Richmond’s Disastrous Public Schools Expose Hypocrisy of State Equity Policy

by James C. Sherlock

I am, tomorrow, going to report a hopeful note about the City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS).  

It will relate the story of an impressive woman who is working hard to turn around the absolutely horrendous reading and math capabilities of RPS students. But in order to put her challenge in context, I feel I must set the stage for the challenges she faces.

They are monumental.

But this is not tomorrow, and RPS is a disgrace. It is ruining thousands of children’s lives every day it operates under current conditions.

The Governor lives a seven-minute walk away from RPS headquarters on North 9th Street, but he seems not to know that school system exists. His famously aggressive equity czar, Janice Underwood, takes no notice.  

Neither does his Department of Education, although VDOE is directly responsible to the federal government for the annual improvement of most Richmond schools in return for receipt of Title I funds.  

That neglect is not for lack of evidence.

I will document here some of the data that I pulled from the VDOE website.  Most are from the 2018-19 school year, the last year not disrupted by COVID.  

I have focused on RPS’ seven middle schools — if for no other reason than I once very long ago taught middle school in Virginia. And I think it illustrates the issues.

Few readers will be able to relate to the conditions there.

School Improvement Funding 

First the money.  Richmond schools get far more federal money for improvement than any district in the state.

Title I schools are funded by the federal Department of Education to provide:

  • extra instructional time and supports for students;
  • additional teachers and paraprofessionals to reduce class size;
  • specialized instructional methods and purchase of teaching equipment and supplies;
  • parental involvement and activities
  • pre-kindergarten programs
  • after-school and summer programs that extend and reinforce the school’s regular curriculum

There are two Title I programs, Targeted Assistance and Comprehensive Assistance. 

The targeted assistance school program is available to schools which do not meet the 40% threshold of underprivileged kids for the Schoolwide program. Title 1 teachers provide services only to selected children. The funds can be used only to provide services to selected children who have the greatest need for educational assistance.

A Title 1 schoolwide program is a comprehensive program used to upgrade the complete educational program in a Title 1 school, thus raising academic achievement for all the students. The schoolwide program is available to schools with a student base where at least 40% come from low-income families. The primary goal is to ensure all students, particularly those who are low-achieving, demonstrate at least proficient levels of achievement.

There are only 39 Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools in the state. Sixteen are in Richmond. 

VDOE is directly responsible for the improved academic success of those schools. The federal program requires that a comprehensive plan be developed in consultation with the VDOE and the school support team for reforming the entire instructional program in the school. Every school. Every year.

Five of the seven RPS middle schools, Binford, Henderson, Martin Luther King Jr., Lucille M. Brown and Thomas C. Boushall, are Comprehensive Support schools. 

Measurements of Achievement

Standardized test scores 

Standardized test performances in reading and math in Richmond schools are among the worst in the nation and have been flat or declining since at least the 2016-2017 school year. 

Based on the 2018-19 Virginia SOLs results, 50% of Black students in RPS in all grades could neither read nor perform mathematics at a basic level. There were 15,639 Black students in RPS schools. By definition, over 7,800 of them needed intervention in both reading and math to bring them up to basic level.

Statewide, Black kids scored a 65% pass rate in reading and 70% in math.  

In Chesapeake City, which I will mention later for its aggressive actions to ensure kids attend school, 70% of Black students passed reading tests; 78% passed mathematics.

State Accreditation 

Of 1821 schools in the state, 131 (7%) are accredited with conditions. Twenty four of them are in Richmond. Only 19 schools in Richmond are fully accredited, including four non-traditional schools. Fifty-six percent of RPS schools lack full accreditation.

There are seven middle schools in RPS. Not one is fully accredited.  

Social Promotions. RPS holds few children back to repeat a grade regardless of their academic deficiencies, only 3% in 2018-19.

Graduation Rates 

The 4-year graduation rates for Black students in Fairfax and Virginia Beach were each about 93% in 2019. In Richmond, for those Black students who make it past the terrible middle schools to high school, the graduation rate was 77%.

School Climate


Eighty percent of Richmond teachers, half of whom are Black, notified RPS that they did not wish to teach in person for the rest of the year. As a result, RPS was on May 4 of this year the only school division in the state with a predominantly remote teaching environment.

You will read below that they may have feared for their personal safety for reasons other than COVID.


Illiteracy and innumeracy show up in Middle School as discipline and attendance problems.  

In the seven Richmond Middle Schools In 2017 – 2018 (last year data available), 1,216 of 4,356 students, (28%), were reported as discipline offenders. They committed 851 offenses against persons, including 57 against staff.  

You can go here and click on summary data from school quality profiles. The discipline data are required by the federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. I have done it for you.

Richmond middle schools reported 353 school-related arrests out of 4,356 students; 309 Black student arrests out of 3,105 Black students. Ten percent of the Black students who started Middle School in Richmond in 2018 were arrested for school-related incidents.

One RPS elementary school, George Mason Elementary with less than 1,000 students, reported 14 student weapons-related violations in that same year.

Required by the same federal government Civil Rights Data Collection program to report incidents of harassment and bullying, RPS reported none. That means they have chosen not to compile/report the data  I have no idea how they have gotten away with it.

Absenteeism/Truancy Reporting to Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts

Under Virginia law, students who skip too many classes could end up in juvenile court. And parents who don’t make their kids go to school might be fined or even sent to jail.   

That same law discusses the role of attendance officers.  It is the responsibility of attendance officers to file complaints with Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court after 10 unexcused absences in a school year if “if attendance does not improve”.

In 2019 Richmond laid off more than half of its attendance staff and hired a Director of Equity. 

In 2018,

  • RPS filed only 200 court referrals on students, less than 1% of their students.
  • Chesapeake City Schools in contrast filed 3,016 J&D referrals on such children, about 8% of their students.

As a parent, receiving a summons to J&D for your child’s truancy will get your attention and you will get his.

So which system, Chesapeake or Richmond, shows concern for children attending school?

Absenteeism/Truancy Reporting to the Federal government

The chronic absenteeism data by school that VDOE reports to the federal government shows that RPS’ seven middle schools suffered serious chronic absenteeism in 2018-19.  Chronic absenteeism under federal guidelines is defined as missing 10% or more of the days enrolled.  On an annual basis, that would mean missing more than 18 days of classes.

Of Richmond’s seven middle schools, five had more than 10% of kids chronically absent, topped by Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s 20.51%.

So try to assess the reasons RPS reported:

  • 3314 kids (12%) were chronically absent (more than 18 days) under federal guidelines of missing days 18 or more of school days unexcused; but
  • referred only 200 (less than 1%) to Juvenile and Domestic Relations court for missing more than 10 days unexcused absences and failure to improve.

Absenteeism/Truancy Reporting to Governor and General Assembly

The Board of Education did not see fit to deliver absenteeism information to the Governor or the General Assembly in its 2020 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia. The word absenteeism appeared nowhere in that report in which structural racism, teacher quality and money were featured as causes of minority academic failures.

With new information about the role of central role of chronic absenteeism in hand, perhaps the Governor and the General Assembly might legislate to help fix it.

Or perhaps not, but at least they would know that is measurably the most important element in academic failures by black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged kids.

Absenteeism/Truancy – daily

In 2018-19, the system reported both registered pupils and average daily membership (attendance).  The difference was 13% absent on the average day.


Enough.  No more.

Allowing a school district headquartered a seven-minute walk from the State Capitol building to continue to destroy children’s lives like this cannot be allowed to go on. Governor Northam, no stranger to emergency decrees, should declare one here.

All of God’s angels could not save all of these children. Many are too far gone. But we can save some of them, and we must try.


My first recommendation is to isolate those kids who, supported by their parents, want to learn from those who don’t or won’t. Those willing learners are hugely disadvantaged in the documented chaotic and dangerous environments that are most Richmond schools.  

That itself is a violation of the state constitution that guarantees each child a quality education.

There is an established and marvelously successful system for fixing that specific problem: New York City’s charter schools in general and Success Academies in particular. But Virginia has made it very hard to establish a charter school. Both the local school board and the VDOE must approve.  

The Governor should guarantee RPS that his Department of Education will not only approve charter schools for that city, but will recruit them for Richmond. One obstacle down.

Then it will be up to the Richmond school board and the people of Richmond to decide. If they do not choose to do the right thing, we will need a constitutional amendment for the state to take over that system.

And did I mention that RPS has somehow found the money and time for social emotional learning? From the Richmond Public Schools website:

“All students will have a Social Emotional Learning curriculum.”

Any comment I would make on that would seem to be piling on.


One woman is trying to help against this hurricane of headwinds.

(The Absenteeism/Truancy sections of this report were updated at 4:10 PM on 24 May based on new information received from VDOE)

(Standardized Test Scores section was updated May 25 to remove statewide NAEP results that were incorrectly attributed to RPS.)