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Only two years after its opening, RPS looks to alleviate overcrowding at River City Middle

Sign in front of school
River City Middle School opened on Richmond's Southside in fall 2020. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

A brand new middle school opened on Richmond's Southside in fall 2020. Built for 1,500 students, it's already filled past capacity, according to VDOE data from September 2021.

River City replaced two other now-shuttered middle schools on the Southside, Thompson and Elkhardt.

Hannah Rhodes, a former substitute teacher at River City, told VPM News she had a minimum of 30 students in her math class on a daily basis and sometimes around 35 students. She says she didn’t even have enough desks in her classroom for students some days, forcing students to sit on the floor.  Though she often had a co-teacher, the class size made it hard to provide individualized attention to students.

“Many of them, through no fault of their own, needed a lot of extra one-on-one support to get caught up with where they were supposed to be at that moment,” Rhodes said. “It was discouraging because there was no way to deliver on that.”

River City Principal Jacquelyn Murphy-Braxton told VPM News that the current capacity level is unsustainable, causing safety issues inside the building and outside after school.

“Parents don't want to sit in traffic and they're parking across the street, they're parking on Hull Street,” Murphy-Braxton said. “It just is so unsafe, I don't know how many times I've had to yell, scream or stop a car from flying through there [Elkhardt Road].”

Murphy-Braxton said there’s only one conference room in the school that all staff share for conducting meetings, like those with parents or to discuss academic plans for students with disabilities. She says all of the other supplemental rooms and spaces in the original school design have been turned into classrooms or offices.

“There was a workroom on each hallway. There was a conference room on each hallway, but we had to eliminate those,” Murphy-Braxton said.

But a lack of space isn’t Murphy-Braxton’s chief concern.

“It's not just about having too many students, we don't have enough people [staff] to even serve the number of students, which really is the part that makes it the most unsafe,” Murphy-Braxton said.

Beyond school counselors, she says there aren’t any other staff dedicated to supporting students’ behavioral health and helping with in-school suspension. She’d like more school security staff to help monitor the hallways.

To alleviate the now-overcrowded new school, the district wants to send some students currently zoned for River City to other middle schools in the district next fall. The plan would send close to 400 students to other schools.

According to data provided by a school district spokesperson, the rezoning plan calls for about 58 current River City students to attend Lucille Brown, about 178 to attend Boushall and about 142 students to attend Binford, on the other side of the James River.

But the school board didn’t approve the plan during its meeting this past Monday, April 25, prompting outrage from city council members and community members. According to district staff, this coming Monday’s meeting is the last opportunity to sign off on a rezoning plan to give River City relief for the next school year.

“It is unconscionable for us to open up River City next year with 1,600 students. It will be dangerous,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras. “And it will be a dereliction of our collective duty to our children.”

In an interview with VPM News Wednesday, board member Stephanie Rizzi said that she’s now prepared to vote to support the rezoning plan this coming Monday, May 2. Her vote, plus those who supported the plan this Monday, would be enough to enact the rezoning.

Rizzi said she decided to support the plan following assurances given to Binford’s principal that modifications will be made to help accommodate the additional students.

“It didn’t make sense to approve it without that assurance,” Rizzi said.

Much of the pushback from board members centered around open enrollment - which allows students to apply for a lottery to attend schools outside of their school attendance zone. The rezoning plan proposes cutting the number of open enrollment seats available at Binford Middle School in half, according to RPS.

School board member Jonathan Young was among those who voted down the plan, saying in a statement, “the RPS administration is proposing to decimate open enrollment for middle.”

According to RPS, Binford offered 97 open-enrollment seats last year. This year, the district is recommending they only offer 50 open-enrollment seats. The majority of Binford students come to the school through open enrollment, with around 300 of Binford’s current students enrolled from outside its zone, according to the district.

Open enrollment has historically exacerbated segregation and inequity by advantaging families with more information and resources, according to a report on equity in enrollment recently commissioned by the school board.

Board members who supported the rezoning plan Monday – including Cheryl Burke, Liz Doerr, Nicole Jones and Dawn Page – issued a joint statement about the vote, pointing to the enrollment equity commission’s work.

“The school board prioritized school choice that advantages white and affluent families over the safety and security of Black and Brown students on the southside,” the group said.

The equity in enrollment commission, co-chaired by Virginia Excels Executive Director Taikein Cooper and VCU professor and researcher Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, issued several recommendations, including one to develop a weighted open enrollment lottery that advantages underrepresented groups. Another recommendation: provide transportation, which currently isn’t offered for open-enrolled students.

While the school board hasn’t yet voted on these recommendations, Siegel-Hawley says she hopes the public dialogue about open enrollment at Binford might reignite this work of creating an open enrollment system with “equity guardrails.” She also points to new money allocated in the budget towards expanding opportunities and seats at specialty schools in the district.

“I think that’s another place to revisit this conversation about when we do so, we should do so equitably,” Siegel-Hawley said.

The commission issued a number of recommendations to improve equity in admissions to specialty as well as governor’s schools. Cooper is also hopeful that the commission’s report will lead to future changes.

“Historically in Richmond, to go to those schools, you have to have algebra I,” Cooper said. “And one of the things we saw when you’re talking about inequity … is that the majority of the Black middle schools – schools that represent economically disadvantaged families – those schools didn’t offer algebra I so those kids weren’t even eligible to apply to go to the specialty school.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.