Children left behind

5/19/2022, 6 p.m.
In 2002, only about half of students in Richmond Public Schools rated as proficient in reading and math.

In 2002, only about half of students in Richmond Public Schools rated as proficient in reading and math.

And that represented improvement from the even lower testing levels recorded prior to the launch of the state’s Standards of Learning Program in 1998.

Fast forward 20 years and four superintendents and little has changed. Let’s not forget that a global pandemic made education an even tougher task for educators and students.

So here we are, two decades into a new millennium filled with every technological advance imaginable and much of it being developed at innovation centers and universities in the Commonwealth. Electric vehicles. High-speed rails. Vanity space flights. Mobile phones that tell you what you are thinking before you know what you’re thinking. Devices that talk to you whether you want them to or not.

Yet, despite such largesse, at least half, and likely even more, of students still are not achieving in the basic ingredients of education — reading, writing and basic math. Results of last fall’s Virginia Growth Assessment testing by the state Department of Education show that Richmond’s third- through eighth-graders are reading only at a 35 percent proficiency level for their grade and reaching a 10 percent proficiency level in mathematics.

Is it any wonder that our statistics in other areas, including teen violence, are off the charts. If one does not find success in the classroom, then one can look for other ways to succeed, even if it earns only societal disapproval and punishment.

Current Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras and his team, in recognition of the situation, last summer won School Board approval to pour $65 million from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan into a three-year campaign to boost reading success.

At this point, no data has been issued to let the school community and the broader community know if there has been even any initial progress. A Free Press inquiry about any signs of progress has gone unacknowledged and unanswered.

There already is concern that one element of this program, an extended-day operation that promoted extra reading help after the school day ended, is not functioning as well as envisioned.

Dr. Tracy Epp, RPS’ chief academic officer, told the School Board that boosting literacy and helping students make up for learning loss that occurred during the pandemic would be key elements of the programming.

First, the program is serving a fraction of students the city’s public schools. An October presentation on the program reported 1,381 students were enrolled at the 26 elementary schools or about one in 6 of the 8,450 students recorded as enrolled in the first through fifth grades.

In her October presentation, Dr. Tracy Epp, RPS’ chief academic officer, stated that parents of students who had fallen behind would be encouraged to have their children attend. But there is no evidence that the bulk of the students being served are those with significant learning loss.

The program was open to all, and enrollment, accord- ing to Dr. Epp, was closed after the initial round due to staffing issues.

RPS relies on three providers to run the extended-day enrichment program for elementary schools, which the approved 2021 plan envisioned as a major element of the initiative to close the learning gap in reading.

Heading the list is the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, which operates pro- grams at 14 schools and enrolled 635 students, according to the presentation.

According to DPRCF’s website, the program it dubs “Out of School Time” does not include an academic element.

Instead, the program “offers youth the opportunity to engage in arts and crafts, music, dance, nature and the environment, games and sports,” the website information states. And there is nothing wrong with that. The arts and sports can ignite both student interest and spill over into academics.

But there is no information showing how DPRCF’s programming dovetails with the RPS literacy initiative. And DPRCF lists a $120 fee to participate in its program, which could limit participation.

The YMCA of Greater Richmond is listed as serving 466 students at seven schools. The YMCA states on its website that it provides homework help, physical activities and a snack. A member of the YMCA staff said that the organization never promised to provide trained educators as staff for its program with Richmond.

And as happened earlier this week at one school, the YMCA has had to cancel the program due to not having sufficient staff. That can create problems for working parents who enrolled their children to have organized, healthy and safe activities and who must scramble to find an alternative.

Peter Paul Development Center, which is based in Church Hill, is operating five programs at the elementary schools in the East End and reports enrolling 280 students.

This is the only RPS partner that states on its website as having anything that resembles a program related to the literacy campaign. Peter Paul states that it is provid- ing “academic instruction in alignment with Richmond Public Schools’ instructional day” as well “reading and math assistance, enrichment experiences, snacks, meals and transportation.”

At this point, we are left to hope that the literacy initiative and its after-school component are making a difference.

It is past time, for the sake of our children and our city’s future, that every child who attends our public schools leaves with the ability to read, write, add and subtract at least at a fifth-grade level.

It is time to end the practices of leaving half of our children without even the minimal skills needed to suc- cessfully navigate the world.