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Making their case

South Boston News
Park View Student Council President Alyxandra Powers and Student Council member Clint Whitten address supervisors at the Monday board meeting in Boydton. (Susan Kyte photos)
SoVaNow.com / April 10, 2013
Pleading that they have nowhere else to go, two Park View High School students spoke before the Board of Supervisors on Monday to detail a growing list of concerns with the curriculum and class schedule that Superintendent of Schools James Thornton is proposing for the upcoming school year.

Supervisors listened to remarks by Park View Student Council President Alyxandra Powers and Student Council member Clint Whitten, and afterwards board members shared their own concerns before telling the students that the board has no direct authority over school policy.

Powers said many of the changes proposed by Thornton are counterintuitive, particularly a plan to reduce the amount of time dedicated to math classes while pushing students to excel at higher level math such as trigonometry and calculus. Thornton made the changes after seeing math passage rates on SOL tests drop by 20 percent or more this year.

The students’ other concerns include:

the change to a four-by-four block schedule that reduces or eliminates the opportunity for students to take two semesters of band;

the perception that Thornton is pushing to teach certain technical programs, such as automotive mechanics or agriculture, in a cursory manner or at only one high school, not both;

schools’ refusal to admit all sixth grade students into the project-based learning pilot programs at Park View and Bluestone Middle Schools — less than 40 students were excluded from the program at each school;

expansion of project-based learning into fifth, seventh and ninth grades with the coming school year without first seeing how the students performed under the program;

the change to new programs such as project-based learning and everyday math without adequately training and preparing teachers or those overseeing the programs;

an alleged heavy-handed management style that punishes, fires or demotes teachers, staff and administrators who disagree with Thornton;

the sacrifice of student learning time to give teachers over two hours of planning time during the school day.

Powers repeated an assertion that she made at the March 18 School Board meeting that Thornton rules by fear and intimidation, and that is why neither parents nor teachers will speak up if they disagree with any of Thornton’s decision.

“The teachers, students, and parents fear retribution from Thornton or someone acting on his behalf,” said Powers.

Whitten, who posted a petition on Facebook seeking input on the upcoming changes, said he received more than 40 messages from teachers who shared their opinions privately. “They feared being fired or demoted if they spoke out in public.”

Rumblings over Thornton’s proposals as well as his management style have been growing louder over the past few months. Some parents also are now speaking up, using words like disappointed, confused, and frustrated to describe their interaction with school administrators.

Since the School Board meeting in March, a Facebook page, “Mecklenburg County Concerned Citizens for School Excellence,” has been created. Its stated mission is to “seek to inform the public about Mecklenburg County Public Schools and thereby provide feedback to school administrators who may consider how policy changes are affecting citizens of this county.”

Eleven parents also met recently with Thornton and school trustees Glenn Edwards and Robert Puryear (Thomas Bullock also attended the meeting, though he sat outside the actual room where the meeting occurred). Parents, including Alyson Elliot and Kristine Martin, challenged school officials to explain the rationale behind their decisions, as well as the benefits to students.

However, Elliot said the parents have not heard further feedback from Thornton or School Board Chairman Robert Puryear since the meeting.

Trustee Sandra Tanner sent a followup e-mail to Martin, addressing many of the issues raised during the meeting. The e-mail was in lieu of meeting with parents from her district, as Martin has requested.

In the e-mail, Tanner defends the decisions of Thornton and trustees, calling them “researched.” In the same e-mail, Tanner agrees there is a “communication gap” and, for at least one new program, Everyday Math, a shortfall in training. “Some school administrators and teachers took advantage of the training that was given and implemented the program with fidelity. Some administrators and teachers chose to use their training time to paint shelves and clean classrooms and didn’t implement the program.”

Supervisors expressed their own concerns about being stymied by school officials as they press for answers on the effectiveness of programs. The message to Thornton and the School Board, said Supervisor Andy Hargrove, is that because of recent decisions by the group, “the morale of our county is low and getting lower. Something has to change.”

Dan Tanner added, “[Improvement] starts at the top.”

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