Get ready, Norfolk – April 29 is a big date. You’re invited to attend not one, but two prominent discussions about the future of our city.
The first is brought to you by the Norfolk Collaboratory, “a fun and creative way to crowdsource Norfolk’s story.” This story appears to take place mostly downtown – highlights include new apartment buildings, a new hotel and conference center, a new public library, the renovation of Waterside, the expansion of the Chrysler Museum, and an emerging arts district. “If packaged and promoted just right,” the email invitation reads, “these projects and dozens of other exciting developments can change our city’s trajectory in becoming one of America’s best places to live, work, and play.”
I’m enthusiastic about many of the items on the Collaboratory’s list. I enjoy living in a city with a scenic waterfront, a walkable downtown, and plenty of fun things to do. All of these things look great in the city’s marketing materials – but Norfolk is more than a brand. Real people live here, and their quality of life depends on much more than big-name development projects.
So let’s open up that second invitation, to a very different kind of public discussion. At 6:30 pm, many of the City Council and Mayoral candidates will gather to share their perspectives on the future of Norfolk’s public schools. This education forum is sponsored by the grassroots advocacy group Norfolk GAINS, the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, the Norfolk YMCAs, the League of Women Voters, and PFLAG.
To attend the education forum, you’ll leave downtown and head up Tidewater Drive to Lafayette-Winona Middle School. Lafayette-Winona was constructed in 1991, making it one of Norfolk Public Schools’ newer facilities. Unfortunately, its academic record is among the worst in Virginia, having been denied state accreditation for the past four years. It’s likely to close altogether in the upcoming year, in need of much more than the right packaging and promotion to become a best place to go to school.
Lafayette-Winona is an ideal site for honest discussion about the issue that most affects Norfolk residents’ quality of life – the well-being of our public schools.
Excellent public schools are the foundation of strong communities. They foster well-prepared graduates and a sought-after workforce, encouraging business investment. They strengthen neighborhoods and raise property values – benefits that touch all Norfolk residents, with or without school-age children. A new hotel and conference center won’t inspire many people to settle in Norfolk permanently – but outstanding public schools certainly can.
So why aren’t schools an integral part of the vision that’s being touted on the Norfolk Collaboratory’s website? (The stand-out exception is a terrific-looking new preschool sponsored by Elevate Early Education.) I can’t decide whether the Collaboratory doesn’t really believe that schools are an important driver of economic development, or if NPS doesn’t fit the “exciting story” the Collaboratory wants to tell. I can see how the reality of underperforming public schools might put a damper on the upbeat messaging.
final report that was presented last month by the Dejong-Richter consulting firm. Using this report as a blueprint, the School Board proposes to construct new schools – most ambitiously, a citywide career and technical high school at the current Lake Taylor High School – as well as to close others and make better use of existing facilities. The introduction of special focus programs and “choice” schools, and the reorganization of attendance zones, are among the new initiatives.As it happens, NPS is working to change its trajectory too, even if the packaging and promotion isn’t quite as slick. A menu of reform proposals can be found in the
These plans give me hope, but they aren’t a quick fix to all that ails NPS. Our schools demand the immediate attention of city leaders.
This year, 30 of Norfolk’s 45 schools did not earn full accreditation, because their students’ test scores and graduation rates did not meet minimum standards set by the Virginia Department of Education. In order to improve academic performance, NPS must attract and retain the best teachers, which will require increasing their compensation. More funds are urgently needed for school maintenance and construction as well. The physical condition of too many school buildings is deplorable – mold, flooding, peeling paint, and decrepit electrical systems are among the obvious signs of neglect. You won’t see these things on the Collaboratory’s website, but they’re a part of Norfolk’s story too – the part that most needs to change.
Two events on April 29, two discussions of Norfolk’s future. Both are important in their own ways, but there’s no question which event ought to take precedence. I hope to see you there, Norfolk.