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Schools cope with new standards / March 22, 2017

Virginia has a new way to measure whether schools are successfully educating students. Instead of focusing exclusively on SOL test scores, the state Department of Education also will monitor schools to ensure they are doing an adequate job of limiting the number of students with absenteeism, disciplinary and tardiness issues.

Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols described the new accountability standards during Monday night’s meeting of the School Board. Aside from standardized test results, the Department of Education will look at other components of student life to assess what is happening inside schools. Nichols shared his concern that this new system will cost school divisions more money.

“Our concern from a budgetary standpoint is that to fix the problem, it costs money,” said Nichols of the new standards.

“We have put into a budget request for this year specifically related to disciplinary issues that we broaden our opportunity for in-school suspension through alternative education, because we don’t want the students who are abusing the situation to be kicked out of school, but we also don’t want them back in the classroom causing disruption.

“There needs to be short and long term alternative options,” said Nichols, who added, “There may not be a law saying you can’t suspend [students], but it has to be dealt with.”

The reason for the change, Nichols explained, is that “our society has come to a place where it is just not acceptable for students to not have an appropriate education, because we know that we are going to have to deal with the issues of not having an education in other ways throughout the rest of their life. Wherever you see chronic disciplinary, absenteeism and tardiness, you’re seeing the opportunities for … those students become non-existent.”

According to Nichols, the new accountability standards will divide schools into four color-coded categories:

The “blue” group consists of “the top five percent of schools that are exemplary and have practices that other schools can look at,” said Nichols.

Green means the schools are meeting expectations for the percentage of students who are not absent, tardy or have disciplinary issues.

Red is for schools that have significant problems with tardiness, discipline and absenteeism and need to develop plans for getting better.

Brown is for schools in the bottom five percent, requiring the state to look at ways to intervene with plans to work on these issues.

As the local division moves to implement the new standards, Nichols said parents and students should be answerable for their actions as well.

“It’s one thing to have schools and teachers held accountable for these issues, but also the students and parents need some accountability,” he said.

Nichols also wants students to understand that their conduct in school can follow them around in life and rank among the factors that employers consider when making hiring decisions.

Other considerations include students’ ability to show up on time, work well with others, and dress appropriately. “It’s not the school saying you have to do this, it’s business reinforcing these issues. This goes beyond just getting a high school diploma, but taking a part in this because it’s important for the student’s future,” Nichols said.

Nichols applauded state Sen. Frank Ruff for his help in sponsoring and gaining passage of a bill that requires school service providers to provide, either directly to the student or his parent or through the school, access to an electronic copy of such student’s personal information.

Nichols explained that the bill, which is awaiting the Governor’s signature, requires various educational programs such as ST Math, reading recoveries and other programs to turn over to the schools — in machine readable format — the data that shows student progress.

Mecklenburg County school division will then put that data into the students’ individual platforms, so the schools can also monitor student progress.

“It’s more than just SOL data,” said Nichols.

He added that technology companies such as Amazon and Google and others in Northern Virginia have shown great interest in this bill and wondered why the Mecklenburg school division was the one that requested the legislation.

Nichols offered “kudos” to school counselors for their work on a new career development plan for students – part of their “Portrait of a Graduate” initiative – that is in line with new graduation requirements.

He added that representatives from the two largest online career development services, Virginia View and Virginia Wizard, are taking notice of what is happening in Mecklenburg County. They told Nichols the school division has surpassed Fairfax as far as hits on their software program for career interest.

“So the schools are making good progress and the students are doing the things they are looking for,” he said.

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