Parents at the highest-performing elementary school in Richmond’s East End are pushing back against the potential shutdown of the school, the only one in the city where that’s an option under draft rezoning plans.
The Parent-Teacher Association at Bellevue Elementary, nicknamed “The Castle on The Hill,” is urging the city School Board not to close the underenrolled school in the Church Hill neighborhood. Parents say they’d instead want to see the historic school turned into a specialty — an idea also being proposed on the other side of the city by community members upset with the current rezoning options.
“I really hope that Bellevue can be seen as a really strong community of families and teachers working hard for our kids,” said Nora Bryant, the PTA president at the school. “Bellevue could be a model. It would be a shame if we lose that.”
Enrollment at the school, located on East Grace Street between 23rd and 24th streets, dropped from 280 students in 2017-18 to 240 students last year, leaving it at 66% of its 361-student capacity. As recently as the 2014-15 school year, the school housed 337 students, according to state data.
The school system is grappling with overpopulated schools, largely in the South Side, and underenrollment elsewhere. The School Board, which ultimately has the final say over new school zones, has not sought to cull its facilities portfolio as it redraws lines this year, but has left the option open.
The prospect loomed larger over rezoning debates in 2013, when Summer Hill Elementary was closed, and in 2015, when 16 schools would have closed under a plan approved by the School Board that eventually stalled because of the city’s limited debt capacity.
Instead, the focus has been on filling the three new school buildings set to open next fall. One of the three schools, George Mason Elementary, is located less than a mile from Bellevue.
Matthew Cropper, the consultant hired by Richmond to create rezoning options, said he proposed closing Bellevue to shift more students to the new Mason, which is slated to open with a capacity of 750 students.
The pushback, he said, doesn’t come as a surprise to him.
“Anytime you’re talking about repurposing a school and looking at alternative uses for a school than what it is right now, it’s always a contentious issue,” he said. “It’s not a surprise that people who have a vested interest in Bellevue are concerned.”
While enrollment has fallen, student achievement at the school has not.
Bellevue meets the state’s full accreditation standards — the only of the five East End elementary schools where that’s the case — and outperforms citywide testing averages in math and science. While 56% of city students pass the state’s math tests, nearly 2 in 3 do at Bellevue. In science, 3 in 5 pass state tests across the school district compared with Bellevue’s 68%.
“It’s working,” said Bryant, who has two daughters at the school. “Because of its size, our teachers have authentic relationships with children.”
Bellevue’s 9-1 student-teacher ratio is below the city average of 13-1, according to data presented to the rezoning committee.
A group of 40 parents who do not currently have students at Bellevue but are zoned for the school sent the School Board a letter dated Oct. 16 advocating against closing it.
“We believe rezoning options that include closing Bellevue (or repurposing as something other than an elementary school) deem to deprive current and future Bellevue students of a small, established, well-functioning school and, in exchange, offer them a much larger and untested institution, George Mason,” reads the letter, referencing Mason’s lack of state accreditation.
The school originally opened in 1872 as one of the first three public schools in Richmond. Named for Bellevue Hospital, the school’s current location — it was originally at 22nd and Broad streets — was once the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist who built an extensive spy ring for the Union Army during the Civil War. The mother of Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman in the U.S. to found a bank, was a slave at the Van Lew mansion, according to the National Park Service.
“It’s the best-kept secret in Church Hill,” said Ridgely Carter-Minter, whose daughter is in third grade at Bellevue. “The School Board should listen to the voices of parents and students and keep Bellevue open.”
If the board does close it, parents hope to turn it into a specialty school. Those schools typically have a themed curriculum and can receive more money than a normal neighborhood school.
The PTA is asking a committee of School Board appointees tasked with reviewing school zone options to recommend having the specialty school serve students currently zoned for Bellevue and having a lottery for the remaining seats weighted so students zoned for other East End elementary schools get first priority. It’s an idea also being floated for George W. Carver Elementary, a low-performing school that one controversial rezoning option has being combined with the high-performing Mary Munford Elementary.
Bellevue’s specialty school would be at 75% capacity. The parents want to leave the school’s zone unaffected for next year, when other changes are slated to take effect, and have the specialty school start in the 2021-22 school year.
“That means they are really utilizing their building,” said Sharon Burton, one of two East End representatives to the committee, of the 75% capacity. “We love the idea.”
The full committee has yet to sign off on any recommendations, which it plans to finalize Friday in a meeting at George Wythe High School.