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Schools stand to gain with new accreditation

South Boston News
The new Mecklenburg County Public Schools logo was officially unveiled at Monday night’s meeting of the school board. The design signifies the school division’s motto and mission: COMPASS — Committed to Our Mission: Preparing All Students for Success. The large sign was designed and built by students in Russell Thomas’ carpentry class at Bluestone High School. It will hang in the School Board meeting room at the central office in Boydton. / February 21, 2018
Mecklenburg County schools stand to do well under new standards of accreditation that Virginia is putting into in place as the state moves away from using SOL test results as the overriding factor in determining academic quality.

Tracey Rogers and Brian Matney, elementary and secondary education directors for Mecklenburg County Public Schools, updated members of the School Board on the new standards of accreditation at Monday night’s monthly trustees meeting. The new standards are set to go into effect for the 2018-19 school year.

As Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols predicted several months ago, under the state’s new system, all eight county schools will be accredited, although the two high schools would be accredited with conditions because of high rates of absenteeism among high school students.

Virginia is moving away from tight SOL accountability and has put new factors into play. In addition to SOL test passage rates, schools will be judged on how well students make progress in reading, math and science. Improvement in each of these areas will be an integral measure in the new accreditation system, as will graduation and attendance rates, dropout levels and college, career and civic readiness.

Matney said even though this accreditation system is not in effect for the current academic year, he thought it would be interesting for trustees to see how each school in Mecklenburg County would fare under the new standards.

All four elementary schools would be fully accredited, though South Hill Elementary needs work on English achievement among students in what are known as “gap” groups: students of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, speak English as a second language, or have a cognitive impairment that limits their ability to learn at the same pace as other students.

Bluestone Middle and Park View middle schools would also be fully accredited. Currently, neither school has that designation.

Like South Hill Elementary, both middle schools need to show improvement in English achievement among students in the gap groups. Bluestone must also show improvement in math achievement among students in the gap groups.

Of the eight schools in the division, the two high schools have the greatest need for improvement. Under the new rating system, both Park View and Bluestone high school are well below the state established benchmarks for attendance. Their overall absenteeism rates are 25 percent or higher. Therefore, both schools would be accredited but with conditions.

Matney said the state does not distinguish between students who miss school due to illness and those who are suspended or out of school for other reasons. Therefore, he suspects high schools across the state will have a difficult time meeting the “ideal” attendance rate of 85 percent per year for their student body.

Board chairman Brent Richey wondered what plans other school divisions have for improving attendance, especially at the high school level. No answers were provided with that question, but Nichols explained how he plans to approach the issue — by using “a carrot instead of a stick.”

Attendance and tardiness are among the “soft skills” that business leaders say they are most concerned about with new workers, Nichols said. He said each student’s attendance habits will be judged before he or she will be allowed to participate in internships or earn credit or digital badges for their participation in the internship.

“Instead of having a stick,” said Nichols, “students will know if they want to job shadow or apprentice, they will have to have attendance and discipline in a range acceptable to business. It will show up in their digital badges, so business and industry will be able to see how dependable they are.” This skill prepares students for the future, he added.

Trustee Lindell Palmer shared his concern that the state’s new rules for absenteeism are forcing schools to establish more alternative education programs for students who disrupt the classroom.

Nichols explained that legislation already is pending in the Virginia General Assembly that will force schools to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion. Instead of removing problem students from the school entirely, these students will be sent to a separate room, apart from their classmates. This will require additional teaching staff, as well as programs of study for these students, all of which cost money.

Nichols did not express any optimism that this change would come with added funding from the state, calling it another potentially unfunded mandate.

In other business, Wanda Bailey gave an update on her attendance at the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C. Feb. 4-6. It is a lobbying consortium representing school divisions around Virginia.

For three days, the group met with members of Virginia’s Congressional delegation to share with them the concerns and needs of school divisions in an attempt to influence federal legislation.

Bailey said she spoke with Virginia senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and 5th District Congressman Tom Garrett about particular funding programs and their importance to rural and less affluent school districts such as Mecklenburg. She said she sought to convey the personal struggles of special education teachers who spend most of their time processing paperwork required by the federal government instead of “dealing with students,” which is their true passion.

The experience, Bailey said, helped her see the importance of speaking up for the division, offering solutions instead of standing mute. She thanked the School Board for providing the opportunity to represent the division and hoped her time would bring about positive results.

Following up on Bailey’s comments, Nichols shared his own concerns: “We don’t have a final budget this year [of federal or state monies] and rural schools are suffering with expectations that are getting higher and higher. We have a plan that can work if we get the funding.”

Trustees agreed to move forward with plans to seek a workforce readiness award from the Virginia School Board Association. It is one way the association hopes to encourage more schools to embrace the state’s “Profile of a Graduate” curriculum with its strengthened focus on CTE programs.

Nichols reminded the trustees that the request-for-proposal for an architecture firm to design the new school complex will be “coming back for decision by the next board meeting.” In anticipation of hiring the architect, Nichols is meeting with members of the business community to gather their input for the programs — he calls them career centers — that will be offered at the new school. On March 15, he will be meeting with the chambers of commerce in Clarksville and Chase City and on April 2, the chamber in South Hill.

As far as the budget for the coming year, Nichols said he is already focusing on monies for additional CTE programs. He plans to present the full budget at the March meeting of the School Board. He will follow that with a public hearing on March 26 and a special meeting on March 28 for the board to vote on the budget.

Glenn Edwards, co-chair of the joint education committee, said progress is being made on selecting a site for the new school buildings. Surveys are being done on properties under consideration, and the Virginia Department of Transportation is studying traffic patterns for potential entrances and exits for the school complex. These reviews are taking place at more than one site, and cannot be accomplished quickly, Edwards said.

“We don’t want to make any mistakes, this has to be done right.”

Nichols, at the request of Maintenance Director Brian Dalton, will be meeting with County Administrator Wayne Carter to discuss work that needs to be done to maintain existing school facilities. He said he will seek guidance on “how much the Board of Supervisors wants to spend to keep the old buildings maintained.”

Director of Personnel Nan Alga has begun the process of recruiting teachers to Mecklenburg County. Nichols wished her success in this endeavor.

Dalton presented his 2018 “project list” identifying work he expects to accomplish over the next ten months at each of the elementary schools. He promised to have price quotations before the final budget is developed. The work includes painting halls and restrooms at the elementary schools; covering existing asbestos floors at Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse Elementary Schools; installing awnings between the new addition and the cafeteria at Chase City Elementary School; upgrading heating and cooling controls at South Hill Elementary School; and replacing window shades at Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse elementaries. “We are already working on parking light repair at South Hill Elementary School and over Easter break plan to remove dead trees from around the schools,” said Dalton.

Edwards complimented Dalton for his work, calling him “a godsend.”

During Board member comments, trustee Kenny Johnson praised Bluestone Middle School Principal Page Lacks for creating a “teachable moment” for her students.

A member of the community shared his concern that the flag at the middle school was not properly lit at night. Upon inspection, Lacks found not only were new lights needed, but the existing U.S. and Virginia flags needed to be replaced.

Lacks, along with Major Bonnie Hoffman’s eighth-grade students in the Junior Air Force ROTC program not only changed the flags, but learned the proper method for disposing of old flags.

Wanda Bailey asked everyone to “go through your book shelves and bring gently used books to schools to be handed out at the next ‘Feed More’ event, which offers healthy food choice to families with students in school. This year, Feed More initiated a pilot project for families at Chase City Elementary School. It is open to families with students attending that school, even those who are not food insufficient.”

Bailey shared a potential new program being developed in conjunction with VCU Health Systems, “reach out and read.” It is funded with grant money already secured by VCU, she said. When parents bring their child to participating pediatricians for a well-baby visit they will leave with a book which they can read to their child.

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