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Thornton takes aim at problems

SoVaNow.com / December 18, 2013
A report by the Virginia Department of Education points to myriad problems for Mecklenburg County Public Schools, said division Superintendent James Thornton in a frank assessment to School Board trustees on Monday night.

Thornton, in presenting the findings to trustees at their regular monthly meeting, focused on shortcomings in the local school curriculum as well as survey results of students and teachers that show dissatisfaction with the system. He pointed to outdated facilities as a major cause of the poor perceptions.

Too often, he said, classroom lessons do not have well-defined objectives, and do not require students to use cognitive, “deeper thinking” skills called for in the new SOLs and federal Common Core educational standards. Thornton said Department of Education reviewers also found a disconnect between the written curriculum and material that is taught to students.

Although the school division provides a template for teachers to use when measuring student performance, it is inconsistently used and not reported to the administrators by any set deadline, Thornton added.

The Department of Education has recommended the adoption of standardized site visit form that focuses on both the written and taught curriculum, thereby allowing structured feedback to the schools. But first, the Central Office administration needs to create guidelines that provide outline expectations for observations, call for attendance at grade level/department meetings and lesson plan reviews. Once created, these guidelines must be consistently applied to all schools in the county.

Finally, Thornton said the Virginia DOE expressed concern that there is only one benchmark test given in classes during the semester, and its connection to the instruction delivered to the students was not consistently applied by the teaching staff.

Thornton offered several suggestions in response to the DOE review. Starting in the second semester of the 2013/2014 school year, continuing through the summer, teachers and division leaders will develop curriculum guides and support resources, he said. Also teachers will be trained to write objectives and assessments or tests that measure deeper learning skills.

Thornton’s second report was an analysis of the results on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

He reported that U.S. students scored slightly above the international average in reading, but below that average in science and math when comparing assessments of the students.

The study concluded, according to Thornton, that the problems with schools in the United States and Mecklenburg County is that students experience “different education trajectories” depending on where they live. Students in areas with high poverty may suffer the most.

He called for the teachers to stop using poverty as an excuse for low expectations on student performance. Instead, teachers must adapt their teaching style to when dealing with children from poverty who may have emotional and social challenges, acute and chronic stress, cognitive lags, and health and safety issue.

“Our mission statement has to become an action plan. Having a culture of excellence means having high expectation for all students. [And] you can’t have great instruction without building quality relationships between student and teachers,” said Thornton.

Educators must reach out to students and parents to stamp out barriers that keep students from higher level achievement, and eliminate grading practices that are harmful to learning. Schools must promote academic excellence, not just athletic performance. He called these “the good, the bad, and the ugly conversations.”

All teachers need to be more like band directors and athletic coaches, whose students both love and respect them, Thornton said.

Thornton also discussed the Virginia Secondary School Climate Survey, a biennial assessment of school climate and safety conditions from the perspective of students and teachers, conducted by the state Department of Education.

The purpose of the report is to help schools identify strengths and weaknesses that can guide efforts to improve school safety and student learning, according to the VDOE. This report is based on responses from 169 students at Bluestone and 315 students at Park View Middle Schools. The results are compared with state and regional norms drawn from a statewide sample of 39,364 students and 423 schools.

Both Bluestone and Park View fell below statewide norms in terms of students’ reactions when asked whether they liked their school, felt that rules were fair and whether they were treated fairly regardless of race or ethnicity. These same students claimed that safety was a problem at the school, with bullying being the biggest single problem.

The sole deviation was among students who were comfortable asking their teacher for help. 81 percent of Bluestone students responded positively to this question, compared to 75 percent of the Park View students. The state norm was 79 percent.

In contrast, most Bluestone teachers felt that the schools had adequate safety and security measures and that students were treated fairly regardless of race or ethnicity. They did see bullying as a problem and felt that the students did not adequately respect each other. 69 percent of Bluestone teachers said bullying was a problem at the school, compared to 45 percent statewide. Only 35 percent of Bluestone teachers felt that the students respected each other compared to 60 percent statewide

The views of the Park View teachers were more aligned with the students when it came to most safety issues, but teachers had a rosier outlook when it came to school climate. On the issue of bullying, only 40 percent of Park View teachers saw it as a problem compared to 68 percent of Park View’s students and 45 percent of the teachers and 50 percent of the students statewide.

Park View teachers exceeded the state norm on whether the students treated each other with respect (80 percent of Park View teachers agreed with that statement compared to 60 percent statewide) and whether the school’s disciplinary practices were effective (60 percent of Park View teachers agreed compared to 59 percent statewide).

The “take away” from this report, according to Thornton, is that there is a wide variance in the way students and teachers perceive their schools, but in almost all categories Mecklenburg County students and teachers said their schools failed to measure up to the state norm in terms of climate and safety.

Thornton promised to place all three reports on the school website, mcpsweb.org for anyone who wants to review them.

At the request of School Board Chairman Robert Puryear, Thornton traced the history of Mecklenburg County’s quest for a new consolidated high school. Thornton said as far as he can determine, the first such facilities plan was first put forward in 1994, because of the aging and dilapidated conditions of the schools.

Sixteen years later, Evergreen Solutions, on behalf of the Virginia Department of Education, recommended that Mecklenburg County should develop and implement a facilities master plan that would eliminate mobile classrooms, replace the then-existing administrative complex, achieve equity for all school facilities (a reference to the fact that of the four elementary schools, only South Hill’s new school building had a gymnasium), develop and implement an energy management and conservation program and develop a preventative maintenance scheduled for the existing facilities based on the master plan.

In 2009, the Department of Education called for Mecklenburg County to build a new consolidated high school, close and demolish several elementary and middle schools, and renovate other two elementary and two high school buildings.

At the conclusion of the report, Puryear asked the Board to authorize him to reapproach the Board of Supervisors about funding for a consultant to oversee development of a plan to construct a new combined high school. This same request, which is for $200,000, was recently voted down by the Board of Supervisors.

Just before Puryear made the suggestion, Thornton pointed out that the schools, earlier this year, returned over $600,000 to the county from unspent and “unexpected” revenue.

Trustee Glenn Edwards asked why the Board was “going to jump the gun” on a newly established process that calls for school trustees and supervisors to meet jointly to discuss and find common ground for funding repairs or upgrades to school facilities. Trustees and the Central Office need to take some responsibility for the state of the schools, according to Edwards.

He also questioned why adequate attention was not paid to school maintenance. He contended, on at least one occasion, maintenance workers were instructed to complete a minor repair and then “kill the rest of the day. [And] we have people going in the schools turning electricity at night and that is causing some of our problems.”

In response to the statement about the maintenance worker, Thomas Bullock rebuked Edwards by asking, “Did you report this to the Superintendent? He needs to know these things. He should have been told.”

Edwards said, “We have bigger problem than blaming the Board of Supervisors [lack of funding for the state of our schools]. We need to show fiscal responsibility for what we already own. We need to fix something now, and then ask for money to build new.”



These comments brought a sharp retort from Thornton, who noted, “I’m in the schools every day, and every time Wade [Wilson, head of maintenance for the schools] calls me I panic. He’s trying to fix problems, but it’s a band aid approach.” He also called for the Board of Supervisors to “either fund us ten more maintenance people or give us money to build new.”

In response to Edward’s comments about the lackadaisical efforts of maintenance workers and problems created by the schools energy manager, Thornton said, “Stop telling me our employees aren’t working hard. Don’t blame energy management for a heating system that in one room is 80 degrees and in the next is 40 degrees.”

He continued, “Fix these old buildings or pay for a new one. We’ve got a one-sided newspaper person who only puts the facts they want in the paper to do a one-sided story. The problem was diagnosed in 1994 with a solution. Nineteen years later and we are still arguing about the same thing.”

He called the leadership on both the Board of Supervisors and School Board dysfunctional, but said that needs to be put aside for the real issue: ”Put the real facts on the table and fix these schools for our kids.”

During Board member remarks, trustee Joan Wagstaff accused Edwards of picking and choosing the policies he supports while breaking others “quite frequently.” But then she added, “We all need to take a step back. The important thing we need to do is concentrate on our children. We need to do what is right for our kids.

Dale Sturdifen, attempting to restore calm to the tense proceedings, chimed in: “Communication is key with this board and the public. It is important that the board members go out to the community and share what is going on. Hopefully we can get through the cloudy issues we have, work toward getting the facilities that our kids need. We as board members need to communicate with our counterparts on the Board of Supervisors, humble ourselves, communicate with each other and get on track.”

In other business, student liaisons Cameron Hawkins and Davon Moody closed the meeting with a request for donations of gently used jeans which will be given away to homeless people. The drive is part of a nationwide fundraiser, Teens for Jeans, during which school students hope to collect 1 million pairs of jeans for homeless people.

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