Why Aren’t Children Learning in Petersburg Public Schools?

by James C. Sherlock

Why aren’t Black children, on average, learning in Virginia public schools?

You have heard and perhaps internalized all of the excuses.

Cue the historical/social/cultural/economic theories. They are all interesting. And exhaustively pursued.

And irrelevant.

Black children in many Virginia urban public schools are not being taught properly in environments conducive to learning. Black students in those schools depress the averages for Black students statewide.

Money won’t fix that if it funds more of the same. No chance.

There is a different way.

I reject utterly the idea that Black children can’t learn. Whether they learn is a different matter.

It is very difficult for students of any heritage from homes with dysfunctional single parents in chaotic, violent neighborhoods to learn, much less in the school environments and with the teaching methods they are offered in some of Virginia’s cities.

The results bear that out.

We should expect all children to learn. We should provide safe and proper school environments and teach them with the expectation that all of them can, with their parents’ support, become not just literate, but scholars. Wherever they live.

School environments must support learning. We must establish and maintain discipline, treat students with dignity and respect and demand the same in return.

And then we must teach them properly and support them at every step.

The data. The failures are not related to COVID.

The data on Black children learning in Virginia urban public schools have been horrible for generations. Too many divisions have never established and maintained “public schools of high quality” as required by Article VIII, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution.

The results of assessments of academic progress are a disgrace. Here are the statewide SOL pass rates for 2021-22. Statewide Black student enrollment is 21.7%. Passing has been set as a very low bar.

  • English reading – All 73 / Black 60
  • English writing – All 65 / Black 47
  • Math – All 66 / Black 49
  • Science – All 65 / Black 46

Now let’s look at Petersburg and Richmond.

Petersburg has six schools: four elementary/none accredited, one middle/none accredited and one high school/one accredited. Black student enrollment is 86%.

  • English Reading – All 46% / Black 46%
  • English writing – All 34% / Black 34%
  • Math – All 31% / Black 30%
  • Science – All 33% / Black 32%

The City of Richmond has 44 schools: 26 elementary/12 accredited; seven middle/none accredited; eight high schools/three accredited; three combined schools/one accredited. Black student enrollment is 60.5%

  • English Reading – All 47% / Black 45%
  • English writing – All 36% / Black 33%
  • Math – All 37% / Black 31%
  • Science – All 32% / Black 27%

So, we just learned at least three things:

  • Schools all over the state on average are in trouble. Black students are in worse trouble;
  • Richmond and Petersburg have bad schools and are dragging down the state averages. No points for effort. Students either learn or they don’t;
  • Black students as measured by SOLs from third grade through 12th in Petersburg and Richmond have retained about as much knowledge in reading, writing, math and science as if they had never gone to school.  Tell someone else that is the tests’ fault.

I’d like to be able to say that won’t last. But that would be a lie. It has lasted, and can continue.

Cities must not let their schools continue doing what they have been doing in the way that they have been doing it.

If we do so that is not just inhumane, it is madness.

Radical change. I have a proposal.

I recommend the City of Petersburg carefully explore progressing slowly to separate its public school system over time into two parts:

  • one part run by one of the extremely high performing charter management organizations (CMOs) that specialize in poor minority urban kids; and
  • the other part run by the school board and superintendent.

That is what New York City and hundreds of other municipalities in America have done. Those charters are hugely popular with and oversubscribed by parents and kids.

I suggest Petersburg because of extreme need and because the scale is conducive as a pilot. If it works there, it can work elsewhere in the commonwealth.

New York’s Success Academies (S/A) and KIPP come to mind as the top two options. Success Academy schools in New York City, if operated as a separate school division, would be the most successful division in the state in performance on the Regents exams, New York State’s SOLs.

Each is a non-profit. Each accepts per capita the same payments allocated to other public schools and bears its own costs.

Each of those CMOs depends upon philanthropy to make up the difference between state and local tuition payments and its costs. Virginia philanthropies would need to step up to help. I don’t anticipate that being an issue.

These organizations run astonishingly successful public schools. They take poor kids, special-ed kids, English learners, all kids. Ninety-four percent of S/A scholars in NYC are minorities. Nearly 90% are economically disadvantaged. Eight percent are homeless.

Those with custody — parents, parent, grandparents, guardians, foster parents — are asked to apply for their children. The only thing asked is that they commit to supporting the children at home and preparing them for school. Students will wear uniforms.

Every kid with that support commitment will be accepted up to the limit of the charter’s facility capacity. There are waiting lists for every S/A school in New York. Lotteries are held for openings.

The CMO will hire and pay its own principals and teachers. It trains them on its teaching methods. It will comply with state laws and regulations but must be independent of the local school board and division superintendent.

Existing school buildings are used to start, with separate entrances and facilities for charter school and regular school students. Not every parent will apply for their child. Those kids will continue to be taught by the school division.

From day one, the charter schools would establish dignified, respectful learning and teaching environments in the existing buildings with different entrances, as S/A has done in New York City.

The students will be addressed and treated as scholars. They will be proud of their schools, and more importantly proud of themselves.

They will achieve at the highest levels, as they have done in New York City neighborhoods every bit as tough or tougher than those in Richmond and Petersburg.

Students who turn out to be repeatedly non-compliant with either school type rules for comportment should continue as now to be placed in alternative education programs in accordance with Code of Virginia § 22.1-254. They should not be moved from the charter schools to the non-charter schools.

I have studied Success Academy and KIPP intensely for years. Their startup costs average about $1 million.

If they agree to take on the challenge.

Charter Period. One feature attractive to municipalities is that if one of the CMOs accepts the challenge, it will move slowly, as it must, raising its own students from kindergarten and first grade.

If it is seen not to work after an agreed upon multi-year charter, say five years, the charter can be revoked, like any charter.

Challenge. That is a potential Plan A.

I recommend it to Petersburg for consideration. Petersburg can take advantage of its partnership with the Governor and his administration to ask for state support over the next year in investigating whether Plan A will be viable in that city.

It is a well-proven solution. If Petersburg decides to go with it, the state and city can prepare the enabling legislation for next year.

Petersburg will consider Plan B as well. I am not sure what Plan B is, but whatever it is, the city will assess whatever empirical evidence there may be that it will work.

Petersburg can pick the one that is most likely to succeed. For the students.

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26 responses to “Why Aren’t Children Learning in Petersburg Public Schools?”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    The casino planned for Petersburg will solve all the educational issues. Lol.

    1. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
      Ronnie Chappell

      Perhaps they could add a counting to “21” module to every math class in grades k-12.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      No it will not solve any of the city’s biggest challenges. So sad.

  2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “Cities must not let their schools continue doing what they have been doing in the way that they have been doing it….

    I recommend the City of Petersburg carefully explore progressing slowly to separate its public school system over time into two parts:

    That is what New York City and hundreds of other municipalities in America have done.”

    Why divide it in two? Why not just convert all the Petersburg public schools to CMOs? Do you need to classes of citizens for this scheme to work or something?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Because the CMOs will only accept kids whose parents agree to support the system. It is a serious commitment. Not nearly every parent will make it.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        So the public school itself is not improved and there is further division in urban society by those who economically can afford to provide the parental involvement and those who can not. In fact, you seem to be giving up on the most severely economically disadvantaged population in our urban schools.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          Complete misunderstanding of what I wrote.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            Not at all… it may not be your intent but it is the logical conclusion of your suggestion. Clearly not a concern…

        2. disqus_VYLI8FviCA Avatar

          Yup, so if everyone cannot rise to the opportunity, let’s make sure no one has the chance. That way everyone sucks as close to equally as possible. Classic lefty mentality.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            Classic, rightwing segregationist mentality☝️

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m not in major disagreement with Sherlocks proposal and he actually does include shutting down Charters that don’t perform.

    He also has got it right about the kids (not just black) if they come from a home where the parents are not well-educated themselves, don’t really “value” education and often are on the economic margins. In addition, because such folks don’t compete well for good career-level jobs with benefits that most folks highly value and will try to keep that job, folks on the other end work at crappy low-paying jobs and can and do get laid off and their kids live in that same chaos.

    Success attracts and REQUIRES parents who value education and who will support their children to keep them in the Academies. Not all of them make it, they do have numbers of “dropouts”. Beyond that, not every parent in those circumstances will even try to get their kids into a
    Charter and those kids will stay in public school only because of the law AND those terrible SOL scores will
    still exist because those kids without parental support and without schools and teachers specifically trained to teach those kids, those kid will be no better off even with Charters and will end up the same even with the availability of charters.

    So charters are not going to fix all of it AND those kids who do not attend Charters and “fail” will grow up like their parents to have kids of their own born to the same circumstances of under-educated parents living in poverty and chaos.

    We just need to NOT claim that Charters as currently “done” will “fix” the problem. It will help SOME but others
    will not be unless public schools do something more/different for those kids that won’t be going to Charters.

  4. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    Would like to see charter school options available across the state. And agree that throwing money at the problem and not changing how things are done will just lead to more failure.

    Another option would be to starting holding back kids who can’t hit reading and writing benchmarks in grades k-3. It’s a lot easier to hold a third grader or first grader back than a middle schooler.

    I’d also begin to pay bonuses to K-3 teachers who meet high benchmarks for reading and writing. Meet the benchmarks — verified by independent testing – and move 90 percent of your class to the next grade and you collect $1,000 per student for those who can read and write at grade level. Make clear what teachers are supposed to accomplish and incentivize them to accomplish it.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      There are a lot of things that can be done once the strategic direction is established.

      The school divisions would still need to educate those kids whose parents would not agree to the Charter rules. Those teachers and systems would still need to work.

  5. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Near and dear to my heart is the Petersburg dilemma. You were nice. Charters are needed, but not subtly changing the system overtime. They have had almost 25 years and millions of extra dollars and the children suffer. Another generation of poverty.

    One of the problems is that Charter schools would do better. That makes the school system and many teachers look worse.

    I have always said: If I have a brain tumor, I am not going to a dentist.

    Simple: Charter schools are like neurosurgeons to those who need them. Certain operators specialize in working with students in poverty.

    As a resident of this city, we need specialists for the sake of our kids.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      It has to be relatively slow and controlled so that they can raise students in the system, Katherine. Taking a sixth grader with those SOL scores and trying to transition them to a S/A system is so unlikely to work that it is not worth the effort.

      I have a good working relationship with the leadership of S/A, and I think that would be their position. But they have agreed to consult with the Commonwealth pro bono, so they would make that call.

      1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
        Kathleen Smith

        I always said, let me have the kids at two or three. They will make it with no problems by grade 3 and beyond.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Two-term Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. That’s a whole congressional district… much bigger than Petersburg.

  7. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    It won’t matter how much money you throw at the schools until we acknowledge one basic fact.
    The problem is broken homes. Boys growing up without the father in the house are much much much more likely to have bad outcomes. That is simple truth.
    Next, we need to have real school choice. Vouchers. I will bet anyone a school organized as a Christian school, teaching from a Christian worldview, with discipline standards enforced would far outperform. All races would benefit. And it would take Jews and Muslims – in fact – Jews and Muslims would want their kids to go there because of standards. Even “Asians” (Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, whatever) would want to go. Success works. So do expectations and standards. And, no, Larry – it is not “establishment” of religion. It is a school – the current schools do teach from an “established” religion of secular humanism. How are they doing?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Walter, Where have you been dude?

      So you want the non-public schools to teach religion, so we’d have to have different schools for different religions also?

      Or you’d expect a hindu or a muslim to attend a school that was 90% Christian?

      I think you’re only partially right about “broken” families.

      About half of marriages end in divorce.
      Not all those kids fail. A lot also depends on the educational attainment and economic circumstances of the parents.

      Sad to say that even well-educated folks end up with “broken families”.

      So we can have two professionals part company yet the kids still do well in school, may even go to private school, have tutors and mom/dad are college educated so the kid gets help from whatever one is left with the kids and often home at night from the career job.

      Contrast that with a single mom who barely has a high school education and can hardly afford food and shelter even after working long hours for minimum wage and no benefits.

      Poverty plays a HUGE role in this.

      I bet you agree, right?

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        Broken families play a huge role in poverty.
        I want vouchers. And I would also accept a public school organized as explicitly Christian as a “choice.”
        The success formula – graduate high school, get a job, get married, have kids. 80% chance of being happily middle class.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Ah. So how about the other way around – that poverty and a poor education can cause broken families?

          What if you never got a decent high school education to start with, get married have kids… live in poverty?

          Talking about the kids who grow up in one parent broken families… and barely make it through high school.

          How to break this cycle.

          1. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            People have agency. Before the government decided to “help” so much, Blacks had achieved a decent middle class, even with illegitimacy around 20%. After all the “help,” illegitimacy is around 70% and the social fabric is far worse. The family is the best building block of society. This isn’t that hard to acknowledge. It might be hard to do – to recapture – but we are kidding ourselves not to.

  8. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Your proposal is a fine one. I agree something different must be one. However, as we have discussed many times, under the Virginia constitution, your proposal is feasible only if the School Board would agree. One would like to think that the School Board would have the best interests of the children at heart and be willing to try something like this. I have seen no indication that will be happening.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      There’s at least one school district in Virginia where Conservatives have taken the majority so it’s possible in their case they may agree to charters. Rumors that they are indeed talking that way internally.

      Some of the BOS kids already go to private school.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      The best hope is that after a favorable state assessment the mayor rallies the people behind it and pressures the school board. We’ll see.

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