So, what did the Greater Richmond Challenge teach me about the educational challenges and successes in the Richmond region? Quite a bit.
I've posted quite a bit over the past year about my exeriences with the Greater Richmond Challenge -- most recently a snapshot of some of the inspiring people I met; an overview of the Times-Dispatch's coverage of the event; and a high-level glimpse at some things I learned about Richmond's school system. What I really learned, though, is that there are thousands of amazingly passionate people -- educators, parents, administrators and business people -- who are utterly committed to the children in the Richmond region. I also learned that there are vast differences between where, for instance, Chesterfield and Richmond are able to focus their energies. I wanted to capture some of what my team heard and learned during our tour of the region.
HANOVER COUNTY'S HEAD START PROGRAM
I have to admit that I headed to Hanover County with a real bias. Hanover is rich, white and often seems dedicated almost exclusively to keeping things that way. Peggy Harrelson, who heads the county's Head Start program, and school superintendent Stewart Roberson, changed my perspective.
Not my perspective about the county's demographics -- those are real enough. But Harrelson and Roberson came across as genuine, down-to-earth and honestly committed to the children in their county, regardless of the child's circumstances.
Hanover's Head Start program started in 1991 and serves just 123 children with 18 new spaces slated for 2008; the program focuses on school readiness and social development for young children before they enter kindergarten. I asked Roberson to share a story of a student or family who has benefited from Hanover's program:
Let me take a family we served several years ago who immigrated from Kenya. When they arrived in Hanover, there was one child with a second on the way. Moving to a new country with little command of the language is a struggle for anyone -- this mother somehow found her way to Head Start and we enrolled her older child.
The mother began to access of all the county's social services in the most appropriate way -- when she didn't need a service anymore, she stopped using it.
The oldest child is entering high school next year on the Honor Roll. The mother, who was a professional in Kenya, got very involved volunteering for Head Start. She began to pursue a degree in childhood education and got a full scholarship to Randolph-Macon, and plans to teach in Hanover.
What Harrelson went on to share is the importance of parental involvement -- both for the success of the child, and for the success of the program's designed to support early childhood education.
Parents have both the privilege and a responsibility to their child's education, so we encourage them to volunteer and participate in the classroom. Parental participation is rooted in the connections the parents make when they walk in the door -- when they make a connection with someone and have a good feeling about the environment, they want to be engaged...
... One of the biggest single factors in a child's ability to read is being read to as a child.
Superintendent Roberson was extremely candid in his views about regional efforts around early childhood education, and wasn't shy with his firm belief that public education was the answer -- not privatization.
The perfect response for the Richmond region as it relates to early childhood education starts with our public schools. I read articles in our local papers and see divergent views on the best approach to early childhood education, and am struck that some people question whether the public schools have a role.
In Hanover, we want to do things 'well,' not 'swell.' I believe the region can achieve substantive goals if we bring lots of people to the table and let them talk through the issues. In a perfect world, I would want everyone to acknowledge that our public schools have a critical role in creating the best educational programs. Unfortunately, early childhood education tends to be a flash point for political reasons.
Harrelson sees some changes in the political environment:
I think that there is a subtle change going on in the environment that is very subtle. For the first time, I have heard the national director of Head Start say publicly that if we want to continue to exist, we need to collaborate. I hear our governor saying the same thing about early childhood education.
Our second stop was in Glen Allen at Bon Secours' Commonwealth Parenting, which was started in 1984 by three mothers who realized that wasn't a parenting resource that focused on how to be an effective parent. And while Commonwealth Parenting is decidedly geared toward upper middle class parents, it provides something of a model for teaching good parenting that deserves to be replicated more widely in our community.
I did a good job of taking notes at Commonwealth Parenting, and a lousy job of attributing the notes to the four staff members we spoke with. A few that spring out from my notes:
- We change the world one family at a time -- from parenting reactively to parenting with skills. We are creating a legacy that goes on generation after generation.
- We see the most success with parents who really embrace the new challenges and growth that come as their children age. The third grade year is so significant for children.
- It takes the whole community to pull together. Our agency works with preschools to help students learn, and I've seen a huge growth in Richmond of non-profits who are eager to get past the turf wars.
- As my child has attended the public school system, one thing I've discovered is that my frustrations as a parent are the same as those of the school officials and educators.
CHESTERFIELD COUNTY SCHOOLS
Chesterfield is where my predisposed bias played out, though my suspicion is that I can blame the county's public relations machine for that. The county seems too reluctant to drop the veil for a bunch of loose cannons who may see blemishes -- and the backlash is that those potential critics don't have an opportunity to be cheerleaders.
Our visit to Chesterfield involved a dense, programmatic PowerPoint presentation by the county's elementary language arts director. It was difficult to find a beating heart beneath the impressively structured presentation -- and as a graduate of Chesterfield schools who has a mother-in-law who has dedicated much of her life to counseling elementary and middle school children in the county, that proved a disappointment.
I suspect if we had an opportunity to sit down with any third-grade teacher in the county, we would have walked away filled with excitement about the work being done for the county's children. Unfortunately, the clinical presentation we received felt like spin -- spin a county as successful as Chesterfield shouldn't have to present.
FRIENDS ASSOCIATION FOR CHILDREN
Richmond's best-kept secret was one of our take-aways from our visit with the executive director of the 135-year-old, Gilpin Court-based family agency. Friends Association for Children is the poor man's version of Commonwealth Parenting, though the outcomes Friends is able to deliver for its clients are anything but poor.
Friends started as an orphanage for African-American children after the Civil War, and now serves 335 preschoolers and adults at three centers -- at Gilpin, in Church Hill and at the Winchester Green development in Chesterfield County. The evolution of the communities that surround the Friends locations has resulted in a shift in their fee-based programs -- only 35% of their constituents come from public housing, and all of the families served by Friends are working families.