“It Is Becoming OK Not to Go to School”

Zenobia Bey

Zenobia Bey is CEO of Community 50/50, an organization dedicated to promoting “positive thinking” and “social skills” in Richmond inner-city youth. As a civic activist who works and lives in the community, she has a different take on the high dropout rate in Richmond Public Schools than what we hear from well-meaning white, middle-class politicians, journalists and pundits who pontificate about poverty from afar.

While the high school graduation rate has improved statewide since 2014, the graduation rate has declined from 84% to 75.4% for Richmond high school students. Richmond Public Schools have the worst dropout rate in the state. Clearly, the problem is related to the high incidence of poverty among Richmond school students. But poverty does not explain why the problem is getting worse — even as the Richmond School Board last spring suspended an attendance policy that would have put 400 students at risk of missing graduation.

Writes RVA Hub in an article about Richmond’s low graduation rate:

Whether it is because some students lack ambition or because they are dealing with community or family issues, Bey said that a negative culture around attending school has formed in the city.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, for the first half of 2018, Richmond was Virginia’s most violent city with a rate of 247 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

“How do you expect a kid to worry about school when they’re more concerned about whether they’re going to get shot — or if they’re an older sibling, making sure their younger siblings are going to school and have something to eat because their parents for whatever reason cannot support them,” Bey said.

Bey says this is where the community has failed Richmond youth. Chronic absenteeism has been a problem in RPS for years — and when adults let children skip school, norms begin to form.

“It’s a generational cycle of some norms that a lot of kids are seeing, and it is becoming OK not to go to school,” Bey said.

What’s the answer? Bey suggests offering interesting and relevant after-school programs, as well as internships and apprenticeships at local businesses. It is crucial to give young people a reason to engage in something positive, she says. If city schools offered resources unavailable at home or elsewhere in the community, children would be more likely to value the importance of school.

Maybe that’s the answer, maybe it’s not. Last year, the Communities in Schools program in Richmond enlisted 2,500 volunteers and 350 community partners to mobilize support for after-school programs and wrap-around social services. The programs sound similar to what Bey is advocating. Are they working?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ll just observe that Communities in Schools has been very active in Richmond schools during the same period in which the graduation rate was plummeting. While the program’s services might have made a difference for individual students — the 2018 annual report says that 61% of CIS students improved attendance and 82% improved behavior — it would appear that the nonprofit’s efforts are being swamped by powerful attitudes emanating from within the inner-city community.

If you’re digging for root causes of poverty and the high dropout rate that contributes to it, identify what is driving the change in inner-city norms.

(Hat tip: John Butcher)

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21 responses to ““It Is Becoming OK Not to Go to School”

  1. Yesterday, here, I wrote this:

    “Problem is for most kids now (well over 50%) the K-12 public schools are worse than useless. Completely broken beyond repair, given entrenched interests, these failed schools grossly mismanaged by an incorrigible corrupt system, do far more harm than good, a problem that increases daily. We have no choice now for the sake of our kids, but replace this rotten system altogether.”

    Now I add a good place to start is Richmond public schools. Why?

    Richmond Public Schools lack all the critically necessary ingredients necessary to teach kids how to learn what they need to know to succeed in life, namely:

    Discipline.
    Hard work.
    Knowledge.

    In fact, each day that passes marks a further retreat by the Richmond Public Schools from these critical ingredients of learning. Instead, kids there are taught that white peoples’ racism is why they are not learning. And Richmond’s leaders appear to have not the courage and ethics to fix these problems. Indeed, Richmond’s leaders fall over backwards to pander to this dereliction of duty owed to our kids.

  2. The truth is that our standard K-12 system does well for kids who have well-educated parents who also take part in educating their kids.

    Kids of parents who are not well-educated, often in tenuous economic circumstances, often with brushes with the law – don’t learn well from standard K-12 teaching practices.

    And yes.. some of that needs to be to appreciate and value hard work, responsibility and accountability for behavior.

    The issue is – if these kids don’t get this from their parents, is it the responsibility of the public school system? Do we / should we – blame Richmond Public Schools for their failure to act as surrogate parents for kids who do not have top notch parenting ?

    I think Ms. Bey is correct and I ask – is this the public schools job? Is it a job that non-public schools would do? Whose responsibility is it to take on these issues?

  3. Fire a third of the Richmond City Schools administrative staff and use the proceeds to offer students job training electives from how to prepare a resume to how to use the Internet to find jobs, as well as vocational training. There are still a lot of jobs that don’t need a college degree but do require specialized training. And bring back recent graduates of these programs and show how training can open doors. Rome wasn’t built in a day but one needs to start somewhere.

  4. There it is, the heart of the problem. Somehow the impression has been created and reinforced that there is no point, no long term benefit to walking the straight and narrow. When the evidence is abundant that success is possible, college is possible, a decent career is possible, and plenty of their peers are leaving RPS on those paths. I don’t have the answer, but consider this the big issue. It is not entirely the fault of failed schools, but that can’t be helping. You don’t see this outcome in other VA communities with the same economic challenges (Butcher’s main and repeated point.)

  5. A recent positive development for Richmond Public Schools has been the naming of one of its teachers as National Teacher of the Year. Rodney Robinson’s approach to teaching is to get to know and relate to his students on a personal basis. He may have over done it. He recently sought therapy “to cope with the fact that he doesn’t remember the last time someone under 25 was killed in Richmond and he didn’t have some sort of connection to them.” Apparently he is a much beloved teacher and a successful one, having inspired several of his students to enter the teaching profession. It is worth reading the Richmond Times Dispatch background article, written a few days before the national winner was announced to get a glimpse of what Richmond public teachers are up against. See: https://www.richmond.com/news/local/education/how-richmond-s-rodney-robinson-became-a-finalist-for-national/article_a8b25930-d12c-5aa4-99b5-6246482e9ca0.html. Now, if the city could get another 100 additional Rodney Robinsons!

  6. re: ” You don’t see this outcome in other VA communities with the same economic challenges (Butcher’s main and repeated point.”

    I don’t really agree. Butcher has dedicated himself to pillory the Richmond School System without almost no real acknowledgement that their problem is NOT unique and, in fact, is fairly common in a lot of schools across Virginia that have similar demographics to Richmond.

    I totally agree – there’s a problem and that it’s not getting solved by replacing leadership and instructor with “black” versions of our traditional education process and structure.

    Butcher HAS pointed out that places like Highland and Poquoson have done well but these are almost anomalies – isolated outside of the bigger more systemic problems that we see not only in Richmond but in a LOT of urban – AND rural schools in Virginia.

    His approach is to blame – and that fits nicely with other critics here but blame don’t get us to a solution and blaming the school system AND the parents at the same time doesn’t do SQUAT until and unless we accept the fact that poorly educated parents (themselves victims of poor schools) are not likely to raise their kids like better/college-educated parents – NO MATTER THEIR COLOR. And putting black administrators in charge of a failed education system in part because the white administrators also failed and now with blacks you can blame them – that’s cynical as hell.

    I asked earlier – WHO is responsible for educating kids who do not have supportive parents who motivate their kids to learn and to understand that they are in it for the long haul? Don’t blame. Tell me how we deal with this – until then – all the blame and recrimination is basically ignorant fire and fury.

    • John makes the point that Richmond Public Schools under-perform even after you adjust for the percentage of disadvantaged students and those with disabilities. One could say that Richmond starts with a bad hand — and plays it badly. He continues to pound away on that theme, I suspect, for two reasons. First, those in power continue to ignore the reality and argue for more of the same kind of policies that contributed to the sub-par performance in the first place. Second, John is a statistics guy, not a journalist. His tools are government data and Excel spreadsheets. He appears to be reluctant to push beyond where those tools will take him, which means he doesn’t have much to say about the kinds of solutions you are looking for. That’s just a hunch. He’ll have to speak for himself.

      I subscribe to Taleb’s philosophy of via negativa — first stop doing things that you know are doing harm. That’s why I have been focusing so much on the policies that accelerate the breakdown in school discipline. I also believe in making lots of small experiments rather than bet-the-system wholesale transformations. I like pilot projects. I like measuring results. I like expanding upon what works. That’s not the way we do education reform these days.

      • I agree with your preference for pilot projects. The problem is that pilot projects are seldom followed up on. The results are not analyzed to see if they really make a difference and could be applied to the whole population and they are left to wither away when the funding for them expires.

        • Sad but true. Too often decision-makers have made their decisions before they have the data from the pilot program, be it to proceed or not to proceed.

        • And I’d be FINE with taking a non-public school that accepts ALL the demographics that we see in Richmond, collect data and show that it does it better.

          I’m not opposed to that at all.

      • I question the “underperform” compared to others with similar demographics. Let see the data.

        re: ” stop doing what is not working”.

        No.. that’s not real. Sorry – you can’t just “stop” public schools. Tell me what you need to do instead – which is already “working” elsewhere. Don’t come up with cockamamie “ideas” that do not exist except in the fervent minds of folks who have little or no knowledge or experience with the issues.

        I LIKE pilot projects also ,,. but real ones – with real data collection not “alternatives” that don’t collect data

    • “WHO is responsible for educating kids who do not have supportive parents who motivate their kids to learn and to understand that they are in it for the long haul?”

      We do this already. We spend more money on K-12 education than virtually every other country. At least in Virginia, both the federal and state governments send extra funds to Title 1 schools. The LCI is greatly over weighted to send extra state funds to lower income communities. We need to push money into programs that work and cut funding for those that don’t and for bloated staffs.

      But this is not an endless obligation despite the rantings from the radical left and public employee unions. Some kids simply won’t learn for many reasons, some of which may not be their fault. Some kids will made bad decisions. Some people will hit the bottom and some of these will remain there. That’s sad but it’s also part of life.

      • No, I’m asking a more basic question.

        IF the parents are not educated and cannot or will not perform like parents who are well educated – who do you hold responsible for this?

        The school system?

  7. Why should society help out those who refuse to help themselves? Can’t rescue everyone.

    • because if you do not – you’ll have to live behind an iron fence and have a body-guard like we see in countries that do not “help”.

  8. We will not make progress until we acknowledge that government, most especially public education, is a jobs program. I’m not arguing that we don’t need government employees or that they don’t need to be compensated fairly.

    But we employee many more people, often at high pay levels, than are truly needed to provide services and enforce laws and regulations. That doesn’t happen with successful companies in the private sector. We’ve been discussing job losses in journalism. I’ve had a number of clients over the years who have had to downsize. Indeed, I lost a job once because the Company decided to downsize its Washington Office.

    If elected officials in Richmond or any other community truly wanted to devote more resources to educating low-income students, they’d make significant personnel cuts and use the savings on programs that work, whether it’s a measured trial or full adoption.

  9. Serious educators know how to effectively teach kids in grades K though 12. But ONLY if those kids FROM THEIR BIRTH are properly raised at home by parents and very early are allowed to engage in healthy, challenging activities every day with mentors and peers at home or close by in save positive learning places. This has been proven time and again.

    Indeed, first graders so armed early, can at school, once they arrive, far more quickly and surely acquire skills, knowledge, and competencies taught at their school than all other kids in class. But this happens only if their parents, plus early mentors and peers at home, in day care or otherwise, have rigorously engaged the infant, toddler, and young child, in ways that have developed through regular exercise the human capacities and potentials each child possesses from birth to age six.

    Thereafter teachers and classrooms, and parents at home, must continue to engage these kids throughout their childhood and adolescence in safe, healthy, vibrant places of growth, challenge and learning.

    Only such early childhood care and attention will insure that our children have any fair chance growing up to learn to understand, engage, deal with, learn from and meet the challenges of our and their culture, and so fully and successfully participate in it as a fully developed and empowered adults.

    Children must acquire and strengthen these skills and competencies at home, in day care, and within neighborhoods LONG BEFORE before the first grade.

    These tools IF used during early childhood will build within the child the capacity to go on to master the great variety of complex skills and competencies that every human being needs to survive and thrive within the first grade, and later thrive during the 6th grade when ever larger skills are need, such as the capacity to absorb an ever larger vocabularies, with ever more subtle shades of meaning, learned from reading, speaking, or otherwise by engaging in human interactions with wide varieties of other people and circumstances.

    Only then can kids at school gain ever more power as human beings whether it be by the exercise of effective writing, speaking, and the other endless forms of human expression within all forums they must engage by action and interaction, with empathy for others and self control of themselves. These critical building blocks must be learned very early, or the child’s ability to succeed is severely compromised, often irrevocably.

    • Reed, you seem to have assigned virtually every child raised outside a middle to upper class household to failure. Under your criteria, why have school for the other kids at all, since their “ability to succeed is severely compromised, often irrevocably”? I invite you to read the background on Rodney Robinson, the National Teacher of the Year for a different perspective. https://www.richmond.com/news/local/education/how-richmond-s-rodney-robinson-became-a-finalist-for-national/article_a8b25930-d12c-5aa4-99b5-6246482e9ca0.html

      • Dick – that’s the impression I get from most of the critics of the public school system.

        The basic premise is that if you have lower class uneducated parents – you are “screwed” because the public school system cannot help you. You are doomed to your destiny at birth.

        That leads to ideas like Voucher Schools for the fortunate ones and “public schools” for the already-failed ones…

        In other words, the entire concept of trying to “help” disadvantaged kids is an uber-expensive failed experiment…

  10. “Reed, you seem to have assigned virtually every child raised outside a middle to upper class household to failure.”

    Actually, Dick, I said no such thing, but quite the contrary instead.

    “Under your criteria, why have school for the other kids at all, since their “ability to succeed is severely compromised, often irrevocably”?

    This is significantly true on the basis of facts established by authoritative research done by fine scholars in the field. As a fact it is a horrible tragedy. We must find ways to remediate its truth.

    “I invite you to read the background on Rodney Robinson, the National Teacher of the Year for a different perspective.”

    We here on Bacon’s Rebellion are way beyond platitudes, and have been for some long period of time discussing these issues, however great, fine, and effective a teacher Mr. Robinson most surely is.

    • To best understand this discussion, one might consider collected works and findings of Thomas Sowell, E. D. Hirsch, Michael Tomasello (per his book Becoming Human, a theory of Ontogeny), Cranky’s Blog, and the Adverse Childhood Experience Scale, how these findings fit into a unified whole as noted earlier on this blog.

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