It is no secret that Norfolk Public Schools have a bad reputation. When my spouse and I bought our first home in Colonial Place in 2012, it was the first concern on our list: where in the world would we send our children to school? To be fair, most of the schools’ reputation comes from hearsay; from parents and residents who haven’t stepped foot in one of Norfolk’s schools in decades, if ever. But, rumors are powerful. They are keeping parents from sending their children to Norfolk’s schools and they hurt our city’s economy by deterring new residents from moving here. Our schools need to attract people to our great city, not deter and scare them away. My husband and I heard rumors that ranged from there being gangs at Granby Elementary, to fears of not receiving a good enough of an education, or getting a good teacher, or being in a classroom that’s far too big. Our imaginations ran wild and we pictured our little children going off to a mini prison and joining a chain gang. Like I said before, rumors are powerful.
After a few bouts of problems at a private pre-k with my oldest son here in Norfolk, we decided that we would at least make an appointment and visit Granby before he started kindergarten. The then Vice Principal, Kathryn M. Verhappen, who is now the school’s principal, spent an entire hour with just me and my spouse giving us a tour of the school. We walked down the cheerful hallways lined with construction paper art and the imaginations of children. She explained their newly earned, and hard fought, accreditation. She explained their demographics, their programs, their PTA, their staffing, their classroom size, their curriculum, and dispelled every rumor that the parents in our neighborhood ever told us. And we were shocked.
We immediately applied for our youngest to attend their pre-k program and enrolled our oldest into their kindergarten. We have been happier there than we ever could have imagined. Our now first grade son is struggling with reading and writing, but to be clear, it has less to do with the school and more to do with the out of control testing culture that has permeated from No Child Left Behind, which is leaving my child behind. But my children are happy at Granby. They love their teachers. They love their friends. They love riding the bus. They aren’t in a gang. They haven’t been beaten up.
However, I very much realize that this is not the case at every school in Norfolk. I realize that there is a huge discrepancy between the funds, resources and attention that various schools in our city receive. I realize that violence is a very real problem and danger at a number of our schools. That is where we must pay attention from where these rumors are coming. I attended the Lafayette-Winona civic league meeting last night to hear the candidates who are running for city council, school board, and mayor. The questions that dominated the meeting were questions of violence and crime in our city and in our schools. It is a very real problem that affects us and our children and what keeps our city from attracting families needed to boost our economy and attend our schools.
It is in the school board race where this issue is the most contentious. Carter Smith is running against the city council appointed incumbent, Dr. Noelle Gabriel, and questions of safety and administrative transparency mark their opposition. Smith heavily advocates that the school board and administrators need to provide more support to teachers and principals when it comes to discipline and enforcing policy in the schools. He believes that it is the safety of our schools that prevents parents from sending their children to the schools to which they are zoned, which includes Dr. Gabriel who sends her children to Larchmont instead of their zoned Willard. And he is advocating for more transparency and accountability of our administrators who far too often do not support our teachers’ efforts to discipline students and provide adequate professional development.
As a parent who sends her children to Norfolk Public Schools, I am supporting Carter Smith for school board. There are far too many questions that are left unanswered by Dr. Gabrielle in terms of budget and accountability, and from my experience hearing her speak, she seems to be quite a bit out of touch with the concerns of Norfolk parents and residents. A parent questioned her proclaimed success of the Academy of Discovery at Lakewood, the newly renovated school that houses grades 3-8 and fosters a project based pedagogy for its students. It’s innovative. It’s meeting the spectrum of educational needs of its students. And it overwhelmingly points to the disparity of access that far too many students in our district face. When pressed about questions of dividing the haves and have-nots in Lafayette-Winona, with the crumbling Willard Elementary school a stones throw away from Lakewood, Dr. Gabrielle had no concrete and adequate answers, all while seeing the disparity and choosing to not send her children to Willard instead of advocating for it. She actually shifted blame to the previous superintendent and other board members while simultaneously touting her leadership skills. The answer is clear that her place on the school board has come to an end and she is no longer an effective leader and voice on our school board.
Carter Smith is offering provocative answers to problems with our school system, problems that Dr. Gabrielle last night said are overreaching scare tactics, to keep our schools safe, attract parents and their children to our schools system, demand accountability and transparency from our administrators and advocate for the children and the schools who are often left out from the resources and attention that they rightly deserve. I’m voting for Carter Smith on May 3rd and I hope that you will join me.