Richmond Schools today: RPS still fighting to improve segregation, 51 years after busing

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — There’s several decades of research, beginning before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, showing the impact of school segregation. Scholars routinely find that minority students attending racially segregated schools perform worse academically.

Which is why Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras is frank. Richmond Public Schools, 67 years after the Brown v. Board decision, still has a problem.

“I mean the facts are the facts, we are not a very integrated school system,” Kamras said. “In fact, we’re one of the most segregated school systems in Virginia and in the country. And that’s concerning.”

Data has shown 70% of RPS schools are highly segregated, or less than 10% white. According to University of Richmond research, Richmond’s elementary school segregation has worsened “significantly” since 1990. The change, which had already been underway for decades, has accelerated even as residential segregation in Richmond has improved.

That research also shows that for years before the 2019-2020 school year, 71% of the school district’s white elementary students were concentrated in only three of the 24 schools—Fox, Mary Munford and Linwood Holton elementary schools.

Five decades ago, the former governor Linwood Holton sent all three of his children to schools outside of their neighborhoods, in compliance with a 1970 busing order, to set an example of integration. Today the school named after him is proof of how little progress has been made.

It’s especially stark at schools like Fairfield Court Elementary or Ginter Park Elementary, where in some years, fewer than five white students have been enrolled.

And the problem persists beyond elementary school. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is just 1% white.

“I think the quickest way to solve all the problems of public education is to pass a law that can’t be passed,” said Kamras.

He means it’s impossible to force all parents living in Richmond right now to send their kids to the city’s public schools. And even if you could, they’d next face the difficulty of parents being on board with their kids going wherever the district selected them to go.

That’s not a hypothetical.

Kamras helped spearhead a bold rezoning effort in 2019, that would have redrawn boundary lines and also paired some majority-white and black elementary schools to better integrate students before middle school. But the plan was watered down in the face of considerable parental opposition.

“Emotions run high, when you’re talking about kids and parents are thinking about their future,” Kamras said. “I think there are a lot of perceptions rooted, unconsciously, or not in stereotype that are very hard to overcome.”

He said there are misperceptions about race, socioeconomic status and what that means about the potential quality of education.

“I think that’s a huge challenge,” said VCU professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, who studies modern-day school segregation.

It’s one of multiple hurdles she and Kamras believe needs to be cleared in order to improve school integration, while avoiding a repeat of what happened when schools were first integrated.

THE FIRST RPS INTEGRATION ATTEMPT

In 1970, a busing order from United States District Court Judge Robert Merhige forced the integration of Richmond Public Schools, most of which were still entirely segregated.

“My first year here, there were a lot of white students,” said Richmond resident Arnold Henderson, remembering his time at Thomas Jefferson High School the first four years after Merhige’s decision.

“Whereas in my last year here, there weren’t as many white students,” Henderson said. “It was very quick.”

Many white protesters had threatened this outcome—that if busing were ordered, they’d pull their children from the school district.

Large anti-busing protests came on the heels of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance”, a strategy declared by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. to get Virginia’s white politicians to pass laws and policies to prevent public school desegregation. It also involved many schools and even an entire school system, shutting down in 1958 and 1959 to block desegregation.

Despite “Massive Resistance” laws being overturned by state and federal courts within a year, some aspects of the strategy stuck around, in practice and in the minds of Virginians opposed a decade later to busing to pursue integration.

“Busing captured the idea that school desegregation was really about the rights of white families and students to choose their neighborhoods and schools and not be transported for the purpose of school desegregation,” said VCU professor Genevieve Siegel Hawley. “Instead of thinking about protecting the constitutional rights of black and brown students.”

White parents resistant to the changes in the student population at their neighborhood schools and the idea busing their children elsewhere, pulled their children from public school in droves. The change can be seen in the yearbook photos in the above gallery, which illustrate the change in Thomas Jefferson High School’s student body from all-white, to nearly all-black in a decade.

Anne Holton, daughter of then-Governor Linwood Holton, who went on to become the state’s Secretary of Education, saw this firsthand. She ended up being one of only a handful of white students who showed up at Mosby Middle School in 1970.

“Private schools, starting these little academies and people’s basements, moving to the county,” said Holton, describing the ways white families unlike hers navigated around desegregation.

“Almost all the other white [Mosby] children that had been designated to go here, their parents managed to pull them out of the system one way or another,” Holton said.

The events of 1970 prompted Richmond’s “white flight”, with the population dropping 12% over the next decade and several more percentage points by 2000.

Now that more white families, and the higher-income families of other races who followed their march to the suburbs, are returning to Richmond, Kamras is trying to convince them to help integrate the school system. He wants to do so without catalyzing another generation of white, higher-income flight from RPS Schools.

WHAT THEY CAN DO NOW

“I do think this is generational work, but I think we can make a dent,” said Siegel-Hawley.

Siegel-Hawley has been working with RPS to figure out policies that can reduce school segregation.

Currently, they’re working on a plan to change admissions processes for certain schools. Instead of a lottery, Kamras says the system would give greater weight to students from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds to improve the diversity of a school.

But Kamras said his long-term plan involves improving misperceptions about RPS Schools.

“I often ask people, ‘Have you actually gone to the school in your neighborhood?’” Kamras said. “Or are you just reading what’s on Facebook?”

Richmond residents who aren’t sending their kids to RPS are more commonly white and higher-income. So convincing some of them to give their neighborhood schools a chance is key. But so is addressing concerns about some schools that Kamras acknowledges are valid.

“When I got here, we did not have a reading curriculum,” Kamras said. “That’s unacceptable. I don’t want my kids going to a school that doesn’t have a reading curriculum. And so we’ve now put in place actually a very rigorous reading curriculum. We didn’t have a clear math curriculum, same thing.”

Kamras said not sugarcoating that has allowed the district to focus on implementing strong academic standards district-wide. He’s also prioritized implementing programming at lower-performing schools that help attract families from all over the city. That includes the Science, Technology and Mathematics academies at MLK Middle and Henderson Middle.

“It’s beginning to happen,” said Kamras, whose own son goes to Henderson. “But it’s going to take time. I wanted to be in a place where [academics] are no longer part of the conversation. So all you’re left with is your perceptions. And you have to confront those head on in my choosing not to send my child because of something unconscious going on in my head about race or class. I want to make sure we’re able to take all those other things off the table.”

Correction 12/14/2021: A previous version of this article inferred that elementary schools had been paired as a result of the 2019 rezoning effort. That information has been corrected.  

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