I am here today, as a candidate for City Council, a college graduate who has also earned an MBA, an entrepreneur that has created a business from his professional experience and it is all because of community. In high school, it was my friends’ parents, teachers, and my family that showed me there is more to life than what you might see around you. Growing up in rural northwest Virginia on a farm with a dirt driveway off of a dirt road — finding motivation for learning more than just the basics in school took focus and effort. It took seeing how others had found joy, life and success doing something they loved. That took hard work and determination.
I grew up attending public schools and was on the free/reduced lunch program. That didn’t define me or put me in only one position to live my life. I was encouraged by friends, their parents, and my family to pursue everything I could out of life. I was given countless chances along with the support needed to succeed from those around me.
During the first year of Dwight Jones administration as Mayor in 2009, I was tasked to work on a team whose goal was to put a face to those living in poverty in Richmond. Over the next several months, a sobering reality formed. Richmond’s poverty is centralized, concentrated, and grouped together. What I saw were children in single-parent households that were living at or below the federal poverty line. I shared a common thread in life of being on free & reduced lunch through my public school career, as well as the couple of years where I too was living on welfare services. But there was a glaring difference, which I feel is a key component to addressing this socio-economic challenge that 1-in-4 people living in Richmond encounter. This difference was community. In my high school, I was a minority being on free and reduced lunch, while here in Richmond around 70% of all students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. There are schools in Richmond that have 98% eligibility.
This reality was compounded by the several times I spoke at Richmond Public Schools each year, where I shared about my job at City Hall as a Civic Innovator and my personal testimony. I often inquired about how often guest speakers met the students and learned that it was a lot lower than I expected. “Rarely, if at all” was the response. It was solely up to the teachers to organize and coordinate these guest speakers, as if they don’t already have enough to do in the classroom. It is because of these realities that I feel it is my role to expand and increase engagement in schools if we are going to improve them.
We improve public schools by strengthening the community in and around schools.
My plan for improving Richmond Public Schools on City Council is to be engaged on a personal level, with monthly visits and meetings with our First District schools: Mary Munford Elementary, Albert Hill Middle, and Thomas Jefferson High Schools. Meeting with school leadership, talking with teachers, navigating the halls with students, and meeting with parents is paramount to see the annual School’s budget in action. City Council’s key role with public schools is the annual approval of their budget. This cannot be a one time a year discussion about the needs of our schools. It needs to be a regularly scheduled conversation. I will work monthly with our School Board representative to assure they have the support and resources needed to complete their vitally important task of improving our schools. If improving public schools is going to be a priority for my campaign, then I must also make it a priority for my time in office. It is through these meetings that I can make sure the resources are getting where they are needed, in the classroom to support and strengthen our teachers, and creating a 21st century workforce.
The best economic development investment we can make as a City is to improve Richmond Public Schools.
Mary Munford Elementary is one of — if not the best — elementary schools in the City of Richmond. Even with a less than perfect building (crumbling walls, toilets that don’t work, and other structural challenges), it is the community of parents engaged with the school that have made it thrive. Their PTA is hyper-active with fundraising and taking care of identifying school needs, and then addressing them. A lot of this success is attributed to the school leadership that embraces and welcomes this parental engagement. This is a recipe for school success, but we need more. We need this to expand across the city into all schools.
How can City Council build this level of community in schools across the City? This is a great question we must answer. I feel that the job of our elected officials is to lead and drive this change. One of the biggest challenges facing many parents in the First District is the decision to move or send their children to private school once they get older. The challenge is the perceived quality of education in Albert Hill Middle. At Mary Munford, the standard has been set and is observable. The community around that school is strong. Albert Hill Middle is fed by three elementary schools and the engagement level is unknown, which unsettles parents. This is where City Council can lead the conversation between all three elementary schools (Mary Munford, John B Cary, and Fox) PTA’s in collaboration with the Albert Hill Middle PTA to discuss the perceptions and realities of the school. This will take collaboration and coordination across multiple schools, but it is vital to have this discussion in order to identify the needs and priorities we must address to make Albert Hill Middle School the best option for all parents. It is a community that makes up Albert Hill Middle, and it will take a community to improve it.
To improve public schools, I commit to making the transformation of Albert Hill Middle my focus through active community engagement, dialogues about needs and priorities and focusing on how to achieve the needed outcomes with the School Board to strengthen our public school offerings to our neighborhood families. Fixing public schools is about building community around our schools, identifying and bringing the additional resources needed to expand opportunities, and the strategic investment of smart funding to improve our outcomes. These will take time, but I pledge to make this my focus and priority every month to make sure our schools are the high performing community asset we deserve.