'When RPS succeeds, we all succeed': Q&A with Richmond mayor's Education Compact appointees

By Justin Mattingly, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 804-649-6012

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2018

Richmond School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page spoke in June during a joint meeting of public officials to discuss the Education Compact.

Richmond School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page spoke in June during a joint meeting of public officials to discuss the Education Compact. The board and the City Council approved the compact in August. (Photo: the Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The Richmond School Board plans to appoint members to the city’s Education Compact at its meeting Tuesday.

The City Council has appointed its three representatives. Both the mayor and the School Board, according to the terms of the compact, are in charge of naming up to six people to the Education Compact Team, one of three components of the city initiative to improve Richmond Public Schools.

The School Board received 85 applications to join the compact. The body plans to take up action Tuesday on its appointments, according to the agenda for the meeting.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has appointed these six people to the Education Compact Team, which will meet monthly:

  • Kelly Chopus, CEO of the Robins Foundation;
  • Andrew Daire, dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education;
  • Willie Hilliard, manager of Trent’s Barber Shop and president of the Brookland Park Area Association;
  • Cindy Menz-Erb, a former member of the School Board;
  • Amy Wentz, an Army veteran who has founded two organizations dedicated to uplifting the black community; and
  • Shelley Worsham, the communications chair of the Fan District Association.
  • Five of the six — Worsham could not be reached — were asked the same questions about RPS and the compact. Below are their responses, in their own words.

    What do you hope to accomplish with the compact?

    Chopus: I want to serve my community. Out of that service, I hope my participation demonstrates work towards effective community alignment, encourages elevated conversations that put children first, and addresses education policy and advocacy for pre-K through graduation. We have to do right by our youngest residents — their education is the single most important collective work of our society. We have to ensure they are prepared to succeed in life.

    "The School of Education can be an important partner in aligning initiatives to best support the aim of the Education Compact."
    – Dr. Andrew Daire

    Daire: The RVA Education Compact aims to improve children’s lives and family outcomes in Richmond. This aligns with the School of Education’s aim to be the leader in urban education and to prepare educators and other professionals to be successful and impactful in urban schools, communities and families. The School of Education can be an important partner in aligning initiatives to best support the aim of the Education Compact.

    Hilliard: To bring all parties involved into a unified vision, that can advance RPS into one cohesive organism that can finally put RPS on equal footing with other, more successful districts.

    Menz-Erb: My hope is that the compact team will provide additional support and resources for Richmond Public Schools to help further its vision and ensure strong and wholistic support for families in Richmond. I will work collaboratively to make meaningful progress on the initiatives that come before the compact team. I plan to offer my experience and background to bring ideas and potential solutions to move RPS toward a place of support and success for every child in Richmond Public Schools.

    Wentz: I would hope that I could leverage the community relationships and engagement I have committed to building over the past 20 years in efforts to help with the Education Compact’s goal of enhancing collaboration between city agencies whose operations directly affect children and families and representatives of the school division to facilitate improved communication, to identify opportunities for productive collaboration, and to implement various projects and initiatives.

    Where do you see Richmond Public Schools in five years?

    Chopus: I am thrilled with the School Board’s excellent hire in Jason Kamras as superintendent. I am fully confident he can and will implement a strategic vision for our school system that propels transformation in three areas: equitable outcomes for children from every family background and income, instruction/teacher support and student achievement. I see RPS thriving in five years, fully accredited once again and with a community-driven, community-supported graduation rate of 95 percent. I also see Kamras signing his second contract with RPS.

    Daire: I am quite excited about Jason Kamras and what his leadership and experience will bring to RPS and Richmond. There are a large number of stakeholders and partners, including VCU SOE, who will continue to work hand in hand with RPS to ensure the success of all students. In five years, I see improved student achievement, an increase in out-of-school/after-school programs, improved and increased parent engagement, an increase in fully licensed teachers, and stronger professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators.

    Hilliard: I see it continuing to grow into a cohesive unit that all entities (parents, students and staff) can be proud to call their own.

    Menz-Erb: The City of Richmond and Richmond Public Schools are at a pivotal moment where there is strong support from the City Council and the mayor’s office, and we have an experienced and passionate new leader coming in February. We have the community coming together through the Education Compact with the common goal to support the work and progress of RPS for the good of all children in Richmond. I am hopeful that in five years, we will have a school system that is on a steep, upward trajectory and is serving families and kids more equitably, which means that all kids will have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

    Wentz: In five years, I see Richmond Public Schools living up to our motto in being Resilient, Prideful and Successful where all students are receiving equitable access to a quality education.

    How will your work in your current role help the Compact?

    Chopus: I represent one of the largest, oldest private grantmaking foundations in the region. For 60 years, our legacy has been to serve and fund community initiatives through contributions to organizations which support public schools from early childhood development and education through high school graduation. We have evolved over the past four years and recognized that sustainable impact and change required that our foundation place a priority on impacting education policy and practice. We want to solve and serve simultaneously. Richmond is our hometown, and we care deeply about her future. When RPS succeeds, we all succeed.

    Daire: I hope to provide a voice on how higher education, particularly colleges and schools of education, can leverage our talents, resources and initiatives in a manner that aligns with the aims of the Compact and contribute to the systemic change needed to ensure that all of our children have the best educational opportunities and potential for success.

    Hilliard: I have been a longtime volunteer/contributor to RPS, so I have some real insight into its inner workings. Also as an alumni and parent of two current RPS students, I feel that my perspective would be completely honest and heartfelt.

    Menz-Erb: First, I am the mom of two girls, Charlie, who attends Holton Elementary, and Raina, who is 2 years old. As an RPS parent, I am deeply invested in our schools. As a previous School Board member, I have a unique understanding of RPS. Professionally, I work as a consultant for a New York-based company that provides search services for the social sector. This role gives me the opportunity to engage with innovative nonprofits, many of which are doing work in urban public-school districts across the country. I’ve worked in public education and community based organizations for the past 20 years. I was the executive director of two nonprofits where my responsibilities included strategic planning, budget management, program development and evaluation, fundraising and staff oversight. Through this work, I had to opportunity to work in nearly 100 Title I middle and high schools across New York City. I believe all of these experiences will be helpful to my work on the compact team.

    Wentz: As a graduate of Richmond Public Schools (attended John B. Cary ES, J.B. Fisher ES, Thompson MS and Huguenot HS) and a single mother (recent RPS graduate and a toddler about to enter preschool), all suggestions made by the Education Compact, if implemented, will directly affect the educational outcomes of my own child, along with the many children I’ve grown to love as a lifetime Richmonder. Parent voices are often not heard, and I hope to raise concerns, suggestions and solution-based ideas that come directly from fellow RPS parents.

    What do you see as the biggest opportunity in the district?

    Chopus: Elected and volunteer leadership is our main asset. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to align and marry the skills and expertise of our City Council, School Board and other elected officials with those of community volunteers, parents and other interested stakeholders. Connecting the dots between budgets, political agendas and strategic vision with the community’s need for an educated, skilled, thriving citizenry is an exciting mandate. Richmond deserves excellence. Public education is everyone’s priority.

    Daire: To develop an effective and systemic strategy and support for RPS, City of Richmond, and other stakeholders to work collectively for the success of our children.

    Hilliard: At this moment, I think there’s finally the chance to set RPS on a tract that will make it a desirable district that everyone can be proud of. It has to be now, so that the exodus of students and great teachers can stop.

    Menz-Erb: Our greatest opportunity is to continue the momentum that has been built over the past year. We must support our new Superintendent and the School Board while pushing them to make the hard choices for the good of all kids. We must access all the resources available in our region and beyond and we must be willing to try new ways of doing things. RPS can be a world-class school system for every student, but we will need bold and courageous action to get there.

    Wentz: Addressing specific school practices and policies that hinder student success and fail to adequately address student needs. Student needs should be at the forefront of all decision making.

    What do you see as the biggest challenge?

    Chopus: Equity issues are the biggest challenges for our district. I think finding a way to amplify and sustain representation of the student and family voice is paramount. We must validate and empower that voice for the long term. When I was a new parent I had the support I needed to navigate a complex system and bureaucracy to be able to advocate for my three children. Every Richmond parent deserves the same support. Our community has to come together, and agree together, on common goals and the plan for achieving that level of support and engagement.

    Daire: A challenge will be moving meaningfully but with a sense of urgency. Often times, persons at ‘the table’ to influence positive change in the lives of children forget the privileges they have/had and the privileges their own children have and become complacent moving at a pace that is not commensurate with the urgency of the situation.

    Hilliard: The biggest challenge I see is that everyone involved is principled in their desires to see RPS succeed and not just letting their own self interests take hold.

    Menz-Erb: Our biggest challenge is that we are not graduating enough of our students prepared for college or careers. To move us in that direction we need an intense focus on improving teaching and learning. This starts with ensuring we have a highly qualified and dedicated Principal in every school who will ensure strong recruitment, support and growth of highly qualified and dedicated teachers for every classroom. We should also work to strengthen parental engagement and supports for families including providing comprehensive after-school programs.

    Wentz: Unfortunately, our City has faced historic and intentional social and economic inequities in many of the neighborhoods filled with children that attend Richmond Public Schools. The residual effects of these long-time inequities have seeped into our Education system and are counterproductive to achieving successful outcomes for our students. The good news is, the creation of the Education Compact and the hiring of our new Superintendent, who has cited equity as a priority, are signs that we are headed in the right direction!

    Richmond Times-Dispatch Story