Attendees at the fourth community forum on what’s needed in a new Richmond Public Schools superintendent were directed into a small multipurpose room at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
Inside, the U-shaped table sat no more than a dozen people. Thankfully, a last-minute influx of individuals necessitated moving the meeting into the auditorium.
Wednesday’s session could have been titled “Building the Perfect Superintendent” as about three dozen participants broke into small groups to list their priorities and preferences. Black, white and Latino — with a couple of translators and a facilitator on hand — the gathering included a Dominion executive, retired educators, current teachers, parents and a half-dozen School Board members.
But one demographic appeared to be underrepresented or even lacking: residents of Richmond’s public housing.
Martin Luther King Jr. Middle sits between the two sections of Mosby Court, a public housing community that has been plagued by gun violence and homicides this year. Its enrollment, overwhelmingly impoverished, embodies the challenge the school district faces in improving academic performance. MLK was a puzzle that outgoing Superintendent Dana Bedden never solved, despite frequent turnover of the school’s leadership and faculty.
We won’t reach the public education mountaintop in Richmond unless we can make substantial gains at this East End school.
In that context, you’d hope the auditorium would have been filled with MLK parents and students. But that wasn’t the case.
“The majority of the demographic of the East End, we still struggle at making them feel like (at) meetings like this, we really want to hear from them,” said former School Board Chairman Don Coleman, who lives near MLK in Church Hill.
He added that those same folks were “really, really supportive of Dr. Bedden. So, I think people are going to get over it, but it’s still kind of, ‘Did you hear we didn’t want him to go?’”
Coleman, who stepped down in January, was part of the previous board that hired Bedden. Bedden’s successor will face a major challenge in enhancing the learning — and life chances — of children in city neighborhoods that are either forgotten or feared.
Those fears have proved to be legitimate in the neighborhoods surrounding MLK. The trauma from the violence finds its way into the school.
“Four or five weeks ago when they had the Mosby shootings, Dr. Bedden was there,” Coleman said. “And so, I know he cared about all the students.”
Whoever the next superintendent is, “they’ve got to fight for Mosby, Creighton, Whitcomb, Fairfield (courts); you’ve got to have somebody who can fight for that demographic. Because they still struggle with believing that this system is really trying to do what’s best for them.”
Nadine Marsh-Carter, who in January joined the board that opted to part ways with Bedden, had a different take Wednesday.
“I like the diversity in the room,” she said. “I think the fact that we’ve had (meetings) in multiple districts means that we can’t look at numbers of just one session, but we really have to congregate all the totals.”
The breakout sessions were spirited affairs Wednesday as individuals reached a group consensus and jotted their ideas on large sheets of paper. Common themes emerged.
Participants wanted a traditional superintendent with an urban education background, though some also wanted him to be an innovator with financial savvy.
They wanted a superintendent who values teachers, or perhaps had even been one. He or she must develop a culture of trust and transparency. This new leader must be personable, communicate effectively with diverse constituencies, and engage in partnerships to gain resources.
Participants want safe and welcoming school buildings, new or renovated, with smaller class sizes. They want chronically low expectations to be raised. They want dead wood cut from underperforming departments. They want a superintendent who will emphasize English as a Second Language.
Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said she was pleased by the turnout and didn’t sound concerned about potentially missing voices.
“We want everyone to participate,” she said. “Do we poll everyone in the audience to find out what neighborhood they came from? No, we did not. ... We think it’s been well-represented throughout each forum that we have had.”
Perhaps a survey wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Public education in Richmond faces two dilemmas: attracting middle-income families who traditionally have opted out and galvanizing low-income families at underperforming schools.
“I’m excited that on a rainy afternoon people came out because they want their voice heard,” said Marsh-Carter, who added: “Every voice matters in this process.”
Everyone feels they need to have a voice, participants wrote on one sheet. But if Richmond’s most impoverished residents are not engaged in the education process, it won’t matter who the next superintendent is.