By Shelby Longland, ‘13

On May 21, 1973, a district court ruling was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court to consolidate the City of Richmond public schools with neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties. The movement was blocked, and the implications of this decision are still present today, nearly forty years later.

The ruling, Bradley vs the School Board of Richmond, Va., was part of a larger effort to desegregate Richmond-area schools and create economic and racial equality in the state. The city of Richmond had experienced significant “white flight,” or movement of white and middle class residents to the suburbs, and, consequently, experienced significant disparities compared to its suburban counterparts.

Many Richmond-area school children continue to experience economic segregation and a significant opportunity and achievement gap today. In an effort to combat these inequities, a group of influential members of the Richmond community decided to come together to create a dialogue on the issue and propose solutions for the future.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Bradley vs. School Board ruling, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies came together with the University of Richmond Center for Leadership in Education and Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education to hold the Looking Back, Moving Forward Conference. On March 13th and 14th, national and local researchers, policymakers, educational practitioners, advocates, parents, community members and professionals convened to discuss the issues and the possibilities for the future.

The Richmond region is divided along significant racial and socioeconomic disparities that are often not addressed. For too long, there has been silence surrounding the issue of race, class and education. This conference gave a voice to all members of the Richmond community to finally create a dialogue about breaking down boundaries and giving all students the same opportunities. This conference provided a forum to discuss these issues, explore possibilities for the future, and work together as informed and inspired community members.

Attendees of the conference sought to answer questions such as: What if the consolidation effort had passed? Where would we be today? How can we create a dialogue and bring awareness about the importance of diversity in the classroom? How can we encourage diversity in our own school systems?

Extensive research shows that students benefit from structured, diverse learning environments. Racially and economically isolated schools have been shown to be linked to a variety of negative factors, such as fewer qualified teachers, high rates of teacher turnover, inadequate curricula, excessive discipline and low graduation rates. This is what Richmond public schools are experiencing today, and this is why community members came together to make a change.

As Dr. Thomas Shields, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Leadership in Education, explains, “school divisions have created boundaries based on race and socioeconomic status,” and it is time to dissolve these boundaries. Today, we live in a country that thrives on diversity. Many U.S. states have minority-majority populations, and Virginia will soon be at that point. It is time to move forward and embrace the heterogeneity of our population and “promote the positives of diversity.” By looking back into the past, and with conferences such as this, we will be able to move forward towards an equal and just future.

To continue the dialogue, visit richmond.edu/movingforward.