As a minority at a school with only a handful of white students, Matthew Moore has assumed a major leadership role.
Moore, a senior, is a lieutenant colonel and head of the JROTC corps at Huguenot High School, between Stratford Hills and Bon Air in South Richmond.
The military has provided him with a sense of belonging and an enhanced sense of self, dating to his one-year stint at the city’s Franklin Military Academy. At Huguenot High, the corps has bolstered his confidence and social skills, he says.
The easygoing Moore, 17, is as matter-of-fact about his achievement as he is about being in the second-largest minority in the majority-black Richmond school system and at Huguenot.
Huguenot is about 67 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white, according to State Board of Education figures from fall 2015.
In addition to having about 400 students who speak English as a second language, Huguenot has 273 exceptional-education students at a school with an enrollment of just over 1,500.
“So almost half the school is special-needs,” said Robert Gilstrap, Huguenot’s first-year principal.
“It creates a very high challenge for the staff, and a high challenge for the division, too.”
Moore, who is dyslexic and dysgraphic, has challenges of his own as one of Huguenot’s special-needs students.
Dyslexia impairs reading skills; dysgraphia makes it difficult if not impossible for students to take notes while listening.
He requires an individualized education program, or IEP. Although there have been a few hiccups along the way, the Moores are satisfied overall with the school system’s response to Matthew’s disabilities.
“As he’s gotten older, we’ve gotten rid of most” of his accommodations, said his mother, Jodi Moore.
Moore and his fellow military-science cadets stand out at Huguenot, and not just because of their spiffy uniforms.
They serve as ushers, raise the colors during school events and serve as tour guides during open house at the $63 million school, which opened in January 2015, replacing a 55-year-old Huguenot building at the same site.
The reaction to the cadets isn’t always positive, but Moore rolls with it.
“You’ve got people who are obnoxious and a little insulting about it. Who kind of, every time you walk by in the hallway, they’ll kind of give you that wonky-donky salute, kind of as an insult-type thing,” he said.
“Then you’ve got people who are OK with it, who thought about being in the program but they just don’t want to wear the uniform. And they think it’s pretty cool but it’s just not their thing. So it varies.”
Moore has managed a drama-free navigation of the racial landscape at Huguenot, a school that experienced a tumultuous desegregation process during the 1970s.
“Quite frankly, I think it’s a function of his personality,” said retired Col. Oliver L. Norrell III, head of the military-science program at Huguenot. “I think Matthew will do well wherever he goes, as he finds his element.”
Huguenot absorbed the tumult of 1970s school desegregation to a unique extent because of its location within the 23 square miles freshly annexed by Richmond from Chesterfield County in 1970.
After a seven-year legal battle, a federal court ruled that the annexation was racially motivated to preserve white political power in Richmond.
Meanwhile, former Chesterfield residents seethed over being annexed by the city and complained about what they characterized as broken promises in the aftermath.
Court-ordered busing — and the influx of black students from Byrd Park, Maymont and Church Hill — fueled a double dose of resentment.
Huguenot, which opened in 1960 as a lily-white Chesterfield school, began to accelerate into a predominantly black one after the citywide busing plan ordered by U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. in 1970.
The black-white dynamic of four decades ago at Huguenot has been rendered quaint by a surge of Hispanic students.
This transformation has not been seamless. Matters came to a head on Feb. 1, 2013, when Hispanic students at Huguenot were assembled, searched and threatened with deportation, leading to protests by students, parents and advocates. In March 2015, the school system issued a formal apology.
Hispanics, unofficially 14 percent of the system’s enrollment as of this fall, are the largest minority group in Richmond schools.
The school district’s most recent, still-unofficial enrollment figures for this fall show an uptick in the percentage of white students — 11.6 percent, up from 9.4 percent last fall.
But sagging SOL scores and accreditation setbacks leave a significant number of white families, as well as some black middle-class families, leery about entrusting their children’s secondary education to Richmond schools beyond the well-regarded alternative schools.
Moore appears unaffected by this reality, perhaps because it has become the norm.
He and his younger sister, Emma, a freshman at Open High School, never have known anything but Richmond schools, starting at Fisher Elementary, even as many of their white neighbors opted for St. Edward-Epiphany Catholic School, St. Michael’s Episcopal School or nearby Trinity Episcopal.
“For him, race does not seem to be a factor,” Norrell said. “I don’t believe he has had any conversations concerning race. I will say that some of the cadets, at first, had an issue at first with race and the fact that he was white. But once they got to know him and see him in action, they dropped that.”
In fact, Norrell recalls, one young lady cadet told him she initially didn’t see how Moore had been chosen as her commander but said: “After seeing him in action, I now understand.”
“When he takes command, he takes command,” Norrell said.
He explained that Moore demands the obedience required of the job but is inclusive in his planning. “He doesn’t just wear the rank; he understands the responsibilities and duties that go with it and exercises them in a responsible way.”
Jodi Moore and her husband, Bob, the new-car manager at Royal Chevrolet in Richmond, were attracted to South Side because they could get more house for the money.
Jodi Moore was an instructional assistant for special education at Fisher Elementary before leaving last school year for a new job. She has no misgivings about educating her children in Richmond schools, even as her neighbors avoided their neighborhood’s public school.
Low enrollment placed Fisher on the chopping block four years ago, a situation Jodi Moore described as heartbreaking. But amid vocal support from teachers, the Richmond School Board backed off a proposal to close the school.
“My kids had a great education at Fisher,” Moore said, adding that she believes the low enrollment is the byproduct of “a stigma,” with white parents believing their children will not get a proper education there.
But Jodi Moore concedes she had no faith in the situation at Thompson Middle School (now Elkhardt-Thompson). When Matthew’s time came, he chose Franklin Military Academy in the East End.
Matthew traces his fascination with military science to childhood history lessons, which he found boring “until they started talking about wars and stuff like that.”
“The military aspect really appealed to me at Franklin,” he said. “So I went there. and I liked the whole military part, though the school at the time wasn’t really on top of my (individualized education program).”
His mom views the problem at Franklin Military as a transitional one: It only recently had expanded from a high school to an academy with a middle school component. “They weren’t used to sixth-graders,” she said.
After a year, Matthew transferred to Binford Middle, a school that had fallen dramatically in enrollment and stature from its heyday as Richmond’s first-choice middle school during the 1990s. Jodi Moore said Binford was “a wonderful experience.”
When it came time to pick a high school, Matthew weighed the pros and cons of Huguenot and Thomas Jefferson and felt much more comfortable with Huguenot. He got “the Fisher vibe” there, he said.
Not that he saw his lead role in JROTC coming. As a freshman, he thought it’d be great to make officer but set first sergeant as a more realistic goal.
The Military Science Department at Huguenot is chaired by Norrell, a former National Guard adviser to the U.S. Army War College, a former assistant attorney general for Virginia and a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond.
He is assisted by Sgt. Maj. Bernard Branch and Staff Sgt. Teresa Rosier.
Matthew, it seems, has been studying Branch, a former infantryman in Vietnam.
At first, he thought Branch gave rank to people who didn’t deserve it. Then he saw the method behind the promotions.
“Sergeant major has this knack for picking out people who seemed to be a little troubled or seem to be making trouble, and kind of making them better. ...
“He’s really good at building people up. He’s pretty much a cheerleader, except rather than cheering you on, he says, ‘You’re a piece of garbage. You need to get better than a piece of garbage. You need to at least make it to the recycling bin.’”
Gilstrap, the principal, arrived at Huguenot from Oklahoma City, Okla., and was an educator in his native state before chronic deep cuts in school funding led him to leave.
As a Baptist missionary student in college, he spent a summer with a Mexican family and became fluent in Spanish, though he’s out of practice now.
Huguenot, the largest school in the Richmond system, is accredited with warning because of a decline in its on-time graduation — a problem that’s likely to become a trend.
Gilstrap said the school just missed meeting the graduation standard needed for full accreditation, “but we’re adding every day (English-as-a-second-language) students who have no chance of graduating in four years.”
Because non-Hispanic white students are such a small percentage at Huguenot — two dozen or so — they tend to be more fluid in their relationships, mixing with black or Latino students based on friendships, Gilstrap said.
“I’ve watched (Matthew) from a distance just to see what kind of kid he is when you’re not talking to him. He seems like a nice kid,” Gilstrap said.
“He’s a good leader for that group. He’s willing to step up. He sticks out because he’s white, but so do I.”
Perhaps Gilstrap sees a bit of himself in Moore.
As a kid, his parents divorced and his mom sent him to live with his father in Kansas City, Kan., where he was enrolled in a school in which he was one of three white students.
He was athletic and made some friends, but not before having to stand up for himself.
After a year, he moved back with his mom, and they moved to Salt Lake City, where he attended a school with one black student. Gilstrap, recalling his situation in Kansas City, made it a point to befriend him. “It’s made me think of things differently since then.”
“When I see him, I kind of watch,” Gilstrap said of Matthew. “What’s his experience like?”
By the Moores’ accounts, it’s just fine.
Matthew is looking forward to attending a college that offers Navy ROTC. He believes the Navy offers more career opportunities.
Without the corps, “I could see myself at Huguenot as the kid I was in middle school, which was shy. And I have friends (back then), but those are the only people I ever talk to,” he said.
“With the military, I’ve learned to be able to talk to anybody.”
The early part of his Richmond schools journey was a bit rough, with some teachers having a hard time coping with his learning disabilities, he said. “But then it started to get better throughout the years.”
Race seldom was an issue and more often a butt of jokes among his diverse group of friends, he said. Overall, he concludes that his experience as a minority will prove beneficial as he moves on.
But his struggles as a special-needs student appear to have had a more profound effect on Matthew’s outlook.
What he will remember most, he said, is “the teachers who went out of their way to help me.”