Education Policy and Social and Economic Justice

Richmond, VA
United States

Richmond City Health District, in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, Richmond Public Schools, and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, combined USALEEP data with other local health data to map health disparities along dividing lines of current and proposed Richmond Public School zones. These maps were shared with the community via more than a dozen engagement sessions to inform an understanding of the broader impact of rezoning. The project will conclude in Fall 2020 with equity ambassador training for parents and educators at rezoned schools across the city.



Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health Data generated data visualizations of life expectancy outcomes using the USALEEP data set divided by school zones for elementary, middle, and high schools in the Richmond Public School System. This data was overlaid with school performance data from the Virginia Department of Education as well as health and demographic data from the American Community Survey and CDC 500 Cities data sets, though USALEEP data served as the primary data source and offered the starkest contrasts in life expectancy from one school zone to another. Visualizations were shared with the community in two phases: first to represent outcomes by current and potential school zones at community engagement sessions held during the rezoning process undertaken by Richmond Public Schools in Fall 2019, and to inform community building and leadership training at workshops for administrators, educators, and parents at five rezoned schools in Fall 2020.

While these data visualizations did show stark disparities in life expectancy and and other health outcomes between whiter and higher-income school zones and black, brown, and lower-income school zones, the analysis and visualization process demonstrated that the rezoning models outlined by Richmond Public Schools did not have the potential to significantly disrupt these disparities. To do so, Richmond Public Schools would have to undertake a much more radical shift in school zones than RPS was considering. As a result, our project team repurposed these visualizations - which do an excellent job of illuminating continuing disparities - in order to inform leadership development and seed change within rezoned school communities as opposed to through the rezoning process alone.



The USALEEP data told the “big picture” in Richmond, VA. Richmond City is highly racially and economically segregated and so, the existing rezoning model options have not substantively shown a corresponding shakeup in the health outcome data of potential new school zones. Life expectancy outcomes exist in large clusters by census tract in the city. Even though the new rezoning models have largely maintained this trend, shifting children from tracts with roughly equivalent life expectancy, the racial and sociodemographic characteristics of the newly drawn school zones will be more diverse, breaking up some of the most concentrated school zones of privilege. In other words, because this rezoning effort was limited to city schools and was constrained in its scope (e.g., was focused on relieving overcrowded schools and not on embracing radical shifts to disrupt racial and economic segregation), the potential for building a more diverse balance across schools (or to impact life expectancy) is somewhat limited.

This discovery spurred us to shift the focus for the second half of our project to how we might support Richmond Public Schools in building capacity, understanding, and commitment among administrators, educators, and parents in rezoned school communities to work toward greater equity and inclusion. We chose to see the limited impact of our data and community engagement project as an opportunity to rethink where power and leadership lie in changing school culture, policies, and resources. Though we originally envisioned this as a data project that would singularly demonstrate how certain rezoning or magnetizing models can impact diversity and health in a school system, we will ultimately also produce a body of work focused on how school staff and parents can collaborate to improve health and strengthen inclusion and equity as school communities diversify.



Richmond City Health District has identified a few recommendations for organizations interested in conducting similar projects centering in the USALEEP data, outlined below:

  • Ensure that data-driven analysis and advocacy is undertaken at the right moment in the process. The visualizations created by VCU Center on Society and Health showed that local rezoning options would ultimately have limited impact on disrupting health disparities by school zone. Earlier analysis and advocacy may have made a more effective contribution to the process.
  • Work on your community engagement partnerships, strategy, and materials at the same time as your data team is working on its analysis and visualizations. An effective, culturally competent community engagement process that builds knowledge and moves residents toward action can (and perhaps should) take longer to design than the data it is meant to share.

To learn more, visit Culture of Health Richmond. If you are interested in learning more about this team’s project approach or have specific questions regarding replicating their work in your community, please feel free to contact the Principal Investigator of this project, Ruth Morrison.