In the Byrd Park area, we've had to follow the rezoning soap opera and threats to close one of our elementary schools just to figure out what our options are for our children's education. But, if you think that's a lot of hand-wringing, at least we don't have to decide if we want our 4 year olds attending pre-school on top of a methane-belching landfill that was closed as a public school facility several years ago. That's the situation in the East End brought on by Superintendent of Schools, Yvonne Brandon and eight of nine school board members. Chris Dovi's Richmond Mag blog has the details and history of this environmental racism controversy.
For some reason, Richmond's school leadership made a last-minute decision to reopen A.V. Norrell, a school that was closed during a sewage-contaminated flood amidst accusations that children were already getting sick, allegedly because the schoolyard methane levels were high (the poisonous gas rises up out of the decomposing landfill buried beneath the school). The school yard actually features a fenced-in metal exhaust vent with an eternal flame for burning off the excess methane. Would this give any of you pause as you drop off your child at school?
On just over a week's notice, September 10th, RPS intends to send 250 East End pre-schoolers to the site to free up space at other schools. This fact inspires head-scratching as well. Here's civic leader, Antoine Green:
“My issue with it now is basically in light of the dialogue that we’ve had over the past school year about closing three of our most academically successful schools, we now find ourselves reopening another school that we all know to have been built on a landfill,” Green says. “Wouldn’t it make sense to solve that problem of under-enrollment by including those students in a school [that’s underpopulated]?”
West of downtown, there is a high level of critical input and questioning of Richmond Public Schools, for better or worse, depending on your point of view. Maybe that's one reason why we have Fox and Munford and we haven't seen our children routed towards a facility any more controversial than Maymont elementary. However, other parts of town put more trust in their school system to represent their interests and to take good care of the children. Perhaps lack of consideration (or fear of accountability) prompted the hasty decision to resurrect the toxic A.V. Norrell Elementary as a region-wide pre-school facility without actively seeking public input.
Those who originally pushed for A.V. Norrell to be closed are mobilizing again at Tuesday's School Board meeting and are asking for help holding school leadership accountable. Maybe this issue doesn't affect our neighborhoods directly, but higher standards for the care and education of Richmond's children benefits us all.
End note: As author of this post, I've taken a keen interest in this story, because I lived near Battery Park when the area flooded with sewage in 2006. We couldn't go anywhere near A.V. Norrell, as the blocks around it were taped off. Prior to that, I was involved with community groups concerned about the school and the school board's attitude toward its children and parents. This week, I'll take my oldest child to pre-school at Maymont, where our biggest concern is whether the state-of-the-art outdoor toys are still functioning in the newly installed playground. I'm grateful for the privilege of our education options, and I think everyone else should have access to the same.