Education battle cry: Put kids first!

Joey Matthews | 4/23/2015, 8:52 a.m.
“Put kids first!” A diverse gathering of educators, parents and students made that impassioned plea at a rally Saturday organized …
More than 1,000 advocates at last Saturday’s Put Kids First Rally at Capitol Square in Downtown call for a greater financial, social and policy investment in children by state and local officials. Photo by James Haskins

“Put kids first!”

A diverse gathering of educators, parents and students made that impassioned plea at a rally Saturday organized by the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia PTA.

They called for increased education funding, an end to the reliance on standardized testing as a sole measurement of student and teacher achievement, and to stop disparate disciplinary treatment of students in communities of color that unnecessarily ejects them from classrooms into the judicial system, creating a “school to prison pipeline.”

The rally attracted an estimated 1,000 people from across the state. They converged at the Greater Richmond Convention Center in Downtown, then marched to the State Capitol where they rallied again at the Bell Tower.

Demonstrators chanted pro-education slogans and carried signs that read, “Lack of Funding, High Stakes Testing, Grade: F,” “Invest in Kids,” “Education Matters in RPS” and “Retirees for Public Education.”

“We’re here to let our legislators know we need to have public education fully funded,” Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, told the Free Press.

“As classroom sizes increase, we have been underfunded,” she added. “We’re still being funded at the (year) 2000 per pupil level; that’s a decrease of 16 percent.”

State Secretary of Education Anne Holton attended the event with her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

In between posing for photographs with appreciative educators and speaking with concerned citizens, she told the Free Press she hoped the rally would inspire community members “to re-engage” in the legislative process and to advocate for more education funding.

She said it underscored the importance of citizens voting for public officials who would support additional funding for education.

Secretary Holton said she’s confident gains are being made in Virginia to measure student achievement in ways other than standardized testing.

About a dozen speakers addressed the enthusiastic audience.

Among them, Elijah Coles-Brown, a fifth-grader at Twin Hickory Elementary School in Henrico County. His story of mistreatment and being threatened with arrest by a police officer for an incident at Three Chopt Elementary School that officials determined was mutual “horseplay” was featured in TIME magazine earlier this month about the “school to prison pipeline” for African-American youths.

In the article, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Virginia first among states in sending students to police.

Elijah’s mother, Brenda Coles, transferred him to Twin Hickory after the incident.

At the rally, the 11-year-old Glen Allen resident drew loud cheers with his rousing remarks. He was thankful for the first-class facilities that he and other students enjoy at Twin Hickory that include an art studio, music room, library, playground and greenhouse.

“Every school in this commonwealth needs to be provided with the same needed resources, so that every child will have the same opportunity that I have at Twin Hickory,” he said.

“As I close out my speech,” he added, “I would like to give a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off, or take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.’ Now is the time to make real the promises of our education.”

Antonio Guilford, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond’s East End, passionately spoke on behalf of students and teachers at the school that serves the impoverished community.

“As teachers, we should have all of the resources we need to help our kids, but we do not,” he said. “I am tired of hearing that we can’t get the things we need because the budget has been cut.”

“Our school is barely accredited,” he added. “Virginia considers us nearly failing. … But when we are making progress, we should be celebrated, not punished.”

Three students from the school, wearing coats and ties, accompanied Mr. Guilford. They presented a three-prong message designed to rally support for students in schools facing accreditation challenges.

“I am more than a test score,” Charleston Freeman, president of the school’s Student Government Association, told the applauding audience.

“Don’t judge my school as failing because there are many success stories at MLK,” said Corvell Poag, vice president of the SGA. “I am one of them.”

“My safety and learning environment should matter,” added Muhammad Brothers, SGA treasurer. “I am asking everyone to put kids first.”