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Mecklenburg trustees hear report on school performance

SoVaNow.com / July 03, 2019
Mecklenburg County School Superintendent Paul Nichols shared performance data from the 2018-19 school year during a special called meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board that took place on Tuesday, June 25. Nichols said the State Department of Education will look at this information moving forward when determining whether a school should be fully accredited or put on a watch.

His report summarized preliminary SOL test scores for each primary and secondary schools, student readiness at the kindergarten level, student reading levels in grades 2 through 5, student and teacher absenteeism and student discipline.

Because SOL (standards of learning tests) is still one of the items that is looked at when determining whether a school division is meeting state accountability standards, Nichols released the preliminary SOL test results from the 2018/2019 school year. The scores, although preliminary, “are very good,” he said, adding that he does not expect to see any notable change in the scores when the end results are released by the State in September or October.

All eight schools in the division met their benchmarks in the four testing areas, English, math science and history. The benchmark for English is a collective average of 75 and for math, science and history it is 70.

Even though LaCrosse Elementary and Bluestone High schools’ average score in history were below the benchmark at 68 and 63, respectively, for the 2018-19 school year, a three-year average of their scores, which is what the state looks at according to Nichols, has them meeting the benchmark.

“Where we have those [lower scores] typically there is an explanation,” Nichols said. “We had a really tough time with history teachers at Bluestone last year.” Nichols gave no explanation for the drop in scores at LaCrosse Elementary School but Tracey Rogers the director of elementary curriculum and Assessments for the Division told Board members that “history no longer counts toward accreditation, it will not count against you [the school division] and so it will not hurt any of the schools for that district [accreditation] score.”

Speaking about Bluestone High School’s low scores in history, head of secondary curriculum and assessment, Jeffrey Scales said the school test results reflect the fact that history was taught by a substitute teacher toward the end of the year. Additionally, the scores reflect “the impact from the reduction of certain students not being able to take the U.S. History [SOL] test, which are normally your top attaining students.” These students could not take the SOL exam, according to the newly implemented state guidelines, since they had already received the required number of verified credits for history.

Nichols also shared the data that shows the challenges that school divisions are having across the state because students with special needs are unable to pass the SOL exams.

On a more positive note, he said certifications awarded to students taking career and technical education classes increased by just over 8.5 percent between 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.

“This is an area that we are really focusing on because this is what the state is going to be looking at more and more as we move into the academies,” Nichols said. The career academies are his plan for categorizing student educational opportunities into six groups – STEM, advanced technology, environmental science, health and human services, law and leadership, and international business and culture.

He also pointed at that the reading pass rate among all students in Mecklenburg County Public Schools is as high or higher than any other school division in region 8 except Charlotte County. Region 8 includes schools in Amelia. Appomattox, Buckingham, Brunswick, Charlotte, Cumberland, Greensville, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward Counties. Students with disabilities in every school district throughout the state are struggling to pass the SOL tests and are not reading at levels considered acceptable to the state.

Nichols asked Rogers to explain the data the school division collected which shows the benefits certain high risk students receive by attending at least one year of pre-K programs as well as the progress being made with getting students in the elementary schools to read at or above grade level by the end of each school year. In one example, Rogers explained that at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, 67 students in the third grade were reading below grade level, but by the end of the year that number was reduced to 29 who were reading below grade level.

Most of the students who are not reading at grade level are those who have some accommodation in place, according to Rogers. She also noted that many students who do not demonstrate school readiness when entering kindergarten come from extreme poverty areas.

Trustee Gavin Honeycutt expressed concern that the data being discussed by Rogers showed a decline in the percentage of students who are not reading at grade level between grades 2 and 5. Rogers said there were a number of new intervention programs put in place this year that she believes will positively impact those results moving forward.

As far as absenteeism was concerned, Nichols said the state is just now releasing information that shows how they plan to count absenteeism in the overall determination of each school’s accreditation. He noted that all eight schools in the division showed a significant spike in absenteeism in both the teacher and student population in February. He believes this was directly attributable to the high number of people who contracted the flu during that period.

Nichols said he planned to work with the school board on plans to address the high rate of teacher absenteeism. This past school year 43 percent of the teachers in the division missed ten or more school days. Nichols said, “that’s a significant number of teachers that are missing ten or more days.”

Trustee Dale Sturdifen asked Nichols to collect similar data from other school divisions in the region to see if they face similar absenteeism levels. Dora Gardner suggested Nichols look at the age of teachers who are using a higher number of sick days.

In order to reduce the number of disciplinary issues in the schools, Scales again asked the board to consider modifying the cell phone usage policy for high school students and allow them to use their phones while on campus before and after school and during lunch since cell phone usage was the number one disciplinary concern at both high schools.

One disciplinary issue that is not reflected in the data, according to Nichols is with bullying. Nichols said he believes these problems are being underreported by the students, though instances of bullying may be discussed with parents or others in the community.

In other business, Nichols said the school division, in conjunction with Halifax, Charles City and Henrico county schools received a $50,000 innovation grant from the student to be used for professional development.

The board approved a supplemental appropriation of $98,742.29 of federal money received for student support and academic enrichment.

James River Petroleum was awarded the contract to provide diesel and heating fuel for the coming year, a reduction of $0.28 cents per gallon over the prior fiscal year, and Petroleum Traders was awarded the contract to provide gasoline at a rate of $1.5749 per gallon.

After paying the end of year bills, Finance Director Christy Peffer said the school division would be returning approximately $184,000 in unspent funds to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors.

The board approved paying a $5,000 signing bonus to secondary science teachers as these are also historically difficult-to-fill positions and agreed to offer free breakfast to all students in elementary schools.

Changes made by the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year to laws affecting school calendars forced Mecklenburg County to revisit the calendar adopted last month for the coming school year. Nichols said since the school division did not start opening the school year before Labor Day until 2011-12, the division must comply with the new law that requires schools that received a waiver to begin classes more than 14 days before Labor Day to close the Friday before Labor Day as well as the Monday of Labor Day..

Nichols said, “this required holiday reduces our number of instructional days for students for the first semester of the 2019-20 school year. It is necessary to replace the loss of this instructional day with another day available for instruction.”

The board agreed to eliminate the previously schedule Columbus Day holiday on Oct. 14 to accommodate the Aug. 30 holiday mandated by the state. Aug. 30 is the Friday before Labor Day.

The board once again deferred action on selecting a new mascot for the consolidated secondary school but agreed to allow the public a second chance to vote on a mascot. Currently the most popular name for the mascot is “the Mavericks,” said Sturdifen.

Trustee Wanda Bailey agreed to reach out to her contacts to help the board develop an operating procedures manual.

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