Thad Williamson is a professor, writer and civic activist teaching at the University of Richmond. His work focuses on the connection between theories of democracy and social justice and the practice of public policy and public administration.

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth #4: Time to Pair Up!

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth #4: Time to Pair Up!

Richmond Public Schools is currently embarked on a comprehensive rezoning effort at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.

The most significant proposal on the table involving the Fifth District is the idea of “pairing” John B. Cary Elementary School with William Fox Elementary School. Children from the combined zone would attend William Fox for grades K-2, then move to the John B. Cary building for grades 3-5.

The context for this proposal is that William Fox is about 60% white (non-Hispanic), and John B. Cary is about 83% African-American. As is now widely acknowledged, the 2013 rezoning after the closure of Clark Springs Elementary School actually exacerbated racial segregation by moving part of the Museum District from Cary to Fox. Last year there were 22 white (non-Hispanic) children at Cary, compared to 45 in 2012-2013; conversely there were 92 African-American children at Fox last year, compared to 119 in 2012-13.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, there is a resource equity issue. The PTA at William Fox has far more resources than the PTA at John B. Cary. That translates into more capacity to generate vital enrichment and engagement opportunities for students, families, and the surrounding community. It also translates into a disparity in voice when issues arise impacting schools and students.

Second, and even more important, is the fact that in the 21st century, America is defined by our diversity, and success in life (civic and personal) requires forming relationships and bonds with all different kinds of people. It's our ability to do that--or not--that will shape whether 21st century America becomes the inclusive democracy we are capable of becoming or a society riveted by divisions. And, as VCU professor Kim Bridges documents in an excellent recent op-ed, it starts with how we teach our children.

What’s exciting about the pairing proposal is that it offers an opportunity to fix this picture in a way that is positive-sum rather than zero-sum. No one is losing the opportunity to go to school with their neighbors with the proposal. Instead, the proposal expands how we are defining “neighborhood” and “community” in a way that will give all children opportunities to learn in diverse, excellent environments.

And let’s be clear: Fox is a very good elementary school, and so is John B. Cary. We sent our daughter to John B. Cary for six full years, 2012-2018. As my spouse Adria Scharf and I recounted in an August 2018 Richmond magazine article, our daughter had a caring teacher in the classroom every year, learned an incredible amount in and outside the classroom, and has gone on to a successful start to middle school. We also were part of a diverse, friendly community of committed parents determined to support the school and our children.

The proposed pairing is thus an opportunity to make two very good schools even better.

An extensive community engagement process has been established by RPS to vet the rezoning options, which is important both to help citizens understand the proposals and to surface issues and concerns.

We do have to engage parents, but make no mistake, this is a community-wide decision about what kind of community we want to be.

Put another way, parent engagement in itself does not necessarily assure a just (or wise) outcome. For evidence, we need look no further than Richmond’s own history.

But civic engagement and discussion, when it goes well, can bring to the surface hidden issues and background motivations, and allow perspectives to be challenged and broadened. There has been nothing said publicly in the current controversy that hasn’t been said privately for years.

What’s different now is that citizens have the opportunity to scrutinize and challenge those views. That’s why it’s heartening to see the pushback from so many community members, including parents at Fox and Cary, who favor creating more diverse classrooms for our community’s children.

The reality of local politics is that many times you can’t please everyone. Tough decisions have to be made. I believe effective leadership must be rooted in a clear commitment to core principles, and I believe to make progress in Richmond we must be willing to take risks.

It’s time to move forward with a genuine effort to make our schools more equitable and more diverse. I support the Fox-Cary pairing  proposal, recognizing it is but one needed step towards creating more diverse classrooms citywide. While the final decision will be the School Board’s, rezoning decisions have broad community-wide impacts and hence as a prospective City Council member I will use my voice to weigh in.

More importantly, whether or not my campaign for City Council is successful, I will continue to advocate for supporting all schools and supporting intentional, courageous actions to begin undoing our profound legacy of segregation.

It’s the right thing for our community, and it’s what our children need and deserve.

Authorized for Thad Williamson for Richmond City Council

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #5: Slow Down! (Vision Zero)

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #5: Slow Down! (Vision Zero)

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #3: A New George Wythe High School, Sooner, Not Later

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #3: A New George Wythe High School, Sooner, Not Later