Is the Big Problem at Richmond Schools Decrepit Buildings or Teacher Turnover?

Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond. Richmond has several beautiful new schools. What difference have they made?

The City of Richmond is debating proposals to spend $740 million to $800 million to modernize the city’s school buildings after years of neglect. The latest new wrinkle reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch is that the Richmond School Board has delayed a vote on the grounds that it needed more time to ponder the plan. The main concern expressed so far — where on earth would the money come from? — is valid. But there is an even more fundamental question: Will modernizing school buildings do anything to reverse the school system’s atrocious under-performance?

No question, many school buildings are aging and sub-standard, with crumbling tiles, broken toilets, wheezing HVAC systems, and leaking roofs. They are an embarrassment and a disgrace, and they need to be fixed. But that should cost a fraction of the sums being discussed.

Based on the conviction that creating a better physical environment can improve academic performance, Richmond has built several expensive new school buildings in recent years. As part of their deliberations, School Board members should examine whether those buildings have made any difference in educational achievement of the children who passed through their doors.

Here’s what I hear. While new buildings provide a better physical environment, poor children from broken homes in inner city neighborhoods bring the same emotional and disciplinary issues to school. Young, inexperienced teachers are shocked and dismayed by the environment, they get burned out and they leave. The Richmond school system has such a horrendous reputation among teachers in the metropolitan area that it couldn’t hire enough to fill its classrooms this fall, meaning it has had to rely more heavily than ever upon substitute teachers, some of whom probably shouldn’t be teaching at all. Prediction: Richmond’s teacher shortage will get even worse in January when burned-out teachers decide after Christmas Break they don’t want to return.

Once basic health and safety standards are resolved, Richmond schools have more urgent priorities than building fancy new school buildings. Above all, the system needs to address the problem of school discipline and teacher churn.

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3 responses to “Is the Big Problem at Richmond Schools Decrepit Buildings or Teacher Turnover?

  1. Posted on behalf of Sidney Gunst:

    Market Choice & Experiments (learning from success & failure) needed!! The monolithic, one size fits all, top down ridged bureaucracies—cannot succeed. New buildings and new teachers won’t fixed the systemic issues in the neighborhoods & schools. And please, no new 5 year plans.

    However, there are examples around the country, from very small neighborhood schools, to charter schools, to privately funded schools, flipped classrooms under the Khan Academy, and many many more…

    Until the essential structure of how we teach changes. Until we forget about large scale “economy of scale” government run schools, you will be writing the same article 5 years from now. I have served on inner city school study committees 30 years ago—and no difference!!! That’s my evidence!

    New buildings and new teachers is not the issue!!! Only symptoms of more fundamental issues, problems, and evasion of core principles. Citizens generally accept government must educate their kids as an unquestionable premise, not withstanding the outcomes.

    We need to challenge ourselves, as citizens, the fundamentals on how education could be delivered in problem areas and impact the neighborhood beyond the classroom.

    Radical problems requires revolutionary ideas! There is risk but no change is by far the riskiest! Leaving the government in charge, by its own design, is mediocre at best and tragic lifelong consequences at worst.

    Challenge the premises!!

  2. How would a different type of schooling “work”?

    I’m all for something other than the status quo – as long as I have some level of assurance that it’s not frying pan into the fire!!!!

    So.. how about it?

    What would do you do instead of what is being done now – for all those “poor children from broken homes”?

    and no.. don’t blather some ideological or theoretical nonsense.

    Lay down a specific plan… and say how you’d do it.

    If you think Richmond schools have nothing to lose and things can get no worse, I disagree… we don’t go from bad to worse on a promise…

  3. It’s not the schools that is the problem – not the physical ones nor the virtual ones nor the “alternative” ones that seem to exist for some.

    It’s the kids – the ones that come from disadvantaged circumstances – financially, educationally and yes, culturally.

    They’re behind. They need help to catch up. In a lot of respects the ones that live in poor neighborhoods in the urban spaces are not that different from the ones that live in rural areas that the economy has left behind.

    We keep making this about blame. Finding someone or something that is the “fault” and then proceeding to advocate change. The change advocated is often little more than some hair-brain ideological beliefs rather than any cogent and substantiative alternative other than what boil down to anecdotal.

    You can’t address this problem with new and inexperienced teachers at public schools – nor at ‘choice’ schools and that’s my problem with the critics.

    What is the choice school approach for the right kind of skilled teachers who are trained in dealing with kids that are disadvantaged?

    it’s not magic and it’s not cheap and most of all – it’s not ideological.

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