by Charles McGuigan
The Third District race for North Side’s representation on the Richmond School Board has been one of the hardest fought campaigns of its kind in years, in large part because our schools seem to be at a critical juncture. Years of lip service and lack of transparency have made it all but impossible for children to thrive in some of our public schools. After Jeff Bourne vacated his seat on the School Board to assume his role in the House of Delegates after a landslide victory, Cindy Menz-Erb was installed as the Third District’s interim representative. At one point this summer there were six candidates vying for that seat—Dorian Daniels, Kenya Gibson, Joann Henry, Lathaniel Kirts, Kevin Starlings, and, of course, Cindy. Two of those dropped out earlier, but Kevin Starlings was still in the running at the time of a roundtable discussion conducted by North of the James. He has since withdrawn. Only three remain. Joann, Cindy and Kenya. And each one of these candidates has both expertise and passion about public schools and our children.
Seated around the elliptical table in the conference room at Stir Crazy the four candidates then competing for Richmond’s Third District School Board seat in a special election this November stayed in a relatively stable orbit around the main theme of public education. One of them, Kevin Starling, would drop out of the race two weeks after this round table discussion so his comments have been eliminated from this piece. For more than two hours the discussion revolved around the table, and what became increasingly clear as the candidates spoke their minds was how every one of them was both informed and passionate. It is a shame that all of them can’t be elected; each would serve our city schools well. But only one of the remaining three—Joann Henry, Cindy Menz-Erb, or Kenya Gibson—will represent the Third District. Whoever wins will inherit challenges that have stymied past School Boards. To actually effect change there will need to be an overhaul of an entrenched bureaucracy because, like it or not, it seems all but impossible to clean the 17th floor of City Hall, and to remove deadwood administrators from some of our public schools—ineffective principals and their assistants. Whichever candidate wins will need industrial-strength cleaning agents and a willingness to scrub hard at the grime of a bureaucracy that has gone unchecked for decades. Each candidate was first asked her qualifications.
“I live in Bellevue; I’ve been here for about ten years,” says Kenya Gibson. “I’ve got two kids in the public schools. My qualifications to hold the office are my role as an advocate. I’ve had a student in Richmond Public Schools for seven years and in that time I’ve made it my priority to be an advocate that is informed and involved. I really want to be part of the solution. I’ve been active in the PTA and that happened as a result of the advocacy piece. Folks saw that I was working with other advocates in the city on public education stuff, and they were looking for more folks to get involved, and so I signed on.”
One of the things Kenya advocated for was salary decompression. Simply put this refers to a practice in the Richmond schools where new teachers are hired on at similar and, in some cases, higher rates than veteran teachers in the city. “Through our efforts we were able to get the two-year salary decompression, which was really important,” says Kenya. “We had teachers with nine years of experience that were on the same pay scale as teachers with one year experience.”
Other qualifications include Kenya’s own upbringing. “I went to public schools,” she says. “My parents sent me to integrated schools, and I went to schools in urban areas that were magnet programs when we lived in suburban areas. We lived in a mixed -income development in a very elite suburb of Boston that had busing. Integrated schools had been something that I was raised with and I attribute that to my success in life.” Kenya went college at Yale University and the University of William and May. She studied architecture, economics and fine arts. “I really believe my success in life has come through the experience that I had in public schools,” she says. “I had great teachers and a very strong curriculum, but in addition to that were the relationships I developed with folks, kids that I had a lot in common with and kids that I didn’t have anything in common with. I think we really underestimate the importance of that, the fact that we’re not just shaping kids to take tests, we’re shaping them to become citizens. As an adult now, I’m able to get along with all kinds of folks and I attribute that to the background I had.”
“I am a product of Hopewell, Virginia,” says Joann Henry. “I graduated from Hopewell High School, and I think education was my destiny.” After graduation, Joann went to work as a secretary in the Richmond Public Schools. “I was the first secretary to the director of federal programs,” she says. “Our department was responsible for grant writing to bring all different kinds of programs into the school system.”
She received her bachelor’s in business education, and her master’s in business education, and administration and supervision from Virginia State University. Joann later earned her doctorate in education leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Throughout the years, she has worked in the Richmond Public Schools. “I started teaching in 1992 at Armstrong (High School) and during that time I used to take students on field trips and raised money to take them to Europe,” says Joann. “I taught children how to be entrepreneurs, and I created a remediation program.”
She later moved on to an administrative position. “I was assistant principal at Armstrong, and we were accredited until I left,” Joann says. “As assistant principal I created a school called Twilight Academy where students could get on their right grade level.”
Cindy Menz-Erb has lived in Richmond for just a little over a year, and her oldest daughter just started at Holton Elementary School this fall. Yet of all the candidates, she is the only one who has experience on the Richmond School Board. Cindy, who grew up in New Jersey, holds a bachelor’s in communications and a master’s is in community development.
Before she tells me a bit about herself, she clarifies an incident that has been talked about quite a lot. “When I heard that David Hudson was looking to move to Franklin Military (Academy), I did go in and suggest that Henderson (Middle School) might be another option if he was looking for a new challenge,” she says. “As a parent I was sad to see him go, but as a School Board member I am very, very glad that he stayed within the system because we tend to lose principals to the counties, and I’m real excited about what he’s going to do at Franklin Military. Just to clarify though, I didn’t have any conversations with him prior to him applying for and interviewing for the position at Franklin.”
“My last full-time job was as an executive director of a non-profit that supported families with young kids to help them stabilize and ultimately get out of poverty,” says Cindy. “The work we did was focused on kids zero to five for a couple of reasons. One, because early developmental years are so, so vital for kids, and so we worked with parents to help them stabilize during that really critical early development time. And two, by the time kids get to school, by the time they enter kindergarten, either they’re ready for school and on track or not, and if they’re not, getting them on track is really challenging for public school systems across the board. If they’re living in poverty at five years old, it is highly likely statistically that they will be adults in poverty.”
“Prior to that I worked for an organization that did training for parents and kids and teachers together to help bridge the divide between what was happening in their home and what was happening in school buildings to attempt to build a stronger home-school connection,” she says. “While I was with that organization I worked with a collaboration that won $23 million to the City of New York. During that time I worked with a hundred middle and high schools across New York that were in pretty high poverty neighborhoods.”
These work experiences have helped her a great deal as an appointed representative. “It has been really helpful in the last six or seven months since I’ve been on the School Board,” says Cindy. “I have also had an intensive learning experience in the last six months. I think I have learned quite a bit, but I don’t pretend that I know more than I do, or that I have history in the Richmond public Schools that I don’t have.”
of government seems to be on the minds of many Richmonders these days. When I ask about the recent secretive removal of Superintendent Dana Bedden, Kenya says: “I was disappointed about the change in the superintendent leadership. The timing was poor, and now we’re under state scrutiny with the memorandum of understanding.”
Cindy, who had just been serving on the School Board for under a month, was in a closed door session with other board members. “When that conversation was broached, I recused myself from the conversation in the closed session because I didn’t have enough experience,” she says. “What I voted for was an approval of the contract. I recused myself and voted to approve the contract that he (Bedden) also signed. Part of my responsibility is to not talk about closed session items in the public.”
Looking forward, Cindy hopes the School Board will soon hire what she calls an “awesome” superintendent. “And we’re going to give him or her the ability to do what they need to do to make progress,” she says. “I think we need to give somebody some room to come in once we hire somebody to say we need some radical change and we need to give them some space to do that.”
When asked if she endorsed Paul Goldman’s Fulfilling the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunities Referendum, which will be on this November’s ballot, Cindy shakes her head. If the referendum is approved, Richmond’s mayor would be directed to produce, within six months, a plan for fixing the city schools without raising taxes.
“It’s clear that a lot of people want to prioritize facilities, and I believe that we need to listen to the voters on that,” Cindy says. “I think the referendum is complicated, and I don’t actually love it being boiled down to a binary choice. That being said, what I don’t want to do is tie the hands of our government in any way. I think we need to put all things on the table to ensure that we can fund schools. That’s what I think. I do think that we need to prioritize facilities. I want to make progress. I don’t want to do anything that ties our hands on that.”
Joann favored the referendum from the beginning. “We worked hard getting the signatures for that referendum,” she says. “We got 6,600 signatures (well over half the signatures required) in the first twenty-four hours.”
Kenya sounds tired of excuses. “As it pertains to the charter change,” she says of the referendum. “My thoughts are that it is unconventional, but I think we need to address this because we’re in a place where we’ve talking about plans for over a decade, and nothing is happening. I am in favor of the referendum.”
I next ask the three candidates what each will do if elected.
“First of all, I would be representing the Third District, and I would like to see the IB program as well as the STEM program in our district,” says Joann. “Also, I would like to improve Ginter Park, Henderson, John Marshall, and the Tech Center.”
“We must improve because the Tech Center because students are going there, but they aren’t prepared when they leave to get a career and to be certified with a skill,” she says. “So we have to look at those programs. Henderson and Ginter Park have been failing for several years, and we’ve got to get in and fix those schools. You do not start remediation in January preparing them for SOLs; you start two weeks after school opens. And you keep looking at your data to track the student’s success.”
Joann pauses briefly and then resumes. “Before our school system can get on the right track, we need to remember it’s about our students,” she says. “You know, the most important people in a school system are the teachers and the students. Those are the important people, but for some reason we’re forgetting that because we are mistreating our teachers.”
And then she takes aim at Central Office. “We have people downtown in administration, and they’re getting paid nice money,” says Joann. “They know that when they see data about nineteen schools being unaccredited they need to go out there to try to help those principals and teachers in those schools to make them better because that’s what we’re paying them for. You go out there and make those schools better.”
Joann also believes the school district needs to begin promoting administrators from within. “What I’m saying is, we have our assistant principals in these schools,” she says. “When a principal says, ‘I am leaving’, bring up another assistant principal. Because Richmond Public Schools send their assistant principals to University of Richmond and they train them, and then put them back in the school system. Yet they bring in principals from outside of the system. These assistant principals have been in this system for over five years. They should be the ones moving up.”
“Talent is one of the most important things we have,” Cindy says. “I think we need to be graduating kids that are ready for college and careers, and we’re graduating a huge number of kids that are not ready for either, with diplomas that are worth nothing. And so I think that needs to be our focus. I think the Tech Center is doing good work. I think it’s underutilized. I think we should be thinking about our high schools across the board as specialty schools, and driving kids to things they’re interested in. That kids are able to be on whatever track they’re interested in, and it doesn’t necessarily pigeonhole them, but it gives them a lot of opportunity to try new things, to be driven, to be engaged.”
“I think we need to hire a chief talent officer who reports directly to the superintendent,” she continues. “We need somebody who is going to think more strategically about talent. This person would create a much more strategic plan for recruitment of teachers, principals and assistant principals. It has to happen year-long, and it needs to be more creative. We need to build a pipeline for principals like what Dr. Henry was talking about where we’re actually training APs. And training teachers who want to go on the leadership track.”
When she considers equity in the schools across the city, Cindy believes it all starts with the school’s tone-setter. “I think we start with ensuring that every school has an incredible, qualified, talented principal,” she says. “I think we have a few good principals, but we need to ensure that we have awesome principals in every single building, because when you have awesome principals then you have great teachers, and they stay. Holton’s a great example of that. I think we have to revolutionize how we’re doing HR and talent.”
“I would also focus on building 21st century facilities with equity across the board, and focusing on culture and climate,” says Cindy. “Things like providing restorative justice mechanisms instead of just kicking kids out of school. We’re suspending and expelling at unfortunate rates. I am not an expert in restorative justice, but I do want to bring some of those programs into our schools, because I think that we could be doing a far better job of helping kids learn to cope. We also need to provide more supports outside of the school buildings, and a stronger connection between out-of-school time and what’s happening in the school building. We need to have after-school programs for all families.”
“There’s the piece of culture, and I think that needs to be addressed through relationship and community, because we are talking about people,” Kenya says. “I don’t believe we’ll be able to move the needle without bringing the community along with us, and having those difficult conversations that we’ve avoided. Whether we should have specialty schools in the city, or whether we should have programs that might draw in middle-class families, or how to address the transportation issue, or what is the procedure in place for promoting folks, because these things are not black and white. When we come in and make changes and we don’t communicate that down, folks don’t come along with us. So it doesn’t matter how brilliant an idea is. We need to be all on the same page in order to make anything happen.”
“From a more academic perspective this is one of the things that is close to my heart,” says Kenya. “Exceptional education. Things are changing about how we educate kids. It’s not about how we educate the traditional learner. We need to get that right. When I was talking about pulling middle-class families in, I really believe that the opportunity there is with exceptional education. Specialty schools? They have them all over. But I can tell you what they also have all over. Frustrated parents who aren’t able to get their kids the accommodations that they need in the system. A lot of the frustration is in the identification piece. We have small, tight boxes the state has identified, and as such it becomes a challenge to figure out which box your kid fits in, and as you’re going through that process we’re missing opportunities to be able to address the needs that are there. And many of those support systems or accommodations are not just good for a kid with special needs, they’re good for every kid.”
Then Kenya talks about something that has always been sorely lacking in education.
“It’s important that we teach our kids social justice,” she says. “I don’t know that Henrico would be open to teaching social justice, or Hanover, or Chesterfield, though these counties have areas that have schools with poverty very similar to the schools that we have in Richmond.”
And to that end, our schools should celebrate and accept what is uniquely Richmond. “We are never going to be a Henrico, or a Hanover, or a Chesterfield,” says Kenya. “So rather than try to become something that we are not, how can we maximize who we are, and really embrace the multicultural diversity of our school system.”
Parents need to set examples for their children. “I think that’s what we challenge parents with,” Kenya says. “Reach out to people you don’t know. I think it’s important to look at the history. As a PTA leader one of my goals was to grow the engagement in our school so I read up. Interesting to find out there used to be two Richmond PTA organizations, back in the fifties. There was an African-American PTA, and then there was a white PTA, and eventually the African-American PTA was absorbed by the white PTA. So when we talk about the fact that families of color may not be engaged with the PTA, we have to acknowledge that there is history. I think we have to also appreciate the fact that the American dream is based on the reality that regardless of your parents, or who your parents were, we will provide the opportunity for you to be able to succeed. And I think that that’s the key.”