RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Decades after the Civil Rights movement, America’s schools, including public schools in Richmond, continue to be segregated. Yet, there is a grassroots movement in the works to change that once students eventually fully return to the classroom, especially after a summer of calls for racial equality and justice.
Race and class play a factor
Richmond mom Kimberly Gomez plays ball with her kids outside their Near West End home.
“Where I live right now is a largely white, highly privileged part of the city,” Gomez said.
Based on where they live, her kids should attend Mary Munford Elementary School, but Gomez quickly noticed the school’s demographics don’t reflect the rest of Richmond’s student body.
“Neighborhoods have segregated,” said Dawn Page. She’s the Chair of the Richmond School Board. She said housing and socio-economics are big factors in the student populations at Richmond Public Schools. Sixty-three percent of the students in RPS as a whole are Black, yet at Mary Munford 75% of students are white.
“You don’t have to be, you know, an overt racist to say ‘I don’t want to go to school with Black kids.’ You just can just buy your house in a neighborhood that is situated where there are no Black or brown or poor kids that live there,” Gomez said.
The Richmond mother also noticed many of her neighbors send their young kids to Mary Munford. However, when it comes time for middle school, they either pay for private school or move out of the city, leaving RPS.
Pages has her thoughts on why: “Because we are a predominantly African American, Black and Brown school district, we are held to a different standard.”
Report finds increasing segregation
In 2016, Congress’ watchdog agency, the U.S Government Accountability Office, conducted an investigation. The agency found more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, America’s public schools are increasingly segregated by race and class.
It also found schools serving predominantly students of color get about $23 billion dollars less in federal funding than schools serving predominantly white students. Page believes funding and resources is a big part of why wealthier families leave RPS when it’s time for their children to enter middle school.
“Our state funding has not even kept up to their end of the bargain,” Page said.
Stay and choose to integrate
In 2017, Gomez, who is a former public school teacher, founded StayRVA. Normally the diverse group works to get parents stay in RVA and stay with RPS, and it continues to do so even with virtual learning.
“Kind of the core piece of it is really trying to build an anti-racist coalition of Black, brown and white folks who really believe in public education,” Gomez explained.
Gomez realized if she really wanted to make a difference, she needed to go one step further.
“If I am a white lady saying ‘Oh schools matter,’ then where am I putting my kid in school?” she asked.
Gomez and her husband, who is Mexican, have three children enrolled in RPS. Instead of walking them to the school in her neighborhood, Mary Munford, through the open enrollment system she chooses to drive her kids three miles away to John B Cary Elementary. It is a more racially and socially diverse school with perhaps fewer resources. But that last part doesn’t bother her.
“I think they need infinite love. I don’t think they need infinite resources,” Gomez said.
A grassroots movement
Gomez’ efforts mirror a national grassroots movement called Integrated Schools. She’s become a board member of the group focused on integrating with equity around the nation.
“We have about 28 chapters across the country,” Anna Lodder said. She lives in Los Angeles with her two kids and heads the group’s transitional leadership committee.
“I love my kids more than I love anybody, but I don’t think my kids inherently deserve more than anybody else’s kids,” Lodder explained.
Lodder says even when white families enroll in schools with predominantly Black or Latino students, they often do so with a “colonizing” mindset: “We are going to set up a special program or we’re going to set up gifted and talented,” Lodder explained.
Instead, the LA mom sends her kids to an urban public school and chooses to follow rather than lead.
“Now I am just a participant. I am not president of the PTA,” Lodder said. She said with the renewed calls for racial equity around the nation, Integrated Schools has seen tremendous growth in the last six months. The group also has a podcast where people can learn more and be kept up-to-date on efforts.
Page thinks what these moms are going is great. She said, ultimately, ending segregation comes down to mindset.
“At the end of the day, we learn so much from one another — but you have to have the willingness,” she said.
Limitations and legislation
Both moms say their kids are happy and thriving and they call that a success.
Yet, they admit it can be hard to get other families to sign on. School factors like accreditation, testing scores and resources weigh heavily with many parents. This is why Page says more funding and resources are needed to improve school buildings, technology and maintain quality teachers.
In the meantime, Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott has introduced the Strength In Diversity Act. It establishes a grant program that provides federal funding for school districts to implement and expand efforts to integrate local schools. Congressman Scott talks about it on an episode of the Integrated Schools podcast. The bill has already passed the full House.
Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.