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School reform plans aired in South Hill / August 30, 2017
The Virginia Department of Education is looking to change the way schools are accredited as it begins the process of implementing the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven Staples and Virginia Board of Education president Daniel Gecker traveled to South Hill to solicit comments from school personnel and the public on proposed changes to the state’s accountability standards and graduation requirements and on the board’s plan to implement ESSA.

This was the last of five public hearings conducted around Virginia this summer.

Gecker said the state’s new graduation requirements seek to better align the expectations of higher education and businesses with the high school experience of Virginia students. The revised regulations will reduce the number of Standards of Learning (SOL) tests that students must pass to earn either a standard or advanced high school diploma. The state also is implementing the “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” a set of expectations that includes the “five C’s”: critical and creative thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship, as well as achievement in English, math, science and history.

In two subject areas, English writing and social studies, students will be able to earn verified credits toward graduation by either passing an SOL test or fulfilling requirements of an alternative “authentic performance assessment.”

“This [Profile of a Virginia Graduate] will also include increased career exposure exploration and planning beginning in the elementary grades. In the high school grades, there will be increased opportunities for internships and work and service-based learning experiences to achieve workplace and citizenship skills.”

These new regulations, if approved, will apply to students entering the ninth grade in the 2018-19 school year.

At least one parent who spoke up Wednesday night in South Hill questioned whether the changes being proposed give enough “focus to the education of the students.” She said the quality of the education her son is receiving in Virginia lags behind Georgia’s system. For example, her son was taking Spanish I in the fifth grade in Georgia. This same class is offered to eighth grade students in Mecklenburg County.

When it comes to measuring school performance, student growth will play a larger role in determining school quality under the new federal accountability plan.

In a press release issued ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, department spokesperson Charles Pyle wrote, ““The accountability provisions of the Board of Education’s plan to implement ESSA are closely aligned with the proposed changes to the state’s accreditation standards. The proposed revisions to the board’s Standards of Accreditation would place increased emphasis on closing achievement gaps between student groups — and continuous improvement in all schools while providing a more comprehensive view of school quality.”

As explained by Gecker, Virginia schools will be evaluated on several measures. The core criteria continues to be performance on reading and math SOL tests, but year-over-year improvements also will be taken into account — as will achievement gaps, graduation completion, chronic absenteeism, dropout rate and college, career and civic readiness.

“This allows schools and school divisions to develop specific plans for improvement and allows the Department of Education to provide targeted assistance and resources to schools in need,” Gecker added.

Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols shared a few of the steps that the Mecklenburg County school division has taken to prepare students for college, career and civic readiness.

“We have been able to develop really good partnerships with our local community college, with the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Institute for Advanced Learning and Research [in Danville] and some incredible partnerships with our local businesses like Microsoft and the new hospital which is being built on the east end [of the county],” said Nichols.

“They’re giving our students, as early as elementary school, a chance to go and see what those careers are and talk about career pathways.”

Starting with the fall semester 2019, each school will receive an accreditation designation based on their performance on each measure. Schools that meet or exceed the state benchmark will be accredited. Schools that miss the state benchmark, but are close to meeting it or are otherwise making improvements in lagging areas will be accredited with conditions. These conditions require schools to develop and implement school improvement plans.

Schools will be denied accreditation if they continue to demonstrate below-standard performance on each measure, or if schools fail to implement action on strategies for improvement developed by the Virginia Department of Education.

Park View High School history teacher George Thompson implored state officials to avoid burdening teachers with reports and paperwork as part of this new plan. “Every 30 minutes spent on paperwork is time that can’t be spent with a child needing help,” he said.

Steve Whitten, a sixth grade language arts teacher and president of the Mecklenburg Education Association, encouraged the state leadership to put more emphasis on providing resources to struggling schools, while also finding ways to pay teachers a competitive salary. For new teachers, Whitten called for the creation of a mentoring program to help them become effective educators.

For experienced teachers, he said, the state should provide more opportunities for leadership and continual professional growth.

“Investigate best practices and invest funds in implementing those practices. If the Commonwealth of Virginia is truly committed to helping struggling schools, funds and resources must be made available,” Whitten said.

One suggestion offered by several school counselors was to increase the number of counselors in each school.

Staples and Gecker promised to take these recommendations back to the state board for discussion before rolling out the final set of regulations which they believe will provide a better reflection of school quality, drive continuous improvement and guide early and targeted intervention for struggling schools, while ensuring the schools adhere to rigorous academic standards.

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