Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Want to change Richmond’s public schools?

Change, even in Richmond, is inevitable.

To back up that claim, one needs only to walk through Capitol Square to see the new Virginia Civil Rights Memorial that was dedicated on July 21, 2008.

The sculpture, by Stanley Bleifeld, is about change. Three of its sides recall of the heroism of those who walked around the Massive Resisters then in power, as they marched toward fair treatment and a better education. The fourth side’s figures suggest changes yet to come.

The 18 figures of the piece are not presented in heroic proportions. They are just slightly larger than life-size and they all stand on a low-rise platform, allowing viewers to stand along side them. In that way the art suggests everyday people, on the level with the rest of us, can be heroes, too.

In 1951, when Barbara Johns led the “walk-out” demonstration at Moton High in Farmville, which the sculpture recognizes, the kids were risking their lives for change. Some of them may not have felt that, as much of the worst violence of the Civil Rights Era was yet to come. Others may have been so caught up in the spirit of the moment, surfing a wave of hope, they didn’t sense how provocative their peaceful gesture might seem to the authorities.

In the presidential campaign now underway Sen. Barack Obama has adopted the word “change” as a one-word slogan. After mocking him, his opponents began to use the very same word in their speeches. It seems change is not only inevitable, sometimes it is more universally welcome than others.

Now everybody is for change, but not necessarily the same changes. Obama has been talking about changes that come from the bottom up. He casts himself as one who would facilitate the sort of improvements people on the bottom -- out of power -- need to have a better life. If he wins and lives up to his lofty campaign rhetoric, he can be expected to then try to affect change from the top down.

To make meaningful changes that get traction it usually takes simultaneous pressure from the top and the bottom. Too much heavy-handed, top downism is asking for a trouble with workers and the underclass, a revolution. Too much bottom up is a revolution.

Unless a sitting governor’s wife had not decided she wanted to put a memorial to Virginia’s Civil Rights heroes in Capitol Square, Bleifeld’s well-executed statement simply would not exist.

The Farmville students' call for change from the bottom up inspired a movement which inspired the artist. But the actual changes in public schools that have attempted to answer that righteous call had to have been made by those in power.

Likewise, the political push and fundraising for the memorial had to be done by those in power.

Back to schools, the extreme emphasis on test results that has loomed over public education in the last decade was a change from the top down. Before the Standards of Learning/No Child Left Behind era, parents weren’t calling for standardized testing to cure the ills of public education.

No, they were calling for better teachers and decent facilities. They still are.

Are our leaders in Richmond today listening to what parents and students say they need from public education? Or, are they busy driving their kids out to their private schools?

Richmond School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf asks, “What will it take to bring Richmond’s black and white middle class back into our public schools?

My best answer to her question is that it will take a sincere effort to change, both from the bottom up and the top down. And, it will take good leadership.

From the podium on Monday morning, before unveiling the monument, Gov. Tim Kaine recalled the photographs of his wife as a girl -- Virginia’s First Lady Anne Holton, with her father, then-Gov. Linwood Holton -- walking into a public school in Richmond. In its time that black and white image was an inspiration to millions looking for a sign of real change.

Now it’s time for Richmond’s political, business and religious leaders to send their children and grandchildren back to public schools. Instead of more studies, they need to be listening to their kids telling them what is really going on in public schools.

Fifty-four years after the Brown vs. Board of Education Decision, isn’t it time for Richmond’s government to guarantee that an honest effort will be made to offer a quality education to children in every neighborhood in town?

Can't we elect fellow citizens to office who will see to it that change becomes our friend?

What will it take? Indeed.

No comments: