Testing, Homework and Racism in Norfolk Public Schools

With all of the furor and stupidity surrounding the presidential election, I’d like to draw your attention back home here to Norfolk, Virginia. The wisteria and azaleas are blooming, one last cold snap from winter has grasped our air, and we are only weeks away from a very important municipal election on May 3rd. On the ballot will be a new mayoral contest, as the incumbent of 22 years is not seeking re-election, and for the first time in decades we will be electing members to our school board. The school board race is where I’d like for us to sit and have a discussion.

If I had the attention of the two candidates who are running for school board in superward 6, Dr. Noel Gabriel and Carter Smith, there are quite a few things that I would like to hear them address that extend beyond their current talking points:

  1. Testing: Last year, the late Virginia Senator, John Miller, passed a bill, SB 336, through the general assembly to begin reducing the number of SOL tests required from 29 to 17. However, this does not address the preparation testing culture that has pervaded K-5. My 7 year old first grader does not take an SOL for 2 more years, however, he is regularly tested on content in the same format as the SOL in order to prepare him for the structure of the future test. The teacher is not allowed to prompt him if she sees him struggling to find the answer. Even though he performs well at home and on his homework, he receives failing grades on all of his tests because he is being held to the testing standards of 9 year olds. This is unacceptable. It has already given him high testing and performance anxiety. I want to know how our school board candidates will encourage less testing in the classroom for assessment and preparation testing that is developmentally inappropriate for younger students.
  2. Homework: There is significant research that suggests that homework in grades K-5 does not have any significant correlation with academic achievement. And if there is slight a correlation, that anything past 10 minutes per grade level actually does more harm than good. My first grader regularly spends 30+ minutes a night working on homework plus an added 20 minutes of required reading. With extreme testing practices and an onslaught of homework, first graders are expected to perform at grade levels and ages much more advanced than is developmentally appropriate and creates high anxiety and stress levels. Not only that, they’re spending hours and hours a day doing school work when they need to be playing.  Which brings me to #3.
  3. RecessNo teacher should have the right to take away recess as a punishment. Unstructured play is not just a way to combat obesity and improve wellness. It is an important learning tool and process for children. It isn’t something that can be tested and standardized but it is vitally important for how children learn and retain information about the world. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits” and that it is “unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” I would like to know how each candidate will revoke the right, city wide, for any teacher to take away recess as a form of punishment and require 20-40 minutes of active, unstructured play for K-5th grade.
  4. Nutrition: This year Granby Elementary School received a very generous grant that provides free breakfast and lunch to every student. That’s simply remarkable! Children are being fed and no one is going hungry. But a close look at these meals reveals how extremely sugary, fatty and unbalanced they are. A frozen fruit slushy, which is made from a fruit juice concentrate and high in sugar, is considered a fruit serving. French fries are considered a vegetable serving. Corndogs on a stick and chocolate milk are a standard breakfast. And this is simply unacceptable. We need to collectively raise our standards for the food that is provided in our schools. All sugary milk needs to be removed. High salty, fatty, and sugary processed food needs to be limited and instead fresh and locally sourced food needs to be offered. An excellent way to encourage healthy eating, and teach SOL standards, is by growing a school garden (which we personally have experienced doing at PB Young Elementary School very successfully!). I would like to know how our school board will prioritize and budget nutritional standards and encourage school gardens.
  5. Zoning: There is a very sinister (and I believe racist) zoning practice in Norfolk Public Schools that encourages specific schools to flourish and others to decline. I would like to hear the school board candidates address the zoning practices that proliferates the belief that Norfolk Schools are dangerous and inadequate and pushes parents to enroll their students outside of their zoning districts, as candidate Noel Gabriel has done with her children, or to enroll in private schools. There are extremely high numbers of parents who send their children out of district or to private schools with the belief that Norfolk’s schools are too dangerous and unqualified to teach their children. I would like to hear the decisions and guidelines that direct the zoning lines to be drawn. How will you encourage parents to send their children to the schools for which they are zoned? There also needs to be a discussion about the practice of enrolling middle and high school students in honors and AP classes along racial lines. If you walk into Maury High School today, you will see a distinct racial line between those who are in AP classes and those who are not. I would like to hear the candidates discuss the criteria for who is encouraged to take these classes and who are not, and address why there is such a wide racial disparity among these courses.

These are my top 5 issues that I believe need to be addressed by our school board candidates. I unfortunately had to miss the Colonial Place civic league meeting last night that hosted the candidates (my pesky college students needed me to teach them about anti-racism and sexism in literature), though I do plan to attend any future forums hosted by other civic leagues.

I would like to encourage my readers to leave any of your comments, suggestions, agreements, and disagreements in the comments. This is a space for dialogue and conversation and your stories. And, please, share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else that you think would get it into the hands of the candidates. This is an important conversation that needs to be fostered and encouraged.





One thought on “Testing, Homework and Racism in Norfolk Public Schools

  1. Can you tell me more about the zoning section? If someone doesn’t want their child to attend an underperforming school and has the means to avoid that, I don’t think calling them racist is going to make those people stop or even second guess their decision. We all have some sense of self preservation. The schools themselves have to improve, the communities they serve have to improve, and not just by forcing the intact/resourceful families to use those schools and therefore shift the median. You think giving these schools access to wealthier whiter student bodies will help the administrators or current students? How? As for AP classes, you’re assuming minorities (well, underperforming minorities) are discouraged to or prevented from taking these classes because of their race. This is not the case, quite the opposite. There is big demand for diverse students, but there are too few POC that have interest in or are qualified to take these classes, and pushing them through will only reinforce stereotypes about underqulified candidates being propped up by affirmative action. If certain POC don’t take AP classes and other electives, this should not be labeled a “problem” to be “solved” from the get go. There is a wide racial disparity when you look at Asian students versus Caucasian taking AP classes especially STEM classes, you are not about to criticize that disparity are you? You are a white middle class woman, you are a practicing university professor. You are imposing standards your standards on them, standards they do not necessarily want or need.


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