm in 2009, is aimed at luring back families who long ago left for private schooling or county schools.
Richmond City Councilman Marty Jewell sat with his arms crossed, a contemplative frown on his face, as he watched parents trade barbs and calls for cooperation during Patrick Henry's annual meeting. In an interview afterward, he said the city's leaders need to prepare for bad blood to bubble if the "Choice" campaign gets its way. Long-repressed resentment between black and white parents, he says, is something leaders should be ready to help the community through — before they become bigger problems.
Patrick Henry, Jewell says, is a canary in the coal mine — a warning to city leaders that they should be ready to actively intervene to help.
"The fact of the matter is, Richmond, being the epicenter of Massive Resistance, did not in earnest start integrating its schools until 1970," Jewell says, "and when it did, [leaders] didn't bother to hold any sort of sensitivity sessions or workshops or anything to address the racial divide and all that that entails in between."
What resulted was a new wave of white — and middle-class black — flight to the suburbs. What remained is a district that is about 90 percent black and largely impoverished. And so, Jewell says, the conversation about how to educate white and black children side by side while adequately addressing the concerns of parents on both sides never happened in the Richmond area. It was, he says, a conversation deferred.
"We've never had that conversation in Richmond to my knowledge."
Ironically, Jewell says, the strife at Patrick Henry is partly because of the Richmond School Board's efforts to insist that the school develop its diversity.
He said the June 7 meeting was startling but refreshing, too.
"We've entered a stage of chaos," said one exasperated black father at the meeting, talking about how founders' visions with any new institution — even the authors of the United States Constitution who failed to address race and slavery — often don't reflect what comes to pass when a plan is implemented. "Tonight we're emptying our feelings."
To some degree Patrick Henry's founders brought on themselves this need to address racial wounds never fully addressed by Richmond's leaders.
Victoria Carll, a teacher at Richmond Community High School and parent of a child at Patrick Henry, was one of the school's founders.
"At the very beginning, what we were thinking was about nurturing and caring," she said during her remarks at the annual meeting, saying she reviewed the original charter application and found the word ‘collaboration' used 75 times. "We all know [racial and cultural] politics play a role in education," saying it was an oversight not to more fully address that in the school's founding documents.
Patience Salgado says she cried a lot the following day as she tried to process what she witnessed on June 7. A parent at the school, she writes a blog called Kindness Girl, devoted to fostering good will between people.
"What was interesting to me about that whole night was that we're really afraid in our city to get close to each other in the sense of getting in touch with what's between us," she says. "You can feel it sometimes in the room. It's visceral."
Now, she's re-committed to finding a way to bridge the divide. After the school's annual meeting, "I went home and thought, ‘That was bad,' but can you imagine feeling that for 50 years? Can you imagine feeling that way for so long?" Salgado says.
She says she wants to approach another parent she listened to during the meeting, a black parent whose claims of racism were particularly strong. Salgado thinks that if the two of them could find a personal common ground, they could help others at the school to meet there, too.
Patrick Henry is not alone in discussing better racial relations in schools.
In Henrico County, where the district's demographics show near-parity among white and black student populations, similar parity is less certain in the resources devoted to educating the two groups. To a large extent, the county's western end — Short Pump and the wealthy residential areas that surround it — remains majority-white. Schools there are newer, with more enrollment in advanced course offerings, in part because this is the fastest growth area in the county. The eastern end, from east of Interstate 95 on into the Varina district, in-zone school populations often reflect the majority-black, majority-poor populations of areas like the concentrated black poverty of Essex Village Apartments and the Laburnum Avenue corridor that attends Henrico High School.
"Within the last [several] years ... there has been a push toward encouraging more students at all our schools to take more advanced classes," says Mychael Dickerson, Henrico Schools spokesman. "Whether as many are enrolled is another question."
Moeser, during his presentation to the Richmond School Board, said modern demographics reflect intent. "There was nothing accidental about it," he says. "One hundred percent of public housing was put in the city. A good chunk of that public housing is North Side and East End." And as time marched on, poor black families moved farther east and north into areas of Henrico.
"The Richmond Public Schools reflect all of this," he said. "But in my view, this is one of the most important things that we can undertake — to help our children make a life."
Endless national statistics provide evidence that schools that are impoverished, regardless of their racial makeup, perform less well than neighboring schools where students come from households with more stable economic circumstances.
Henrico is a particularly prescient example of a conversation deferred, says Richmond Councilman Jewell, who recounts a bit of Richmond lore in the city's black community that helps illustrate Moeser's census-backed statistics.
"There's an east-west axis that was put in place back in the 1940s and 1950s," Jewell says, reciting the tale of waiters at Richmond's Commonwealth Club on Franklin Street, who would report back to Richmond black leaders after meetings at the club, where "city fathers would make plans openly around the wait staff as if they were furniture. They planned openly to move all the white folks west and all the black folks east," Jewell says, through a combination of land-use planning and resource allocation.
At Henrico High, the result is a school consistently at the top in national rankings of top-performing schools thanks to its International Baccalaureate program, yet it still has one of the highest dropout rates in the metro area. In recent years, Henrico and Highland Springs high schools have handed out the metro area's highest percentages of certificates of completion, special diplomas and other categories of diplomas that employers and the U.S. Department of Education don't recognize as high-school diplomas.
One critic of Henrico's record on civil rights, Kandise Lucas, believes that the federal review was in part initiated by more than 40 complaints from black parents over four years.
The differences between white and black parents' vision for educating their children isn't unique to Patrick Henry. At John B. Cary Elementary School in the city's Fan district in 2007, then-Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman decided that the school's principal, Brenda Phillips, would remain despite pressure from a group of mostly white parents who'd called for her ouster.
Trouble started when those parents decided to place their children at Cary, rather than opting for an out-of-zone or private school. According to parents on both sides of the dispute, the majority of black families already attending supported Phillips' work to improve the school's scores on the state Standards of Learning tests. White parents arrived and decided Phillips put too much emphasis on rote learning and not enough on classroom experiences. The conflict became, by default, one about race.
Patience Salgado enrolled her child at J.B. Cary Elementary about five years ago, just as the school's principal drama ended. "We didn't know about any of that and just walked into it," she says. She stuck it out for a while, but when a slot was offered at nearby Mary Munford Elementary, a city elementary school that has become a haven for white upper- and middle-class families, she took it. Later, when she won a slot at Patrick Henry, she says, she found herself seeking the advice of the counter clerk at a burrito restaurant. The man, who was black, hardly hesitated in counseling her to stay at Munford rather than confront the uncertainty of a racially diverse environment.
"Well-meaning parents, they come in, and it just seems like they're taking over, and they're being disrespectful of what has happened in the past," says U.Va.'s Ryan of the conflict that tore at Cary. "You see African-American parents saying, ‘Here we go again, this is the way it was in the past.' To the extent that it needs to be biracial, there's a need for both black and white parents to be decision makers."
Though suburban — or new-to-public-schools — parents of both races see a different path to success than urban black parents do, the finish line is the same for both groups, Ryan says. "I would be surprised if there was some difference in educational goals [broken down by race]," he says. "I've never seen anything to suggest that white parents as a group … have different goals in mind" regarding the academic success of their children.
In fact, Jewell says, the question becomes less about race and more about class divides, when considering that in the 1970s, "we had white flight, and not long after, we had major black flight."
There is a quantifiable difference between suburban povertey and urban, which is mostly black poverty, borne out in national statistics, according to Moeser's presentation to the Richmond School Board. Historically, both through cultural and institutional means, black poverty has been centralized in public housing, creating cycles of poverty that are difficult to break from generation to generation. Poor white populations tend toward suburbia, where they become almost invisible among strip malls and subdivisions, and where their children often sit side-by-side with middle-class kids and have more opportunities to better themselves.
Which, in a way, is what eventually led Antione Green to the board of Patrick Henry Elementary. Green, who is black, grew up in lower-middle-class or poor neighborhoods, but he was the product of suburban schools. Three years ago, he was the president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters . He agreed to serve on Patrick Henry's board as a bridge between the mostly white founders and the black community that was suspicious of a charter school as possibly some effort to bring back segregated city schools.
Green lost his Crusade post last year because of his support for Patrick Henry, but it's an arguable point that his work helping create diversity for Patrick Henry was almost too successful.
"I don't think you can get the result that you want after one year," says Green, who believes his fellow board members failed in some sense to react proactively in setting up sensitivity training or just plain conversational opportunities for white and black families where the pressure could have been released more slowly.
"The time is right to have a constructive conversation and dialogue where we can begin to understand each other's cultural differences where we really are able to work toward that common goal," Green says, "which is to ensure our children are able to graduate with a diploma … that allows our children to go forward into the workforce and be successful."