By Evie King
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Amidst fast paced agendas that can be inundated with political rhetoric and obscured by legislative processes, the General Assembly often remains an enigma to many Virginians. Even to some Richmonders, who dwell within the same city limits of the Capitol building, the first months of the year dedicated to the state’s legislative system can pass by in a blur of headlines.
Matthew Stanley’s job is to bring that fuzzy grasp of public understanding into a civically energized focus.
As Richmond Public School’s Director of Advocacy and Outreach, Stanley held three public meetings in January, training over 40 community members how to advocate and interact with their legislative body for the betterment of Virginia’s public education.
Stanley asked the handful of community members gathered at the Peter Paul Development Center gym Tuesday night, “In what ways have you already advocated in your life?”
Cheryl Burke, RPS School Board member of the Seventh District, said she has advocated for Richmond’s East End children for over 40 years, “as an educator, and as a parent.”
Taikein Cooper said his advocacy roots date back to middle school, with the uncomfortable onslaught of puberty. After feeling mistreated by his teachers, Cooper reached out to his parents for guidance.
When they set up a meeting to sort out the grievance, Cooper said it went differently than he expected. “I thought [my parents] were going to advocate for me,” Copper said to two roundtables of listeners. “But instead they let me advocate for myself. They gave me a platform and empowered me to use my voice.”
Now in his early 30s, Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, an education advocacy platform for communities across Virginia. He said he came to the meeting in support of the RPS mission to encourage community advocacy in the 2019 General Assembly session.
As a liaison between the worlds of educational priorities and legislative bureaucracy, Stanley presented a condensed slide show that bulleted a tangible step-by-step process for citizen involvement.
“The most important people for you to communicate with are your representatives, you have a delegate and a senator, and you’re their constituent,” Stanley said, outlining the basis of the political relationships at hand. “What you say to them matters. Your voice does matter.”
Subsequent slides listed resources for finding legislators, and tips for contacting them via phone or email. There were also suggestions for navigating personal, face-to-face conversations with politicians: “be confident,” “stay positive,” assertive-not aggressive.”
“And be excited,” Stanley said. “Really, advocacy is being excited about helping people.”
That’s the word Holly Jones used when asked how she felt about starting her new job as a mental health professional at Armstrong High School next week. “I’m excited,” Jones said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders.
Just 25 years old, and newly graduated in 2017 with a master’s degree in social work, Jones said she is bringing a lot of energy into her position. “There are a lot of challenges to overcome, but… yeah, I’m excited,” she said again.
Stanley said one of those challenges is the counselor to student ratio in public schools. The state currently funds a ratio of one school counselor to every 425 students, nearly double the nationally-recommended best practice of one to 250 students.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed a three-year strategy with a $36 million investment to eventually reduce the state’s ratio to the national best practice.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, released a memo in November with priority recommendations from the House Select Committee on School Safety, which included realigning school counselor’s responsibilities so that “the majority of their time [is spent] providing direct student services.” This would not, however, decrease the ratio.
Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 1735, which would review the current ratios and consider whether such a proposed alignment “is improving schools’ ability to provide counseling services to students.”
“It’s a lengthy list… nobody has the answer to fix everything,” Stanley said of the district’s list of priority recommendations and its “hashtaggable” goal to secure “more money to make better schools for stronger students.”
Stanley handed out postcards at the end of the event and encouraged participants to write and begin fostering relationships with their legislators.
In white script on a red and blue background, some cards read “I support your position,” while others, in a more dissenting tone, read, “I disagree with your position.”
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