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A look back at Richmond Public Schools in 2019

More administrative and academic issues. A contentious rezoning process. National Teacher of the Year.

It was a busy year. Richmond Public Schools began implementing a five-year turnaround plan, which includes drawing new school zones for city schools and a drastic shakeup of how middle and high schools operate. The School Board, which grew more fractured heading into the final year of members’ four-year terms, will hold its first 2020 meeting Jan. 6 and will appoint its leadership for the coming year.

Before then, though, here’s a look back — in no particular order — at the board and RPS in 2019.

Rezoning

No school pairing is coming to Richmond.

After a year filled with debate and 59 community meetings, the School Board chose not to merge majority-white and majority-black school zones with the goal of improving diversity. Instead, the body redrew a boundary changed in 2013 and left other zones proposed to be merged as-is.

The proposals, first unveiled in June, called for three-way school pairing in the North Side and West End. Students would have gone to Linwood Holton Elementary for third through fifth grades, while Ginter Park and Barack Obama elementary schools would have served students in kindergarten through second grade.

Mary Munford Elementary would have had students in third through fifth grades, and students would have attended George W. Carver Elementary for kindergarten through second grade. Fox and John B. Cary elementary schools also would have been combined, with students going to Fox for kindergarten through third grade and Cary for fourth and fifth grades.

In another proposal, students would have gone to Munford through second grade and then Cary for third through fifth grades.

The idea controlled almost every meeting as the community debated how it should go about rectifying the fact that about 3 in 4 city schools are what researchers define as “intensely segregated,” meaning less than 10% of the student body is white.

“Resources don’t matter as much as relationships, and resources don’t matter as much as humanity,” said Kim Gomez, a 1st District parent, during one of four formal public hearings the board hosted. “This is the opportunity [to truly integrate]. It doesn’t come every day, and you guys can do it.”

The main opposition voiced was over the cost, which the RPS administration estimated in October to be between $617,500 and $842,500 per school pairing, and the district’s ability to implement pairing, especially as it tries to turn around a school division in which less than half of 44 schools meet the state’s full accreditation standards.

“Straight rezoning doesn’t cost any money,” a Munford parent wrote in a public feedback form that collected much of the opinion from across the city. “The money should be spent on the 20+ unaccredited schools in RPS, air conditioning, heating, building repairs. … I think it would be a gross misappropriation of public money for the school board to spend that kind of money on pairing.”

In other parts of the city, new boundaries were drawn to fill a rebuilt, 1,000-student E.S.H. Greene Elementary; a rebuilt, 750-student George Mason Elementary; and a new, 1,500-student middle school on Hull Street Road. Carver Elementary and Bellevue Elementary have also been tapped to be become magnet schools.

The plans approved by the board take effect at the start of the 2020-21 school year and don’t close any schools.

Teacher recognition

Richmond is officially home to the country’s best teacher.

Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher inside the city’s juvenile detention center, on April 24 was named the National Teacher of the Year on “CBS This Morning.” He became the first teacher ever from Richmond Public Schools and just the third in Virginia history to claim the title.

“It means my students have an advocate who is going to tell their stories and fight for the resources they need to be successful,” Robinson said of winning the award. “I didn’t get into [teaching] for this. I just got into it to help students and fight for them.

“Winning this award means I now have a big stage to fight for my students and what they need.”

The King William County native has spent the eight months since winning the award traveling the country advocating for more teachers of color in U.S. schools.

While not originally scheduled to do so, he met with President Donald Trump in an Oval Office meeting.

Robinson was also named the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Person of the Year on Dec. 16 alongside author Meg Medina.

The 41-year-old wasn’t the only Richmond teacher on the national stage.

Robert Dunham, who taught at George W. Carver Elementary School last year and is now at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in September. In the spring, Dunham had brought his hair clippers to school in case some of his students needed a haircut before their “moving on” ceremony, a graduation from fifth grade to sixth grade.

A picture of him giving haircuts to students went viral, leading to his appearance on the popular daytime talk show. On the show, Ellen DeGeneres surprised Dunham with $10,000 to pay off his car and an additional $10,000 toward a trip to Disney World.

Dunham has since started a nonprofit, Be the Change RVA, that partners with local barbershops to give free haircuts to students.

School construction

Construction continues on three new schools that are set to open in the fall of 2020.

The schools — George Mason Elementary, E.S.H. Greene Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road — are being built using money raised through an increase to the city’s meals tax in 2018. The increase — from 6% to 7.5%, in addition to state tax — generated enough money for the city to take out $150 million in bonds.

While initial estimates showed the construction of the three new schools would cost $110 million, the city is now looking at a $146 million bill.

“The reality is those numbers we had initially were just wrong and the numbers we have now reflect the true cost of building these schools in 2019 in Richmond, and my commitment is to make sure that we update the entire facilities plan accordingly,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said in March about the initial estimates that were compiled by former interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz. Kranz has stood by his estimates.

Kamras added: “This is not a case of cost overruns or mismanagement or anything of that nature. We started with bad numbers and now we have real numbers.”

Construction costs increased over the past two years and the required environmental certification has added costs, among other factors, the group overseeing the construction said in justifying why it is costing more than originally projected.

A group of local contractors said the costs are higher because the city didn’t use a competitive sealed bidding process, something city officials have vehemently rebutted.

All three schools are still on track to open for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

The construction of the new George Mason Elementary, though, hit a speed bump with the city’s historic preservation body.

While the school system wants to demolish the entirety of the current school, which is often labeled the worst school facility in Richmond, the Commission of Architectural Review ruled in November that RPS must preserve the façade of the part of the school that was built in 1922.

The district is appealing the ruling to the City Council.

School names

The three new schools are all set to open with new names.

The School Board in September voted 8-1 that it intended to rename Mason, Greene and the new middle school, which is replacing the current Elkhardt-Thompson Middle.

“Changing a name is but a symbol,” Kamras said at the time. “But symbols matter, especially today when so many Americans of so many backgrounds feel increasingly under attack.”

George Mason Elementary was named for the slave-owning author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as a basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights. He owned approximately 100 slaves throughout his life, according to the website for Gunston Hall, Mason’s 18th-century mansion near the Potomac River.

Greene was named for a former Chesterfield County teacher, principal and superintendent. Thompson Middle was named for a Chesterfield schools superintendent before being combined with Elkhardt Middle four years ago because of facilities issues. The school is being rebuilt on the former Elkhardt site on Hull Street Road.

The schools are among at least three in the city named for Confederates, five for slave owners and five for Chesterfield educators.

Another school, Amelia Street School, adopted Thirteen Acres School in 2019, and the school system is looking for a new name for the combined school.

A vote on new names is scheduled for early 2019.

Principal turnover

The churn of principals in the city school system continued for the third straight year.

The district replaced principals at 10 schools after the school leaders were put on improvement plans. New principals, including the 10 replacements for those ousted, were announced in June.

“As with everything in life, leadership is critical. Our kids, but also our teachers, need great leaders who can lead with love,” Kamras said at the time. “Leading with love is having high expectations for kids. Leading with love means you care about the whole child. Leading with love means it’s about social justice and changing lives for kids.

“We just want to make sure that every Richmond public school has a leader who leads with love.”

The schools with new principals this school year are Bellevue Elementary, Blackwell Elementary, Fairfield Court Elementary, George Mason Elementary, Ginter Park Elementary, George Wythe High, E.S.H. Greene Elementary, Henderson Middle, John Marshall High, Overby-Sheppard Elementary, Richmond Community and Thomas Jefferson High.

Students at George Wythe High walked out of school one day in April in protest of the ouster of their principal, Reva Green.

Budget cuts

The schools budget now in effect eliminated a net total of 49 central office jobs.

The budget, adopted by the School Board in June, eliminated 74 jobs downtown while adding 25 for a net of 49, or a fifth of what it had before the cuts. The cuts were part of a broader $13 million slashing that allowed the money the district got from the city to fund a teacher raise and the second year of the RPS strategic plan.

The board approved the budget in February without revealing which jobs would be cut. Those positions were released in early March, roles that included people who enforce attendance and analyze student test scores.

The budget also cut funding for the MathScience Innovation Center, an action Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties also took. The center was established in 1966 with federal grant money by the superintendents of six school districts to ensure students in the region had equal access to math and science education.

The center has cut half its full-time staff and shuttered its popular aquarium, among other changes, as it deals with the budget cuts.

Graduation rate

The city school system retained the lowest graduation rate in the state in 2019, with just 7 in 10 city seniors finishing high school on time last school year. In 2018, 3 in 4 students graduated on time.

The drop was foreshadowed months before the Virginia Department of Education’s October data release.

The RPS administration told the School Board in May that for an unknown number of years, educators in the city school system were rubber-stamping student work, choosing to use an alternative test instead of giving students the common state test, and putting students on individualized education programs to circumvent state graduation requirements. All of those practices inflated the graduation rate.

Nearly 1 in 4 students who would have graduated this year dropped out of school, according to state data.

Diversity and inclusion

RPS made several changes this year to try to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

The district started requiring gender-neutral caps and gowns this year, ending the decades-long practice of having separate colors for men and women. The move was made, the superintendent said, to make sure every student feels welcome at graduation.

“We want to make sure our transgender and nonbinary students don’t have to suffer the indignity of being forced to express their gender in a manner contrary to their identity,” Kamras said. “Graduation should be a day of joy and celebration — not discrimination.”

Chesterfield County is the only other school system in the area that has single-color graduation attire. Hanover County leaves it to schools to decide, while Henrico County has two colors across its schools.

In June, the School Board approved a new Student Code of Responsible Ethics that says students “must not be kept out of activities because of gender (except as allowed under Title IX), color, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” while also saying that the enforcement of the school district’s dress code should be consistent for all students, no matter their sexual orientation or gender expression, among other things.

“Our LGBTQ+ youth deserve to feel affirmed, respected and supported, and these policies help set the tone for this culture across the district,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Liz Doerr said.

The district is planning on gender-neutral bathrooms across the city starting in 2020-21.

English learner students

RPS continues to struggle serving students learning English.

The school district revealed in July that it didn’t properly count more than 1 in 4 students who speak little to no English. The error cost RPS hundreds of thousands of dollars and increased the workload of the district’s English as a second language teachers.

“Shame on us,” School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said. “It’s just another issue that we must and we will address. We’ve done a disservice to our children. It’s unacceptable.”

The undercounting meant the district didn’t receive money it qualified for from the state, which could have paid for the type of teachers and resources the district has pushed for in the past. The uncounted students would still get help from ESL teachers, which resulted in teachers with up to 40 students in a class when the district could have had money to hire more teachers.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” said Tori Pierson, an ESL teacher at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School.

Richmond’s English-learning student population has climbed significantly over the past 10 years, rising from 879 in the 2009-10 school year to 3,184 this year, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.

Carver aftermath

Fallout over the cheating scandal at Carver Elementary School continued in 2019.

Three former George W. Carver Elementary School teachers — Betty Alexis, Stephanie Burgess and Chireda Cotman — filed complaints in federal court in July accusing Kamras and the board of defaming them and violating their due process rights. A fourth former Carver teacher, Troy Johnson, filed a similar suit in August.

Kamras and the city School Board have asked the judge in the case to dismiss the suits.

The four were all teachers at Carver last year when a state investigation found a cheating ring at the school had improperly helped students on state tests. Some teachers would help students if they raised their hands or would give indications to students of whether items were correct or incorrect, among other things, according to the Virginia Department of Education report.

Carver had been a National Blue Ribbon school for its strong performance on state accountability tests, but the U.S. Department of Education rescinded the school’s Blue Ribbon status because of the cheating scandal last year.

In 2019, just 1 in 5 students at the Leigh Street School 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, making Carver the second-lowest-performing elementary school in the city.

The school system, though, will begin work in 2020 to implement a specialty curriculum at Carver in hopes of, like the district as a whole, turning it around.


BOB BROWN/Times-dispatch  

A woman enjoyed the rare 70-degree weather on Monday as she threw breadcrumbs into the air near Fountain Lake in Richmond’s Byrd Park. The high of 73 degrees was a record for Dec. 30. For a look back at Richmond’s weather this year, see RTD meteorologist John Boyer’s story on Page A14.


Local
Chesterfield woman uses her background to her advantage as legal advocate — 'She’s passionate for the underdog'

BeKura Shabazz has always wanted to be a lawyer.

“I was like 5 years old and I told my mom, ‘I’m going to be an attorney when I grow up and I’m going to help people,’” said Shabazz, now 40, of Chesterfield County, in a recent interview.

It didn’t work out, she said — yet.

At 18, she was convicted of identity theft, a misdemeanor, after a friend she was with was caught with some credit cards the friend had taken from her grandmother, Shabazz said.

“I was convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, which basically just takes you out of the game when it comes to jobs,” Shabazz said. “Right now, a crime of moral turpitude is worse than murder. Because it says that you are a liar and a thief and you will never, ever be able to be redeemed from that.”

She was not initially told about the state’s first offender program, which allows for dismissal of first offenses for some crimes once some restitution or rehabilitation takes place. She found out about it much later in life.

“That could have changed everything,” she said.

Shabazz now works as a legal advocate, not only on behalf of clients accused of crimes, but also to reform a criminal justice system that she believes consistently falls short of justice, especially in cases in which people of color are accused. She runs First Alliance Consulting, is the president of the Criminal Injustice Reform Network, is founder of Mothers Against Mandatory Minimums, is the criminal justice chair of the Chesterfield NAACP, sits on the board of directors of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, and chairs the social justice and health disparities section of Green New Deal VA.

After that first charge, she was unable to find a job even though she was smart and hard-working. She called the conviction a scarlet letter. The Newport News native moved to North Carolina in hopes of finding better opportunities.

But Shabazz, a mother of four biological children and four others from a previous marriage, said she had such difficulty making ends meet that she got involved in white-collar crime. Her oldest son is disabled and was frequently sick, making it harder for her to work a 9-to-5 job.

“Trying to get out of that life, but not being able to find a job that I could be gainfully employed — gainfully, with a living wage — was impossible. Nobody wanted to give me a chance because of that first charge. That kept me in that arena of committing crimes longer than I expected.”

She’s not ashamed of her past. She knows the system, inside and out, and she’s put it to work for her and her clients.

Paul Taylor, an advocate for returning citizens who recently have been released from jail or prison, said that following his release in 2017, everywhere he went, he kept hearing about Shabazz and her advocacy work.

“What I noticed about BeKura is that she’s passionate for the underdog,” said Taylor, who runs a basketball league for young men in Richmond. “She’ll jump into the fight — no matter how big the other dog is. She’s a movement by herself. She does her research. She definitely knows what she speaks.”

Shabazz and Taylor said they’re part of a new generation of returning citizens who want to help fix the system they came up through.

“BeKura, and myself, and a lot of other advocates, we got our degrees from lived experience — not books. We learned from the inside out,” he said.

That’s why her reputation is everything, Shabazz said. She said a recent reporting error in the Richmond Times-Dispatch nearly jeopardized that, by referring to her as a repeat felon even though she has never been convicted of a felony.

“Right now, with criminal justice reform in the state, we’re trying to be very honest about the things we have done in order to redeem ourselves back into society,” she said. “And that is a beautiful thing, because for so long, I was spun out into a depression about the things I had done, and society would not allow me to be who I was and wouldn’t allow me to tell that truth about my life. To hold that in and try to hide that part, was traumatic for me.”

“Now, being able to come out and live in my truth and be honest, it means a lot. I don’t want that to be tarnished,” she said. “Credibility is everything, especially when you’ve already been charged with a crime of moral turpitude. I just want people to trust what I say and trust when I show up.”

Currently, she’s working on the case of Antonio L. Biggs, who has been charged with rape in Hanover County. Neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney originally hired on the case will work with her, Shabazz said.

Biggs’ mother, Kisha Biggs, who grew up in Newport News with Shabazz, hired her to look into her son’s case. As a legal advocate, Shabazz can’t provide any legal advice. She describes her role as a watchdog for due process violations on the part of the system, including the prosecutor, the judge, any witnesses, the defense attorney and the defendant himself.

But she’s also there to help explain the process to defendants and their families, because attorneys don’t necessarily have or take the time, as was the case when she was first charged.

Kisha Biggs said they would be lost without Shabazz.

“Everything is just happening,” she said. “No one tells us anything or explains anything. We didn’t know our rights or what is right and wrong. We’ve never went through this before.”

Alison Linas, the assistant commonwealth’s attorney prosecuting the case, filed a motion prohibiting “extrajudicial statements” by the “defendant and his agents,” saying that Shabazz’s widely shared Facebook posts about the case could interfere with selecting an impartial jury and endanger witnesses. Although Hanover Circuit Judge Theodore J. Markow had earlier ordered that the “defense advocate” have no contact with the witnesses in the case, he refused to hold a hearing on Linas’ motion.

Shabazz fears that if she’s removed from the case, her client’s rights will continue to be violated. Biggs has been locked up for over a year, and his initial attorney was removed a few days before a trial was supposed to start only after Biggs and his mother wrote a letter to the judge saying the attorney was ineffective. She also worries about transparency during a proceeding that is supposed to be open to public scrutiny.

“That’s why it’s so important for the work that I am doing,” Shabazz said. “You’re not going to keep me quiet.”

Shabazz knows that she can come across as stern, some might say bullish. But she said that’s what it takes to make a difference and get people’s attention.

“Unless we continue to rear our judicial system’s ugly head for people to understand, I don’t think we’ll get the buy-in that we need to get the changes we need to do,” she said. “We say the things that need to be said, and we do the things that need to be done, which is not traditional in Virginia. We’re probably the ones not liked in the room. And that’s OK. People will come around.”

Queen Zakia Shabazz is the coordinator for the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, which addresses environmental justice issues that disproportionately affect black and brown communities, and shares the same family name with BeKura Shabazz as they are distant relatives. She said BeKura Shabazz is effective because she “pushes us to the point of making decisions.”

Where others may say that can wait, “BeKura always brings us back around and reminds us that people are suffering now,” Queen Shabazz said. “She addresses everything with a sense of urgency.”

BeKura Shabazz said she’s still thinking about becoming a lawyer — perhaps even a prosecutor, even though she lays a lot of blame for the ills of the criminal justice system on prosecutors — maybe after she finishes an online Harvard Business School program, where she will earn certificates in leadership principles and contract law; or maybe after she finishes the autobiography she’s working on: “From Hell to Harvard.”


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Gun instructor killed attacker during church service in Texas

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Local
FACES OF 2019
Faces of 2019: Founder of Richmond's first charter school continues push for all-boys school in city

How you know him: Antione Green is the new leader behind an effort to bring an all-boys charter school to Richmond.

What’s new: While the effort faces an uphill battle, Green is still pushing for the school to open.

He was tapped in March by the Richmond Urban Collective to oversee the creation of the school — dubbed Metropolitan Preparatory Academy — for boys in grades 6-12. The school gained city School Board approval in 2015, but the group couldn’t find a building to house the school.

Green co-founded the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, the city’s first charter school that opened in 2010.

Both efforts, he said, are about giving city parents more choice in their child’s education.

“We need to explore additional options for the parents of Richmond Public Schools,” Green said.

Currently, no comprehensive middle or high school in Richmond meets the state’s full standards of accreditation.

Green is trying to make more parents aware of the effort and why he thinks the school is needed.

“Our goal is to make a strong case to city families who have a desire for a high-quality middle school option,” he said earlier this year. “We want to help keep families in our city and help sustain our tax base.”

Green said the group of business leaders that make up the Richmond Urban Collective are open to sharing a location with one of the city’s underenrolled secondary schools. Only two of the city’s seven middle schools and three of the five comprehensive high schools will be at more than 80% capacity, according to rezoning plans approved by the city School Board this month that are set to take effect next fall.

The board and administration have expressed reservations about opening a new charter school, saying it would take money away from other schools.

“We have no plans to open any charter schools,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said.

Green said he expects the opening of more charter schools to be an issue in the 2020 election, when every seat on the School Board is up for a vote.

The all-boys school, Green hopes, will open in late July or early August of 2021 and operate on a year-round calendar.


Business
End of an era
End of an era: CapitolMac shutting down operations after nearly 30 years

CapitolMac, founded in 1990 as the local source for Apple sales, support and service in the Richmond region, is shutting down.

The company’s store at 1700 W. Main St. in Richmond’s Fan District as well as a store in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood are set to close, probably during the week of Jan. 20, the company’s owner said Monday. The CapitolMac store in Williamsburg will remain open under a new name and new owners.

“After three decades as one of America’s original Apple resellers, we’re sad to report that the time has come to close the doors ... barring any last-minute takeover interest,” wrote Dheeraj Vasishta, the firm’s president who bought the business a decade ago, in a LinkedIn post.

“In the meantime, we’d like to thank our faithful customers in Richmond and Baltimore for their years of business,” the post said. “We couldn’t have done it without you. But nowadays, it’s become increasingly harder to be a small, independent business and survive in an insanely competitive landscape.”

Vasishta, who expanded the business to Baltimore and Williamsburg, said CapitolMac is closing because the company is having financial problems relating to issues in getting Apple inventory, declining margins on products being sold and relocating its Richmond store.

“Selling Apple products has been notorious for being a low-margin business,” he said. “We get our revenue from the services and repairs and accessories. But in recent years, repairs have gradually been less and less profitable.”

The hit on the repair side of the business was exacerbated as consumers went to repair shops that are not authorized by Apple.

On top of that, CapitolMac moved its Richmond store four blocks to its current location at 1700 W. Main St. in 2016.

“I think we never quite fully recovered the cost overruns of our relocation in Richmond. We had to build the store to comply with tightened standards that Apple has to what showrooms should look like,” he said. “We did borrow. We just didn’t borrow enough and that [the over budget costs and longer time the relocation took] cut into our operating funds. That began that downward spiral.”

At the same time, CapitolMac was named to the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private businesses based on the company’s three-year revenue growth rates. The company ranked No. 4410 in 2016 and No. 4417 in 2017, when it had revenue of $2.3 million and a 57% growth rate.

The company has furniture and fixtures and a small amount of remaining accessories to be sold at the Richmond and Baltimore stores, he said. Both stores have limited hours as the business draws to a close.

At its peak in recent years, CapitolMac had nine employees at its Richmond location and five in Baltimore. It now has two employees at each store winding down the business.

CapitolMac began in 1990 when it opened a store in Richmond as an Apple Inc. reseller and service provider initially for Macintosh products.

Since then, the company’s ownership has changed. CapitolMac also moved its local store over the years — it had a location at one time on Cleveland Street, on North Robinson Street and two different spots on West Main. The company also closed for a short period in 2002 after one owner ran into financial troubles.

CapitolMac operated only the Richmond location until 2010, when a second store opened in Baltimore. That happened after Vasishta acquired the business in 2009.

In 2015, the company opened a store in the New Town shopping center in Williamsburg. That location will continue under the iCommand name. The employees who ran that store became the owners of the newly formed, independent entity.

Vasishta said he is in discussions with the owner of the building where the Richmond store is. The company has a “little over a year left on the lease. I hope we can find a mutually agreeable solution to the issue.”

The Baltimore store has been operating under a month-to-month lease since 2011.

Vasishta had hoped to be able to sell CapitolMac, but that doesn’t look possible.

“It still could happen,” he said. “We are open to being approached, but it is getting late in the process.”