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Mecklenburg trustees hear support for coach, AP classes / October 23, 2019

Teachers and parents packed Monday night’s meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board in Boydton to press for the retention of Bluestone High School varsity softball coach Shelby Brown and to question trustees about their decision last month to eliminate Advanced Placement (AP) courses from the high school curriculum.

Board members voted without opposition to extend Brown’s tenure as softball coach for another year, but they did not reverse their decision to discontinue AP classes. Trustees Dale Sturdifen and Kenny Johnson were not present.

Ahead of the vote, three fathers whose daughters played or still play softball under Brown had harsh words for the way Brown has been treated at Bluestone. The speakers singled out “two disgruntled parents,” a coach at the middle school level who “tried to advance himself at the expense of Brown” and a member of the school board who the parents claim is all about “the buddy-buddy system.”

The three fathers — Kevin Newcomb, Brad Wittington and Jason Mull — did not name any of the offending parties, leaving it to board members to read between the lines.

Brown, who has been coaching softball at Bluestone for the past few years, learned that her coaching job was being “advertised” when she was contacted by parents asking why she was stepping away from the position. She had no such plans.

According to Newcomb, Wittington and Mull, one reason they were given for seeking a new varsity softball coach was Brown’s failure to cultivate a junior varsity team. Again, the three would not say who offered this explanation, but Mull said the lack of a jayvee team has to do with “actions taken at the middle school level.”

Cris Burke, who until earlier this year headed Clarksville’s Dixie Youth program, is the softball coach at Bluestone Middle School. He is credited with taking the BMS girls softball team to the conference championship. According to Newcomb, Burke accomplished that fete by filling his team with eighth grade ball players who should have been playing at the jayvee level.

Efforts to reach Burke for comment on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Newcomb attributed the “attacks” on Brown and her development of the Bluestone softball program to “a vocal set of parents who are not happy anywhere they go.” He encouraged Justin Kirkland, the new athletic director at Bluestone High School, to “be more persuasive in pushing these [varsity and junior varsity softball] programs, and to take more action to influence how that [team development] is handled.”

Newcomb, whose youngest daughter is a student-athlete at Bluestone High School, praised Brown for her skills as a coach and a mentor to the girls who play for the varsity softball team. He says she does a “wonderful job teaching the kids life lessons” as well as coaching.

He pushed the school board to explain what policy and procedures are in place when school officials are “thinking about replacing a position.” He suggested notifying the parents and coaches before posting the job on sites such as frontline recruitment.

Wittington described Brown’s tenure as softball coach and the potential consequences if she was not rehired. “For past two years Shelby has had to jump through hoops that have nothing to do with her achievements. This [the attempt to remove her from the job] is more a buddy-buddy issue between a board member and someone else who wants the job. Her job should never have been advertised. She is “a teacher, a coach and leader in this community. If you make the wrong decision you stand to lose the softball program at Bluestone.”

Wittington implored the board to “rehire Shelby and overcome those trying to ruin her for their own personal gain.”

Supervisor David Brankley, who has known Brown since his days coaching her on the Lake Country Crushers girls travel softball team, did not get into the fray over attempts to remove Brown. He chose instead to highlight her skills as a coach and a mentor, adding that to build a good sports program there needs to be “longevity” in coaching.

“She needs support and there is a lot of talent that deserves Shelby as their coach,” Brankley said.

Broad members did not respond to the comments, but during their vote on personnel matters, approved the recommendation to renew Brown’s job as Bluestone Barons softball coach.

Four teachers from Park View High School also spoke at the meeting, joined by Barry Simmons, an educational consultant who panned a decision by trustees in September to drop AP classes for juniors and seniors at both Bluestone and Park View High School.

The school board took the action while debating steps to ensure that students at both ends of the county have equal opportunity to participate in dual enrollment classes and earn an Associate Degree upon graduation from high school.

Simmons, a life-long educator and native of Mecklenburg County, said he was “not sure everybody understands the importance of AP” for students competing nationally for spots at “highly competitive institutions.” He explained that AP classes are “nationally normed,” and thus can be used to compare Mecklenburg County students with those throughout the United States taking the same class.

He noted that different schools have different levels of rigor for most classes, but AP classes are equally rigorous regardless of the school division or system at which they are offered. “Dual enrollment (DE) is a great thing but AP provides an edge not found in DE,” he said.

He asked board members to reconsider their decision to end AP classes at both county high schools.

Ashley Morris, a trained AP and certified DE history teacher at Park View, questioned whether trustees had followed state policy before voting to eliminate AP classes from the high school curriculum. She said the policy calls for a period of public review, but “the decision made in September did not allow sufficient time for public review.”

She also noted that comments made by certain board members equating AP classes to a program designed to “pass a test” devalue the thinking and analysis skills students learn in AP class, regardless of whether they earn a “qualifying score” at the end of the class.

AP qualifying scores are 3 or above, on a scale of 1 to 5. AP is widely accepted by colleges and universities as evidence that students have mastered the level or rigor required for college-level course work.

Morris used her own experience in college to support her claim that DE is not the best program to prepare students for college. She said she entered Virginia Tech with 44 dual enrollment credits. Because of this, she was forced to pick a major her first year, something she was unprepared to do, and quickly realized she did not have the training needed to “handle the rigorous course load.”

She was also critical of the administration of the dual enrollment program by Southside Virginia Community College, telling the board that during her time as a DE teacher at Park View, SVCC “has rarely bothered with monitoring or assessing DE teachers or the program.”

Park View DE-certified English teacher Kimberly Richey said for some students, dual enrollment classes are “nothing more than a short cut” to the completion of a degree since not all DE enrolled students will seek a four-year degree after high school.

Richey said the DE classes do not help students develop needed critical reading and thinking skills, but AP classes are a tool that “kids can use to succeed.”

She asked the board to listen to the voices and perspectives of “trained professionals” before making decisions that impact students’ development and preparation. “It is very different to be a teacher. I have a bathroom in my house, but I don’t profess to be a plumber.”

Math teacher Sarah Fenwick pointed out that “AP and DE courses are not mutually exclusive [and] there is no rule that [the school division] can only offer one or the other.”

Fenwick, who does not have a Masters degree and therefore is not qualified to teach a dual enrollment class, taught AP statistics during the 2018/2019 school year. “In our first year offering AP Statistics, 75 percent of the students score 3 or higher compared to 59 percent at the state level and 59.7 percent globally.

“I know my material and am perfectly capable of teaching the students the subjects they need,” said Fenwick, and the school division “should use the teachers that we have to teach classes that will help our students.”

The three students who earned a score of 3 or above on the AP statistics exam received three credit hours toward their college degree, Fenwick continued. The one student who did not earn a qualifying score “took with her valuable information that will help her be successful in future math classes.”

Speaking last, dual enrollment and AP English teacher Tracy Nash told trustees that both programs “have a place and each fits a particular student.” She called the decision to eliminate AP classes “rash” and noted that “good discourse” is necessary before decisions are made that could impact the success of students in Mecklenburg County.

She also feared that dual enrollment teachers would be overworked because students who might have enrolled in AP classes will turn to dual enrollment to receive the level of academic rigor they desire. She also agreed that “there must be a vertical team for there to be success in AP” and encouraged the board to consider supporting a program that prepares teachers to lead AP classes in the future in Mecklenburg County.

In other business, substitute bus driver Paul Fuller asked why substitute bus drivers did not receive the promised raise in pay and why they are paid less than regular bus drivers. He was told that both matters would be investigated.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols answered questions about the school’s MARi system, an online program that collects and stores data related to each student’s academic and non-academic performance, from test scores to involvement in extra-curricular activities, community service projects or internships that earn them “digital badges” — credits or acknowledgments that the students have accomplished skills such as time management, leadership, communication, team building, responsibility, critical thinking and more. The program costs the school division over $30,000 per year to maintain.

Board Vice Chair Gavin Honeycutt questioned whether all parents and students were trained in the use of the program. It is supposed to provide them with 24/7 access to student records, or as explained by MARi, “24×7 visibility into the skills and competencies that will help [students] be successful at school and in their careers. Progress is tracked across school years.”

Trustee Rob Campbell said his informal poll of parents found that none of them knew about the program and elementary school principals Michelle Icenhour and Connie Puckett acknowledged that they have not used the system. Nichols promised to look into training for parents, students and administrators and reconsider whether there is a need to pay a fee for elementary school students to access MARi.

During board member remarks, Bailey thanked teachers, parents and bus drivers who shared their comments and concerns but addressed the teachers telling them they “bring a special expertise to this debate [AP vs. DE].” She explained the rationale the board used to “table” AP classes, saying their vote was not against AP but an attempt to provide equitable course offerings at both county high schools through one delivery method.

“It is important that everyone get the same advanced opportunities,” she said.

Lindell Palmer reiterated his position that the school division should continue to offer all students both AP and DE classes. He said he “did not want to step on one course to pull another up.”

Glenn Edwards, who heads the joint education and finance committees for the board, asked the public to “pray” that the new bids for the secondary school will come in more aligned with the budget that the Board of Supervisors has set for the project.

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Unfortunately, the reporter misrepresented my comments. I'm not sure how that happens when the meetings are recorded. Nevertheless, here is what I said in reference to critical reading: "ENG 111/112 does not have a standardized test that drives instruction; instead, it allows students to improve their writing and researching skills in a course that is most commonly known as the freshman composition course. The texts that students read in 111/112 do not compare to the texts AP Lang students are required to read and analyze. I am including the course descriptions of ENG 111/112 and AP Language and Composition as stated in the VCCS course catalog and College Board course description. It is clear from the descriptions that the courses are very different. While ENG 111/112 is a rigorous writing course, it does not allow for the same level of critical reading because of the allotted time for the course."


I ran out of characters for my previous comment, but it's important to add that I find it extremely disappointing that our local newspaper continues to encourage writing that has a divisive influence on our community.


I worked at BHS for 6 years and coached in the softball program for 5 of those years. Out of the 6 years, I believe softball only had a JV team 1. Year after year, no matter who the varsity HC was, we had difficulty getting 8th grade players to come play JV in order to field a team. Year in and year out parents would tell us their child was encouraged to stay on MS team so they could win. For years, the program was at risk of being hijacked by overly involved parents. I know this was the same case for Coach Brown, who I had the pleasure of coaching with for 2 years. Shelby is extremely knowledgeable of the game and cares for the girls. I am glad the board came to their senses on this situation. My oldest daughter played for Coach Brown and if my 15 yr old attended BHS, I would've been in attendance advocating for Shelby.

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