Ten students participated in the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement's Spring Break in Richmond program, which focused on education in the Richmond area for the second consecutive year.

CCE staff members chose this theme because of the volume of students who regularly volunteer in schools or after-school programs, said Adrienne Piazza, the CCE coordinator for student development and educational programming.

"I think there are two common responses to the question, 'Why are you interested in participating in this program?'" Piazza said. "Students have either been thinking about, studying or volunteering at an organization that has them thinking about education, or are seeking something meaningful to do over Spring Break."

Colleen Connolly, a junior Bonner Scholar who Piazza said has been actively involved in education programs during her time at Richmond, said she wanted to dig deeper into education in Richmond and the surrounding areas through this Spring Break program.

"It was really energizing to see how many people in Richmond are really invested in making the scene more equitable," Connolly said. "It's not just the ten of us studying education at Richmond. There are lots of people ready to have very serious conversations about education."

The major goals of this program include helping students find appreciation for the complexity of the challenges and solutions of the Richmond education system, getting to know new students and enjoying Spring Break, Piazza said.

The program started Sunday, March 10, with a group meeting in Spider Cottage. Connolly said Piazza asked each member of the group to write down a few challenges he or she thought Richmond schools were facing, and what he or she expected to see throughout the week's activities.

A Teach For America recruiter also came in and spoke to the students about her work with the Virginia General Assembly during its 2013 session, Connolly said. The recruiter's work had been a big reason that the teacher licensure chair policies in Virginia were successfully changed. Connolly said the change would allow TFA to now open chapters in Virginia.

Even TFA as an organization does not necessarily understand that Richmond is not doing fine educationally, Connolly said, because the TFA recruiter worked mostly based on her own initiative to help change the policies.

The rest of the week was built upon the discussion during the first group meeting, Connolly said. Piazza said that Monday night, the group worked with the Youth Life Foundation's new middle school program. Richmond students helped support the electives the program is offering, which include cooking, woodworking and music appreciation.

Piazza said that during the rest of the week, CCE participants met with representatives from Richmond Public Schools, including Victoria Oakley, Chief Academic Officer at Richmond City Public Schools. The group also visited a private school with an extensive technology program, an all-boys' school, a middle school mentoring program, Richmond's first charter school and a public high school in Highland Park.

Connolly said that the highlight for her came Wednesday evening and Thursday, when the group attended and volunteered at a conference about race and class held at the Jepson Alumni Center. UR's School of Professional and Continuing Studies partnered with VCU to host the conference, titled "Looking Back, Moving Forward."

"The timing was very fortuitous," Connolly said. "The conference was totally what we were studying, and what I was studying in terms of education in Richmond. Not many students were invited, but as volunteers we were able to attend both days of the conference."

The conference included a lot of "education superstars," Connolly said, and included panelists who were "doing very innovative things outside of Richmond." It allowed her to imagine the possibility of successful education models used around the country someday being applied to Richmond schools, she said.

Problems of education in Richmond are layered and diverse, and include teaching personnel, education culture and standard urban education challenges, Connolly said.

"What we're doing right is we're starting to have conversations," Connolly said. "When a few of the panelists brought in from other states shared their models for reform, they said they weren't having these conversations in their cities beforehand.

"It's really cool that Richmond is starting to engage in conversations. We're not skipping the first step, which so many cities do. We're starting at grassroots level," she said

Piazza said that the group would meet once after Spring Break and again before the semester ends. Piazza said one of the initial goals of the program was to present the group's experiences to the school after Spring Break, and that the participants would discuss how they wished to share what they have learned.

Contact reporter Anika Kempe at anika.kempe@richmond.edu