I spent a lot of ink earlier posting some thoughts and observations from a handful of educational organizations as part of the Greater Richmond Challenge II, and saved the most inspirational for last. Our visit to Woodville Elementary School in Richmond's East End came on the heels of a rather insipid presentation in Chesterfield County. Woodville was a blast of fresh air, and a window into a world to which most members of my team rarely ventured.
Woodville houses more than 600 students, and as a Title I school is required to maintain class sizes of 15-20 students. As a result, the school is cramped for classroom space -- especially with its Head Start and VPS classes. More than 90% of the students are eligible for free lunch, and four years ago Woodville's third grade SOL scores were in the cellar. Enter Principal Rosalind Taylor and the Micah Initiative at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
Woodville's third grade SOL scores were in the upper 90s last year. Its halls are clean, colorful and interactive -- little learning lessons hang at eye level to the students, along with student artwork. The kids at Woodville make eye contact, smile and respond to questions (albeit a little shyly). And the library is apparently a major turnaround in itself.
The library is where our team met Mrs. Taylor -- along with school superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman, School Board member Betsy Carr, and Buford Scott, one of the driving forces behind the Micah Initiative. On the way to the library, we met both assistant vice principals, the head custodian, the library media specialist and a handful of students and teachers. More on the library in a moment.
Jewell-Sherman spoke first, providing some background on the school's relationship with St. Paul's Church.
We have many students in Richmond schools whose parents are able to provide, who recognize the importance of education, and we are able to provide these students with an excellent education. And we have a large percentage of students in Richmond who are not so fortunate. They start so much further behind the starting line.
We are so fortunate to have many wonderful community partners like St. Paul's Micah Initiative and its 100 volunteer mentors. Their participation in our schools and their advocacy makes all the difference.
In 2002, we had five schools that were fully accredited by the state. We've gone from 10% to 90% of our schools being fully accredited. It has been a function of leadership, partnership and will.
As I'm transcribing, I realize that Jewell-Sherman's comments sound like so many talking points, but at the time I was drawn in by her conviction and obvious passion. I was drawn in even further when the only 70-year-old man in pinstripes and a bow-tie in the room began speaking. Buford Scott is one man who could have turned his back on Church Hill's poor, minority community easily. That he chose to invest himself into the lives of Woodville's children amazes me -- and raises the question of why there aren't more Buford Scott's in the world, or why we don't hear about them.
Nine years ago, St. Paul's decided that instead of spreading our money around in small amounts without ever knowing if it makes a difference, we'd work closely with a small number of organizations. When we chose to work with Woodville Elementary, the first thing we did was say, "You tell us what we can do to help," and we started to build trust.
Our dream is to have a Micah-type program at 26 schools in Richmond with 15,000 mentors serving the students. We know mentoring works. We know mentoring makes a difference.
One of the questions that brings a tear to my eye -- all a little child wants to know is whether or not their mentor is going to come back the next week. A little boy asked, "Will I ever see Mrs. Lucy again?"
That is the heart of the matter for many of these children. They are very used to seeing adults enter and leave their world -- parents, siblings, neighbors, of course. But also adult volunteers, teachers and mentors -- who pop in once or twice, and then vanish. Permanency is not a common aspect of relationships for many of these kids. It's something that St. Paul's mentors know and work to avoid.
I almost started crying when Rosalind Taylor started speaking -- something about her presence, drive and visible compassion for helping children learn struck me. And her description of the children who enter her school, and her passion for helping them beat the odds, was powerful.
Our children suffer from the ills of poverty. They come here with a lot of needs. But in the meantime, I tell them, we have to learn!
She spoke of expectations, manners and rules:
These children come with their pants hanging to their knees. I have rope in my office, I tell them. You will look like Huck Finn before you'll walk around here with your pants sagging.
A PowerPoint shows the stats -- the number of students, the demographics, the falling and rising SOL scores. As she walks through the numbers, Taylor tells the stories.
The story of the young teacher whose students were falling behind -- she asked the other teachers to take the students into their classrooms, and paired the new teacher with one of her seasoned faculty. The gossip started that the new teacher was being punished. Mrs. Taylor pulled her teachers together and set the story straight. The new teacher needed to learn how to manage the emotional chaos children from stressed communities bring with them into school, Mrs. Taylor reminded her staff, and it was their job, as a team, to help her learn.
The story of two twins who attended Woodville, and the day she discovered that they had moved with their mother to Southside Richmond. Law prohibits children from attending schools out of their district, but every day the mother took her two children across town on a GRTC bus, waited with them at a bus stop and sent them off to Woodville. When Mrs. Taylor was discussing the matter, one of the children burst out, "Mrs. Taylor! Please don't make me leave Woodville! It's my third school this year."
The story of children who sleep in bath tubs to avoid flying bullets. Children whose socialization skills are low. Children filled with rage, a result of their environment. Children who don't get breakfast at home, or dinner.
And children she takes to visit a college campus -- a world so far removed from Creighton Court some kids struggle to comprehend it. Mrs. Taylor says she is constantly working to help her students understand what middle class looks like, feels like, and how to work to achieve it:
Where are you doing after Woodville, I ask them. Middle school! And where after middle school? High school, they say. And where after high school? College! And where are you going after college? To get a job!
It sound almost trite until you stop and realize that Mrs. Taylor and her team of teachers are the first people to plant these seeds in the minds of these young children.
It's my goal to provide the opportunities to get these children there. We use our partners without shame. They know I will ask them for the moon, and that I would ask them for the sun, if I could.
Which lead us to the library.
Not long ago, Deborah Jewell-Sherman's phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Buford Scott. She said:
Mr. Scott said, "Deborah, I want to talk to you about that media specialist you have at Woodville..."
"That media specialist" was running a library empty of books. Boxes of magazines from the 1950s were collecting dust. The windows were dirty. There were no computers. It was, by all accounts, the last place you'd go to discover a love for reading.
The library has a whole new feel now. The shelves are lined with book after book after book. The walls are covered with art. There are plants, pillows and cushions, even stuffed animals for the smaller children. It is colorful, clean and inviting. A row of new computers sits waiting for curious minds. It speaks volumes about the impact a group of committed adults can have on the world of small children, and the responsibility we have to create conditions for learning. Says Mrs. Taylor,
My dream is to have a state-of-the-art building. My children deserve the best.