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Richmond Public Schools Considers School Pairing In Effort To Diversify Schools

Fox Elementary School in Richmond Virginia
In 2013, several blocks of Richmond's majority-white Museum District were rezoned to Fox Elementary. Richmond's rezoning committee is considering pairing William Fox Elementary with John B. Cary Elementary to increase student diversity. Crixell Matthews/WCVE

Richmond Public Schools plans to  redraw the boundaries for all school zones before the start of the fall 2020 school year. The district wants to use the effort to help increase student diversity. 

One zoning tool they’re considering is called school pairing. One big zone is drawn around two adjacent schools serving the same grade levels, with one then serving lower grades and the other higher grades.

“Create one big zone, and two schools within it that serve K-2, and 3rd-5th grade,” said Matthew Cropper, a contractor Richmond Public Schools hired to analyze data for the rezoning process.

At the district's June rezoning committee meeting, Cropper proposed pairing William Fox Elementary with John B. Cary Elementary. At Fox, 65% of students are white, compared with just 8% of students at Cary.

“The opportunity exists when you have one zone of one demographic type immediately next to a zone of another demographic type,” said Cropper.

It’s a model that’s been used already in Virginia, in Ashland and Fredericksburg, as well as across the country in states like  New York and  North Carolina. It’s also been used in court-ordered desegregation cases, going back as early as the 1960s.

Under Cropper’s draft option 2, Fox would serve grades K-2, and Cary would serve grades 3-5. Cropper says in Richmond school pairing to increase student diversity would have limited effectiveness beyond this pairing, since the majority of elementary schools district-wide are 80% black or higher. 

The other option he floated, draft option 1, would make both Fox and Holton whiter. So far, the reception to school pairing has been mixed. In  online comments presented to the school board this week, several parents say they support it. 

"Love option 2 and appreciate the increased diversity Fox will have," one Fox parent wrote. "I do find it to be inequitable that Munford does not have any improvements planned in the draft, as they could benefit from a more diverse learning environment as well."

Other parents adamantly oppose the pairing of Fox and Cary.

"If option 2 would be chosen, our family would be drastically affected and we would either move out of the city or have to send our child to private school," another parent wrote. 

Theresa Kennedy, a member of the district’s rezoning committee, likes the idea of school pairing. Her son attends Holton Elementary, where the student population is 53% black and 43% white, but that racial makeup is rare for the district. 

“I wish the community we have at this school... I wish that for every school,” Kennedy said. “And if zoning can in some way play a part in that, I’m thrilled.”

Former school board member Tichi Pinkney Eppes also thinks school pairing is a good idea. But she points out that the last time Richmond rezoned its elementary schools in 2013, Fox became less diverse. 

“There was a large number of black children who should have been given the opportunity to be rezoned to Fox who were not rezoned to Fox,” Eppes said. “They were rezoned to John B. Cary.”

2013’s Controversial Rezoning

That rezoning effort was controversial. In 2013, the school board voted to close the majority-black Clark Springs Elementary, rezoning most of those students to the majority-black Cary Elementary. At the same time, they moved students from the majority-white neighborhoods of Cary to the majority-white Fox Elementary.

It eventually culminated in a  lawsuit, filed by then-RPS parent Kimberly Johnson. The case alleged the move was economically motivated and discriminatory. 

"I want to be clear, it wasn't so much the black vs. white, but the haves vs. the have nots," Johnson said. "It was all politics."

The lawsuit was eventually dismissed in 2016 because Johnson decided to take her daughter out of Richmond Public Schools. She says she thinks had she not decided to move to Henrico County before ultimately opting to homeschool her daughter, the result of the lawsuit would have been different. 

“It was hard to dispute the fact that it made things worse when you’re looking at attendance zone segregation,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, VCU professor and co-author of a 2016 VCU & University of Richmond  study criticizing the 2013 Richmond rezoning effort.

The analysis states that “instead of enlarging the zone for majority-white Fox to incorporate the heavily non-white neighborhoods formerly assigned to Clark Springs, the board expanded Fox’s zone in the other direction to include parts of the city with a supermajority of white school-aged children.” 

Court documents from the lawsuit show an April 2013 email from then school board member and now Virginia Senator Glen Sturtevant to Donald Coleman requesting the rezoning. The email has an attachment that he said “helps to explain why many Museum District residents feel that Cary is not a first choice.” 

Also in the court documents, are copies of a May 2013 email chain between Sturtevant and Cropper officials requesting revised maps for rezoning Clark Springs students into Cary. At the same time,  parents signed a petition supporting rezoning of the Museum district to Fox or Munford Elementary, not Cary. Sturtevant could not be reached for comment about his involvement in the rezoning effort.

In her VCU paper, Siegel-Hawley wrote that “while the racial makeup of the neighborhoods was not mentioned in the petition, the use of the term neighborhood school, given ongoing patterns of residential segregation, has been employed frequently as a euphemism for a return to segregated systems of education.” 

Ultimately, several blocks of the majority-white Museum District were reassigned from Cary to Fox, one of only two majority-white schools in the district. 

“The zones that were drawn around the schools were more segregated than before they started the effort,” said Kim Bridges who was on the Richmond school board in 2012, but left before the board rezoned elementary schools in 2013. She co-authored the study with Siegel-Hawley that critiques the 2013 rezoning effort for its negative impact on diversity.

The analysis found that the number of school-aged white students living in Cary’s zone went from 60% to just 16%, while Fox became even whiter. 

Rezoning & Equity

For the most part, the Powhite Parkway serves as a dividing line between Fox and Cary. Broad Street separates Fox’s northeastern boundary from Carver’s school zone. 

“You know, why do we consider a particular highway of boundary for a school but not for grocery stores and dry cleaning and where we go running and you know, all of those things?” Bridges said.  “Where people put lines in their mind is half the battle about changing neighborhood zones.”

Bridges is glad that this year the district has made diversity a priority, something that didn’t happen when she was on the school board. 

“We talked about diversity, but we didn't make that goal explicit,”  Bridges said. “Which is something that I'm glad to see the current school board has done, is to actually make explicit a commitment to diversity in the rezoning process.” 

Numerous studies support the  positive effects of school diversity, pointing to higher career goals, access to social networks and job opportunities. Additionally, graduates of racially diverse schools are more likely to attend integrated colleges and live in racially diverse neighborhoods than graduates of segregated schools. 

But experts, including Bridges, point out that there’s more to it than just ensuring diverse bodies in the classrooms.

“They need to ensure that all students have the high expectations, have equal opportunity and access to the supports they need to be successful,” said Keith Dysarz with the DC-based nonprofit advocacy group Education Trust. 

He worked on an equity audit of Richmond Public Schools last fall. Munford and Fox stood out to him because of their strikingly high percentage of white and high income students. Overall, he says the schools appeared to be doing well.

“But if you take some of this publicly available data and start to disaggregate it and look at it by race, actually these two schools do worse for their black students than some of the less diverse schools in the district,” Dysarz said.

Dysarz points to the achievement gap differences for black students at the majority-white Fox compared to the majority-black Obama Elementary. According to VDOE data,  51% of black Fox students passed math in the 2017-2018 school year, compared to  74% of black students at Obama. Among black Fox students, 57% passed science, compared to 82% of black students at Obama.

Rezoning isn’t designed to fix every problem related to student equity and diversity in the district. But, it’s a start, said VCU professor Siegel-Hawley.

“In combination with carefully designed choice, really strong programming at schools and strong leaders at schools that draw families in, we could do a lot better,” she said. 

Former school board member Eppes says she’s encouraged to see equity at the forefront of the rezoning conversation.  

“I do appreciate that, but the overarching thing is that the infrastructure is still an issue,” Eppes said. “ Parents are saying: 'does it even really matter that we rezone because you're going to move my child from one raggedy building to another raggedy building?'”

 The rezoning committee will meet to finalize options on July 30 from 6-8 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson High School. Public hearings will be held August 13 and 14. The locations of those meetings have yet to be announced.

A previous version of this story mispelled Theresa Kennedy's name as Teressa. 

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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