Petersburg Public Schools Cheat Children of Their Futures

by James C. Sherlock

We like to think of ourselves as civilized people.

Virginia and America are at an advanced stage of social and cultural development.

Aren’t we?

For the children of Petersburg, we are not. We continue to let them quite publicly and measurably be cheated of their futures by their public schools.

Queue the excuses for bad schools. Whatever list you can come up with, it’s not good enough. We are not civilized if we, as a state, continue to let it happen to children with no other option.

Virginia is unique in that our state constitution explicitly gives local school divisions control of their schools.

Virginia passed a law in 2013 that created a body to take over schools failing to receive accreditation or what is now accreditation with conditions for three consecutive years. It was found unconstitutional.

I don’t know why the constitution was written without some provision for dealing with failed schools and school divisions after long-term failure.

But it was, and it was a mistake. We need to change the constitution to give the children of Petersburg and in other failing schools a chance in life.

That goal is, and must be, worth the effort it will take to accomplish it.

If Petersburg is not the worst school division in Virginia, some other locality is truly cursed.

Accreditation. Look at the nine school quality indicators.

  • They are based on English, Math and Science SOLs and chronic absenteeism;
  • For high schools, they are also based upon Graduation and Completion Index (GCI), Dropout Rate and College, Career and Civic Readiness Index.

All six Petersburg schools are accredited with conditions. Proving only that it is not currently possible to be denied accreditation.

Accreditation Denied: Schools that fail to adopt or fully implement required corrective actions to address Level Three school-quality indicators.

SOLs. Pass rates of Petersburg division schools as a group in 2022-23:

  • English reading: 45% (decreased from 46% in 2021-22) — State: 73%
  • English writing: 29% (decreased from 34% in 2021-22) — State: 65%
  • Math: 37% (increased from 31% in 2021-22) — State: 69%
  • Science: 33% (unchanged) — State: 67%
  • Note: Recently Arrived English Language Learners Exempted from State Reading Assessments: 0. State: 4.460

Chronic Absenteeism. Quality measures for attendance that were suspended during COVID were reinstated by the Board of Education in April of this year. A VDOE official said at the time:

Approximately 28% of schools in Virginia will be accredited with conditions based on their chronic absenteeism performance level.

That includes all six Petersburg schools, with an average of 43% chronic absenteeism in 2022-23. Enrollment was 4,272, 86% Black.

High schools Dropout and Graduation Rate…

  • Petersburg High School dropout rate: 7.1% — state high schools: 5.4%
  • Petersburg High School on-time graduation rate: 88.7% — state: 91.9

Teacher Quality. The Petersburg teacher quality, licensing and educational attainment metrics are horrible.  










No one can make enough good teachers work in Petersburg schools. In charter and private schools in that city, perhaps. But there aren’t any in Petersburg.

I have suggested before that Petersburg Schools ask Success Academy to mentor them. Success Academy offers such mentorships pro bono, but that has not happened.

For the Catholic kids, there is the well-regarded St. Joseph’s Catholic school, but that is it.  And, of course, Virginia does not offer vouchers for poor kids to attend.

Petersburg’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) targets in math, English and science are double or more the pass rates that their students achieved in 2022-23. With that Division’s teacher issues, it is hard to identify how they will get there, even with help.

Virginia State University. Virginia State University, north of the Appomattox River in Ettrick is growing dramatically. It announced on September 1 that it has established a program to help address the Petersburg teacher shortage.

VSU’s College of Education has established a program under which five VSU undergraduate students are participating in a hybrid program for the 2023-2024 school year. They are teaching in Petersburg schools and will be paid like long-term substitutes while keeping up with their classwork.

We’ll see how that works out.

Partnership for Petersburg (PFP). The Governor and the Mayor of Petersburg’s PFP program has a significant education component. See page 2 of the linked document.

One of the accomplishments: “Fifty tutors began providing tutoring services in March of 2023 to the students in the Petersburg City public school system.” I assume but do not know that those tutors are mostly from VSU.

In another, they partnered with the YMCA to provide before-and after- school care at the four Petersburg elementary schools.

As part of this partnership initiative, a College Partnership Lab School is under consideration at VSU.

Lab schools are a workaround by the Youngkin administration put in place to overcome Virginia school divisions’ reluctance to establish charter schools. VSU apparently did not have its application ready to qualify for one of the 13 state planning grants announced in March. If they establish one, I hope it is in Petersburg.

Limits of State Authority. The most aggressive authority available to the Board of Education is spelled out in 8VAC20-131-400. Application of the school quality indicator performance levels to actions D. 6.

In accordance with the Standards of Quality at § 22.1-253.13:3 A of the Code of Virginia, if the board determines that a school division has failed or refused, and continues to fail or refuse, to comply with any of the Standards of Quality, including the requirement for local school boards to maintain schools designated as “Accredited” as provided in § 22.1-253.13:3 A of the Code of Virginia, the board may petition the circuit court having jurisdiction in the school division to mandate or otherwise enforce compliance with such standard, including the development or implementation of any required corrective action plan that a local school board has failed or refused to develop or implement in a timely manner.

Bottom line. A lot of people, including VSU and the Governor, are working to help Petersburg and its schools.

Despite all of the help, we must acknowledge that the Petersburg School Board is still in charge. I have seen no indication that it has the leadership, will, or resources to comply with a corrective action plan that will work in its schools.

I understand and support the PFP initiative, but in the best interests of the children it is time for the state Board of Education to execute its authority and petition the circuit court to oversee the Petersburg school board.

If that school board cannot get the job done, it appears to me that a circuit court judge order can only “otherwise enforce” the order if there is an alternative to the local school board.

Because of the constitution, there is not.

We need to change the Virginia constitution, not only for the children of Petersburg, but for children all over the state denied an education by their public schools.

They don’t get another chance at childhood.