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Petition to Increase Slots for Specialty Centers

     Right here in Henrico, almost all of our high schools have a different specialty center within them - almost like a school within a school. Each center offers a different program - whether it’s leadership, international baccalaureate, humanities, or the arts. Being in a specialty center defines a student as an achiever and gives them a grade point advantage in class ranking, both are assets when applying for college. 


     Getting into a specialty center is competitive because there are many fewer spots than there are capable students. Kids have to be ready by the eighth grade, apply for admission, and hope they make the cut. Many accomplished students are turned away and left demoralized and disappointed.  


     I can’t help but ask: What are we doing here? What are our goals, and how is public education serving our children?


     If we aspire to offer a high quality education to every child, to give them every advantage to succeed, to facilitate emotional development, to value self discipline and hard work, to create the best possible future for them rich with opportunity, then it seems we have built the wrong system. It’s time for a change, let’s rebuild. 


     Access to opportunity should not be limited. We should have a specialty center slot for every child who has the ability to do the work and we should prepare every child to be able to do the work. This is an important conversation, and we need to have it. It seems so self evident. Why hasn't this already been done? 


     So, I thought maybe the issue is cost. I have found that cost is almost always the obstacle. But, in this case, it’s not. It costs no more to provide a specialty center education to our kids than it does the traditional class track. 


     So what is it? Well, it can make redistricting harder. OK, that’s fair, but not insurmountable. We are already going to redistrict this year so the timing is perfect. Maybe, if we accept every able kid it won't disrupt redistricting as feared. This is important enough for us to aspire to find a new way. If there are challenges, let’s innovate and rethink.

     Honestly, I think outdated priorities and lack of innovation are the biggest reasons we're off track. “It’s the way we have always done it.” It is time to question everything and rethink education. We keep what works and what helps us achieve the preeminent goal, which is that every child has the chance to succeed at their highest ability and that schools prepare every child to achieve. We also get rid of what doesn’t work. 


     The past 15 months have put us on a path to an education crisis in Virginia. Most children in public education were kept out of the classroom for all or part of the year, and when many were finally allowed back in, it was still a hybrid learning schedule. Put bluntly - Virginia’s students have fallen behind, dangerously behind.


     We should be laser focused on remediating last year, but instead, we hear that there is the possibility that the Board of Education will remove advanced math pathways and teach Critical Race Theory. NO! We must start putting children first, not political agendas.


This moment in time demands we focus on our kids and adapt to their unusual post-closure needs. It’s the perfect time to make other changes as well and no longer accept the status quo.  Let’s build a system where we educate EVERY CHILD to achieve and fulfill their potential. That is every parent's dream. Now is the opportunity to revamp our education policies and ensure we are offering a world-class education to all of Virginia.


     There is more to this conversation than just speciality centers. This can be a better way to address dyslexia, autism, dual enrollment, everything. Let’s modernize our education system to be responsive to the needs of our students, not the system. Let’s start here in Henrico with speciality centers. 


     Now is the time to overcome “the way we have always done it,” and have the real conversation about outcomes, accountability, and competing priorities. 


Who should decide?


     Parents should have the greatest say in decision making, not unions. What happened last year to keep public schools closed was atrocious. Never again should the best interest of our children and all evidence and science be dismissed in favor of the political positioning of a union. The Virginia Constitution specifically protects parental rights and ensures that school boards are accountable to the citizens in the community they serve. We cannot let union influence strip these powers from us. 


So how do we fix this?


    Stop arbitrarily limiting Specialty Programs. Stop turning able kids away. We should have a slot for every child who can do the work.


    Why don’t we quantitate how many qualified students applied over the past many years and use this as a framework to set seats going forward? That’s one idea I bet there are many more if we open ourselves up to creative thinking. I’m curious how many students have been turned away each year to accommodate an arbitrarily limited number of slots. If we need extra, we should build entire schools to accommodate our children’s talents. 


     The number one ranked public high school in the country is a magnet high school located in Alexandria, Virginia - Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. THE NUMBER ONE IN THE COUNTRY and they are turning away students who meet all the criteria and can do the work because there is a class limit every year. WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? This is high school and these kids are motivated and prepared, and the system is picking winners and losers in 12 year olds. 

     At the General Assembly session this year I asked, “why are we turning kids away instead of building more schools so we have capacity for them all?” There was no conversation, and I was shut down. What did the Governor and General Assembly do instead? Gave Virginia K-12 $500 million for “hold harmless” funding. 


     What does that mean? Schools were paid for lost enrollment that happened when parents either pulled their children out of the closed public system and put them in private school, homeschooled their children, or delayed Kindergarten enrollment. Virginia’s K-12 system was paid for kids they didn’t even teach.


     Honestly, we've lost our way. We are failing to build our education system around our kids, and instead have built it around school bureaucracy and the unions. To be clear, I want our schools fully funded, and I absolutely supported additional funding during the pandemic, but I want good outcomes for the money we spend


     In 2020-2021, Virginia got $3 billion (yes, billion) from the federal government. That should have been enough to cover all of the contingencies, including lost enrollment. We could have spent that 500 million Virginia dollars on building five more Thomas Jefferson’s so kids all over Virginia could have access to the number one high school opportunity in the country. 


     It’s the same thing again: the wrong priorities, this time on spending. 


     We need to hold public education and the legislature accountable for how they are spending state dollars. Those are your dollars. Are you getting the product that you want for the spend? We are not incentivizing our schools to achieve and innovate. Instead, we are overpaying them to be complacent. I think what we spend on education should be tied to the outcomes we seek for our children, not just blind funding. What do you think?


How do we make this happen? 


     It’s you. It takes the voices of the parents and constituents. It will take your previous time and energy to be a part of the change. We must take action to protect the power the Virginia Constitution gave you to influence local education decisions. To be a part of the conversation that determines priorities. Your voice must be louder than the unions so that the school board acts on your influence, not the unions. 


     We are hearing parents all over the state take action. I propose we start a conversation here in Henrico to talk about what matters to you and your children. 


     We can ensure that with the right priorities and investments we can help all of our kids achieve and excel. This is a very different objective from the school centered talking point of “restoring funding to pre-recession levels." I want child/student centered, accountable spending. This is about our kids, not about a school system or bureaucracy. 


     It’s time we place focus on individualized education. Our schools should be adapting to the potential of our students, but right now, they’re forcing students to fit within a convenient, bureaucratic mold. We’re not solving the problem with the right principle in mind, and that principle should be that every child thrives. Thrives not just get through! That should include specialty programs having an admission process that is dynamic and nimble and one that can accommodate that demand for all qualified students. 


Why does this matter? 


     Research has established that there is a close relationship between self-esteem and academic achievements of students. Students with high self-esteem participate enthusiastically in the learning process. Such students are more confident, active, and motivated towards learning. They also perform better in examinations as compared to those students who have low self-esteem.


How can you help?


     Please fill out the survey below. This will allow us to interconnect citizens to bring about change. We will keep you up to date on what is happening and conversations here in Henrico that can help us make that change for our kids. Be part of the change we all want to see.

Specialty Center Petition

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