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4 of 9 / September 14, 2017
Four out of nine schools in Halifax County are fully state-accredited this year, a result that falls well short of the 86 percent accreditation rate for schools across Virginia

“We know we aren’t where we want to be, accreditation-wise,” said Director of Division Testing Jeannie Hawks, referring to the release of data Wednesday by the state Department of Education that shows Virginia schools as a whole making steady gains on academic benchmarks.

The share of Virginia schools meeting the state’s testing requirements has risen by five points, from 81 percent of schools in the prior school year to 86 percent this year. By contrast, Halifax County slipped from six fully accredited schools to having only four in 2017-18: Halifax County High School and South Boston, Cluster Springs and Sydnor Jennings elementary schools.

One school, Sinai Elementary, was denied accreditation outright, and two other elementary schools — Clays Mill and Meadville — fell into the “warned” category of partially accredited schools, based on lagging SOL test scores in English and math.

The status of Halifax County Middle School has yet to be determined, but Hawks said she expects HCMS to hold onto its designation as a “reconstituted” school, one level up from denied status.

While the takaway results aren’t what local school officials are looking for, the data does contain some encouraging news: Halifax schools are generally improving on test scores in most subject areas, although not by enough to bump all schools into the ranks of fully accredited.

“If you look at the scores overall, you will see increases in various [subject] areas at all of the schools,” said Hawks, adding that “many of our schools were very close” to achieving full accreditation.

Coming closest but falling just short of the mark was Scottsburg Elementary, which earned a rating of partially accredited/ approaching benchmark pass rate. That designation is reserved for schools that are within a narrow margin of two points of meeting state testing requirements in one or more subject areas.

For schools to be deemed fully accredited, 75 percent of students or greater must pass their English SOLs or a substitute assessment test approved by the state, and 70 percent or more must pass their SOLs or substitute tests in math, science and history/social studies.

At Clays Mill Elementary, one of two schools that landed in the “warned” category, 69 percent of students passed their English SOL tests in the 2016-17 school year — six points shy of the required 75 percent pass rate. The passage rate in math was 66 percent, four points below the required average of 70 percent.

Clays Mill exceeded state performance goals for SOL science and history tests.

Meadville, the other “warned” school, also fell short on English, with a pass rate of 69 percent, six points below the required mark. However, Meadville exceeded the required 70 percent pass rate on the math SOL, with 72 percent of students making the grade in the 2016-2017 school year.

The middle school satisfied the state’s passage requirements for math, science and history, but narrowly missed the mark in English. Last school year, 72 percent of middle school students passed the English SOL exam, three points shy of the required mark.

While its ultimate accreditation status remains unclear, HCMS was deemed by the state education department to be “improving.”

Sinai Elementary, a reconstituted school last year, now is one of 88 Virginia schools that have been denied accreditation for persistently low student achievement. Denied schools are subject to corrective action prescribed by the state Board of Education, which could enter into a memorandum of understanding with the county school board to compel changes.

Sinai’s SOL pass rates in all but one subject — history — lagged behind state mandates. The school had a 39 percent passage rate on science SOLs, 31 points below the required average.

Of the six schools that earned full accreditation in 2016, four held onto that status in 2017. Slipping a notch into the partially accredited category were Clays Mill and Meadville.

Hawks noted that oftentimes, schools can earn a new status based on modest changes in testing outcomes.

“Some schools have come out of [partially accredited status] to be fully accredited,” she said, pointing to Sydnor Jennings as an example. The northern Halifax County elementary was only partially accredited two years ago and now has two years of full accreditation under its belt. “It fluctuates,” said Hawks.

With new Superintendent Mark Lineburg and the School Board setting a goal to bring all nine county schools up to fully accredited status, the administration is looking to improve instruction in two basic ways, said Hawks.

The first is to do a better job of engaging students in their academic work, and the second is to encourage teachers to rely more on student feedback in the day-to-day functioning of the classroom.

“I think by focusing on those areas of professional development — student engagement and feedback — that’s the way to go,” said Hawks.

To help keep “students more impactfully engaged,” she said, the county school division will ramp up the use of Chromebooks in classrooms. The low-cost laptop computers, which made their debut last year at the middle school, are now in wide use at HCMS and at Clays Mill and Sinai. Students in grades four and five at South Boston Elementary also have been issued chromebooks, and other grades at SBES should be getting the network-based laptops sometime in the first nine weeks grading period. Eventually, all county elementary students will be issued their own computers to use.

By adding more Chromebooks, school officials believe teachers will be better able to assign schoolwork tailored to the individual needs and performance levels of students. “That’s the key, to be able to individualize and differentiate instruction,” said Hawks. “It keeps students more engaged as opposed to just doing a worksheet.”

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Admin is looking to improve instruction? Hmmm, that is not the issue. Instruction is fine - it was fine 30 years ago, and it is fine now. Of course things change, but the schools are full of great, hardworking teachers. We need to get rid of all this testing and stop punishing schools for not meeting a benchmark set by a bunch of suits. Then the accountability needs to fall mostly on the PARENTS. You can't have a bunch of kids, half raise them, then send them to school and expect teachers to fix the problem you created. Parents need to put education first, make their kids behave, respect authority, and be involved in their education.

Another thing to do is bring back vocational education - let's be honest, some students have no interest in going to college - they want to go straight into the work force.

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