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Richmond public schools
Dissatisfied with current rezoning proposals, Carver Elementary community members push for magnet school

As the Richmond Public Schools district moves forward with citywide rezoning, George W. Carver Elementary School leaders want to turn the struggling school into a magnet — a distinction that would mean themed classes and — they hope — more money.

The idea presents an alternative to a controversial proposal that would see the school, where 98% of students are of students of color, paired with Mary Munford, the system’s whitest and highest-achieving elementary school, in an effort to boost diversity. The option is only one of four under consideration by the administration and a committee tasked with reviewing potential new school zones.

Supporters of the plan to cultivate a special focus on the arts and sciences at Carver say they welcome change, but want the school system to invest more in the schools as they currently are.

“It would be a bigger draw to Carver,” said Jerome Legions, president of the Carver Civic Association and the leader of the magnet school push. “In my mind the solution is simple: Resources first.”

One year removed from a cheating scandal that saw the federal education department strip a coveted National Blue Ribbon distinction from the West Leigh Street school, Carver plummeted from third-highest achieving elementary school in the district to second-worst.

In this year’s testing, just 1 in 5 students passed the state’s science tests, and 1 in 3 passed in reading. Fewer than 1 in 4 passed in history, and about 1 in 3 passed in math. The school, along with others in Virginia, will find out Thursday how it meets the state’s accreditation standards.

“We definitely need to do something different at Carver,” said Deborah Corliss, the president of the Embrace Carver Elementary Foundation, a group formed this summer to help the school. “We need to do some big, bold things, and I think Carver would be a perfect place to try something big and bold.”

Nearly a third of magnet schools across the U.S. are focused on science, technology, engineering and math, according to Magnet Schools of America, a Washington-based nonprofit. More than half (51%) of the 4,340 magnets in the U.S. are elementary schools, according to the organization. The Virginia Department of Education could not immediately provide a list of all the magnet schools in the state.

Legions said the roughly 430 students who currently attend Carver, which pulls from Gilpin Court, the city’s largest public housing community, would still be zoned for the school. He envisions a weighted, diversity-focused lottery to fill the school, which has the capacity for 700 students.

Generally speaking, localities fund magnet schools, according to Magnet Schools of America. They get more money — from the government and through private donations — than traditional public schools to maintain their specialized programs. The federal government awards grants for the schools through the Magnet Schools Assistance Program.

CodeRVA, a regional magnet high school in Richmond focused on computer science, received a $6 million federal grant in 2017, for example. It was the first school in the state to receive the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant.

“It takes some money to do it well because you’ve got to provide enough to get the programming into place and to teach teachers and leaders around it,” said Virginia Commonwealth University education professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley. “That doesn’t all have to come from the school system. You can develop public-private partnerships.”

Corliss said the money the city school system would spend transporting children to a combined school zone should go to improve schools such as Carver — giving the school an additional assistant principal and adding math and reading specialists, among other things that would help with the magnet idea.

Superintendent Jason Kamras’ administration is scheduled to release cost estimates for the pairing proposals on Oct. 3.

Scott Barlow, who represents Carver on the School Board, endorsed changing the school’s academic focus.

“I think that such a program could infuse much-needed resources and encourage diversity of the student population such as we see at Binford,” said Barlow, referencing the Fan District middle school where learning is centered on the arts. “I’ve shared these feelings with the administration and expect that the [School Board] will be discussing the district’s specialty school plans further in the coming weeks. Carver should be at the top of the list when considering such programs.”

Asked about the idea, Kamras pointed to the school system’s five-year strategic plan, which calls for turning middle and high schools into schools that focus on such topics as biology and engineering.

“We need to look at the whole school system,” he said. “Everybody would love to have a specialty program at their school. This is something we’ll be discussing over the fall with the School Board about — where, when, how to sequence these things, so that we wind up with a really thoughtful set of programming in the school system and not random upstarts that aren’t supported and aren’t effective over the long haul.”

School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said turning Carver into a magnet is a discussion worth having and should be done by the special committee the School Board appointed to review rezoning proposals.

In one of the current proposals, Carver would be combined with Munford to form the “Hill Cluster” — essentially a feeder pattern that sends students to Munford for kindergarten and first grade, Carver for second through fourth and Albert Hill Middle School for fifth through eighth.

The option would improve Munford’s student diversity from a 77% white population now to 52% white, according to data from Ohio-based consultant Cropper GIS.

Of the three options that involve combining school zones, some rezoning committee members said Thursday that the Munford-Carver plan makes the most sense.

“Though [that option] is still very controversial, at least all of the school communities will move up together,” said Kelley Ryan, a 2nd District appointee to the committee.

Legions and Corliss said they’re against pairing schools together. So is a new advocacy group, calling itself “Revitalize RPS,” which launched last week to ask the school system to focus on alleviating overcrowding and increasing resources first.

In a statement, the group of parents said it supports the magnet school idea.

Kim Bridges, a VCU education professor, said rezoning and school choice options, such as magnet schools, can work together.

“It doesn’t always have to be an either/or,” she said. “They can complement one another.”

Siegel-Hawley said turning Carver into a magnet could help change the public perception of the school.

“Segregation operates through stigma. The schools of concentrated poverty are stigmatized as bad, and Carver, because of the cheating, is further stigmatized,” Siegel-Hawley said. “The idea of a magnet where the school develops a new reputation and overcomes this stigma because there’s new programming and new leadership, that changes how people talk and think about the school.”

Siegel-Hawley and Bridges pointed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools as an example of a school system using magnet programs and school pairing as a way to desegregate schools.

Like the current plans in Richmond, Charlotte-Mecklenburg saw parents protest the decision to combine school zones.

Oktoberfest raises money for 100-year-old Saint Benedict School

Brooks Vondersmith and Hattie Custer, 4 and 5, respectively, looked the part of young Hansel and Gretel as they noshed on giant pretzels before strolling down Belmont Street — hand in hand — behind Saint Benedict Catholic Church on Sunday afternoon. They joined the thousands of others who were soaking up both the hot sun and German culture at Oktoberfest, the three-day festival put on by the church to benefit Catholic schools.

Patrons hoisted steins filled with any of the nearly 50 varieties of beer on site while also juggling containers filled with German potato salad, apple strudels, bratwurst and sweet and sour red cabbage. German dancers entertained under the huge bierhalle tent and vendors lined the street, selling everything from jewelry to German-inspired baked goods.

In all, about 50,000 people were expected throughout the weekend — many of them with lifelong affiliations to the school and the church.

The Saint Benedict Catholic School celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Serving children in junior kindergarten through eighth grade, the parochial school’s roots in Richmond started much earlier with the St. Mary School, which was run within a convent and by the late 1800s, enrolled more than 200 students.

Today, festival proceeds largely help with tuition assistance and scholarships for the school, as well as Benedictine and St. Gertrude High School.

Festival volunteers Gina Alexander and Helen Lambert were St. Benedict students — and they counted off the siblings and children and grandchildren who followed.

They recalled a place that nurtured their souls as well as their minds, and joked about the stern nuns who taught the classes and the stress of report card day.

More than just a quality education, it’s “the sense of community that the school brings,” Lambert said. “I’m still in touch with some of my friends — we’re lifelong friends.”

Alexander echoed Lambert, saying that “there’s nothing like the camaraderie [and] even if you haven’t seen them in five years, 10 years, you just fall back in,” because of those shared experiences.

She added: “Old friends are the best friends.”

PHOTOS: Oktoberfest

Developer moves ahead with building Chesterfield warehouse, supported by tax break

Construction of a 321,000-square-foot warehouse is underway at a southeast Chesterfield site after the developer secured a county tax break for the project.

Devon USA this month started work on a third warehouse at the James River Logistics Center off Bellwood Road, where it is still seeking one or more tenants for the warehouse and distribution facility.

Possible tenants for the new facility include logistics companies, manufacturers and retailers, said Ed Mitchell, managing director for Devon.

“It’s a pretty wide range of tenants that could take this space,” Mitchell said of the new facility that’s being built next to two other warehouses used by DuPont.

Devon is spending about $10 million to construct the initial shell building, but Mitchell added the ultimate cost could be more than $15 million, depending on who leases the site and what their needs are. Mitchell said the site could be leased to a single tenant or by multiple companies.

Devon, which had already done extensive site work on the property, had been content to simply wait until a tenant was lined up before starting construction, Mitchell said. But a recently approved tax incentive alleviated the need to foot additional county property taxes generated by the new building as they wait for it to fill up, he said.

The Board of Supervisors in late August approved a grant agreement with Devon providing the company an annual refund on the taxes generated by the increased assessment on the new building. That incentive provides that tax refund for three years or until the building is 75% leased.

“The county incentive was instrumental in making the decision to proceed with vertical construction even though no tenant was yet in place,” Mitchell wrote in an email.

Garrett Hart, director of the Chesterfield Economic Development Authority, said Thursday that based on the county’s real estate tax rate of 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, if the building is assessed at $10 million, the refund back to Devon could amount to about $95,000 a year.

If the warehouse is leased out quickly, the company will not get any tax break. Mitchell said his company hopes to finish the building quickly and have it ready in the first quarter of next year.

“It would be anywhere from zero to $300,000,” Hart said of the ultimate size of the refund over the course of three years.

Devon built a similar warehouse and distribution facility in Ashland in 2017, a facility it leased to the online retailer Amazon.

Hart told supervisors in a written report last month that the James River Logistics Center project helps address a missing piece in the county’s economic development puzzle, adding that there is a dearth of existing industrial buildings available for lease or sale. That situation has meant that several projects, along with the jobs and investment that come with them, slipped away to other localities, Hart wrote.

Industrial buildings constructed in neighboring localities have been leased before their construction was complete, said Hart, adding that high demand is expected to lead to the new James River Logistics Center warehouse being quickly leased.

Hart said Thursday that county officials have been getting calls asking for already-built industrial buildings, adding that the EDA has had none to show to prospective companies looking to locate in Chesterfield.

“We have an extreme shortage of existing industrial buildings,” he said.

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Virginia attorney general says habitual drunkard law should not be enforced

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has issued an opinion that commonwealth’s attorneys may no longer seek to have someone declared as a “habitual drunkard” and bar them from possessing alcohol.

The opinion stems from a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in July that declared Virginia’s habitual drunkard law unconstitutional. The law allows a judge to civilly find someone to be a “habitual drunkard” who could be criminally prosecuted for possessing or consuming alcohol, or attempting to do so.

Richmond’s interim Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette Wallace McEachin asked Herring for an advisory opinion on whether prosecutors should revise their practices regarding such prosecutions in light of the appeals court ruling.

“It is my opinion that commonwealth’s attorneys may no longer seek new interdictions, criminal penalties or criminal enhancements premised on the person being ‘an habitual drunkard,’” concluded Herring in his three-page, Sept. 13 opinion.

The attorney general also instructed prosecutors to go back and cancel existing habitual drunkard orders. Herring had already said last month that he would not appeal the Richmond-based appeals court ruling, saying in a prepared statement that the General Assembly should have taken the law off the books long ago.

Elaine Poon, with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville and one of the lawyers who opposed the law, said her group was pleased with Herring’s opinion.

“After more than three years of litigating, the individuals affected by the punitive and inhumane interdiction law, which allowed prosecutors to label people ‘habitual drunkards’ and subject them to constant threat of incarceration for their illness, are beginning to see relief,” Poon wrote in an email.

“Virginia must address the underlying causes of homelessness and addiction, not criminalize them, and this is a good first step,” she added.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and a pro bono Washington law firm brought the class-action suit, alleging the law violates constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection under the law and due process.

University of Virginia's data science school gets state approval

The University of Virginia has received state clearance for its data science school.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia last week gave final approval to the creation of UVA’s School of Data Science, eight months after the Charlottesville university received a $120 million donation for the creation for the school.

“I am delighted that the School of Data Science has cleared its final hurdle and can officially move forward,” said UVA President Jim Ryan in a statement. “I want to thank the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for sharing our excitement in this proposal, and Phil Bourne and his team at the Data Science Institute for their hard work.”

The university announced in January plans to open a School of Data Science in what will be UVA’s first new school since 2007 and its 12th in total. The majority of the funding is coming from a $120 million donation from the Charlottesville-based Quantitative Foundation, the largest private gift in UVA history.

“This is a historic moment for the University of Virginia and for the field of data science,” said Provost Elizabeth Magill. “The school is coming online at a time when the amount of available data in the world is more than doubling every two years, and there is soaring demand for qualified data scientists who can analyze and interpret vast amounts of data.”

Magill added: “A new school will catalyze research on daunting societal challenges and point the way toward their solutions. It will also allow us to prepare students to become responsible and creative leaders who are capable of using data science in a wide range of fields.”

Data Science Institute Director Philip E. Bourne has been appointed dean of the school.

UVA said in January that it plans for the new school to have a Ph.D. program, undergraduate programs in data science and data science certificates. The university also plans to expand its existing on-campus and online master’s program in data science.

“We envision the new School of Data Science at UVA as a ‘school without walls,’” Bourne said. “In its very structure and foundation, we will build collaborative and interdisciplinary opportunities through partnerships and physical spaces for shared research and education programs. The new school will combine a focus on research, education and service to build bridges across academic, geographic, commercial and cultural boundaries using responsible, open data science.”

The university will celebrate the official launch of the school at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Dell 1 building on Central Grounds.