written & photographed by Cesca Janece Waterfield
History, it would seem, has always risen from the grounds of what is today Bellevue Model Elementary School. This corner of Church Hill was part of the Underground Railroad as the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond woman who operated a Union spy ring during the Civil War. It is the site where banker and businesswoman Maggie L. Walker was born in 1867.
In September, the U.S. Department of Education named Bellevue a Blue Ribbon School. Each year, the Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes excellence in a few public and private schools nationally, particularly schools that serve disadvantaged students.
One Family’s Connection
For Bellevue Assistant Principal Raymond Bowser, Bellevue is the site where a member of his family made history several generations ago. Raymond’s great-great-great grandmother was Mary Bowser, a slave of the Van Lews. “She was said to have a photographic [memory],” Bowser says. So the Van Lews sent Mary to Philadelphia to be educated. When she returned, she became a maid for the wife of Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy during the Civil War. “She went about her business of cleaning and also watching and listening,” Bowser says. “And then she transferred that information to the Van Lews and eventually to General Grant and the Union soldiers.”
After her father died, Elizabeth and her mother freed Mary and eight other slaves, and bought some relatives of former slaves to free them. With the help of slaves like Mary, and their significant fortune, the Van Lews helped bring about the end of slavery. Elizabeth would become ostracized by her Richmond neighbors and the mansion was eventually demolished. In 1913, the newly-built school opened. Bowser became Assistant Principal this year. “It’s almost chilling that I’m coming here to work; almost destiny, I guess,” he says. “I just knew I was supposed to be here.”
A Family of ‘Stakeholders’
Bellevue, located at 2301 E. Grace St., has a student body of about 320 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. About 70 live in the school zone. The remainder comes from throughout the Richmond area. An Open House in January provides information to parents about the school and application process, which begins in February. Through an open enrollment system, applicants are offered enrollment on a first come-first serve basis.
Sherry Wharton-Carey was principal of Bellevue for eight years until this year, when she went to Elizabeth D. Redd Elementary School. It was for the period of her leadership that Bellevue was awarded its most recent Blue Ribbon.
“Parents are extremely dedicated,” Wharton-Carey says. “It’s all about differentiating and individualizing the learning process, about excelling, period. Expectations are high and students know that when they walk in the door. They strive to do well, to be productive citizens. They want to move forward. It’s about working together collaboratively to make sure that all of the students there are successful. It really is a family, and when I say family, I mean all stakeholders: the students, the families, the community members.”
Regina Farr completed her student teaching here and taught for 12 years before continuing her career at other Richmond schools. She returned to Bellevue as principal this year.
“We truly have teachers here who have very high expectations,” Farr says. “They are very committed to education. They go above and beyond. Also we have persons in the community – the Micah Initiative, the Church Hill Association – who come in and partner with us.”
Jean Wight lives across the street from Bellevue in the historic Anne Carrington House. “Both [Wharton-Carey and Farr] have really embraced having volunteer help from the community,” Wight says. “Wharton-Carey encouraged the placement of the historic marker in front of the school. That brought not only the community together, but many people like descendents of both Elizabeth Van Lew and Maggie Walker; Senator [Henry] Marsh, the Secretary of Natural Resources and the Director of the Department of Historic Resources. Now people walk by the school, they can know the incredible history. That’s giving back to the community.”
Farr is continuing Bellevue’s collaborative relationship with the community, Wight says. “As a community volunteer, I was incredibly impressed with Regina’s track record of community engagement at prior schools, and that she would set aside the time to meet personally with volunteers, the Church Hill Association, and other groups to see what community engagement could be brought into enriching the student’s learning experience.”
Farr says, “As they say, it takes a village and we have a village. It makes a culture. It makes what we offer our students very rich.”
Bellevue Model Elementary School is at 2301 E. Grace St. 780-4417