Challenges include teacher raises, accountability, new programs, infrastructure issues and safety measures
By Kim Walter
Education is a continually changing arena - in fact, you can't expect to feel confident in your education without some kind of progress.
No one is born with all the knowledge in the world, and without teachers and mentors to move students in the right direction, progress might look very different in everyday life.
The face of education is changing in Virginia, whether teachers, administrators, students and parents like it or not. While Gov. Bob McDonnell naming 2013 the "year of the teacher" sounds wonderful, not all of his proposed initiatives are favored by those involved in the field.
Teachers may get their first pay raise in several years if the governor's "All Students" initiative goes through. Of course, that would require localities to match funds through their own budgets, which have endured their own cuts over the past couple of fiscal years.
Accountability of teachers is also coming into play in the state, and the method of measuring teacher success will raise standards and change how to determine if the educator is worth keeping around. Basing a teacher's success on student progress and testing results is adding stress to some, but local school districts have used the past year to try to help their employees understand how to manage.
McDonnell also has proposed an A-F grading system for school divisions to make it easier for parents to get a snapshot of how their child's school is doing. Uneasiness has come from this idea too, though.
The last round of Standards of Learning tests raised concern across the country, state and here in the valley as the results of the mathematics portion were well below where they should have been. Then again, the testing method and rigor were different, and apparently something students will have to be better prepared for next time around.
School systems have endured several unfunded mandates over the years, which has proven difficult in trying to put together a budget, while keeping in mind raised standards of student success.
In the meantime, with all these changes handed down from the state, local divisions have their own vision and hope for progress.
New programs, buildings and safety measures are all in process, and they certainly represent progress in the education of students right here at home.
Full-day kindergarten is offered in at least one elementary school in each of Virginia's 134 school divisions - except Frederick County.
The district has been looking to expand its halfday program for over five years now, but due to funding cuts and other projects coming up along the way, it's just now starting to take shape.
Significant progress has been made in the past year, as Frederick County Public Schools received appropriations of $6.1 million, which will provide expansions at four of the county's elementary schools. Later this spring, construction is set to begin on the 21-classroom project.
By next spring, the division will move into a comprehensive rezoning process to accommodate the full-day program. The goal is to have schools physically and educationally ready to begin the program for the 2014-2015 school year.
But the project hasn't just been about construction. Teachers and administrators have been busy from a curriculum standpoint as well.
Jeri Swogger, director of elementary instructional services, said a lot of planning has gone in to transitioning half day curriculum to full day.
"We've had teachers working on a committee for some time," she said. "They aren't looking to just stretch out their current curriculum to make it take up a full day. Teachers are finding more activities, more resources to make our kindergarten program a much richer experience for the students."
Superintendent David Sovine said the program will be a way for the school district to "level the playing field."
"There's a lot of research out there that supports early intervention and reading readiness," he said. "We want our kids to be reading at their grade level, and the extra time in a school day will allow our teachers to focus more on that issue so kids are completely prepared as they go into first and second grades."
Albert Orndorff, assistant superintendent for administration, said the change helps in daily transportation as well. Currently, there's a mid-day run for buses, which will be eliminated after the implementation of full-day kindergarten, saving money.
"It will also be so much easier for parents, who currently have had to arrange for rides and day care in the middle of the day," he said. "A lot of families have students in several different grades and schools in the county, so taking away that one worry will be very beneficial."
Orndorff stood by the stance that the expanded program is "the right thing to do."
"Some kids are coming in with three years of preschool, but others start with absolutely nothing like that," he said. "All students are held to the same accountability level at the end of their kindergarten year, so a more in-depth education is absolutely the right thing to do for these young people."
Some kindergarteners require special services during the school day, which can take them out of the classroom for 30 minutes or more. Swogger said that's a large chunk of the day for students, since the whole school day is only three hours long.
Teachers are looking forward to a better opportunity to incorporate all core subjects into their curriculum through a science-based method. The Full Option Science Systems program helps youngsters learn through an inquiry-based process, encouraging, observing, comparing and contrasting.
"It's very hands-on, very engaging for the students," she said. "Kindergarteners come in full of questions, and this more involved curriculum will help them maintain that curiosity. Plus when they get to first grade, they'll have things in mind that they learned, but they'll also be able to talk, read and write about it."
The full day program will require the hiring of about 30 full-time teachers, keeping class sizes at between 18 and 20 per room. Student population growth in the county has been steady, but not a number the division can't handle, Orndorff said.
However, the added classrooms won't just be for kindergarten, but also will help with an entire elementary school's capacity needs.
Sovine said rezoning will be a challenge, but the change is still well worth it.
"Twenty years ago, kindergarten was more of a social type of environment," he said. "Now, with the elevated levels of accountability and assessments, the kindergarten day is structured much differently. There will certainly still be time for students to learn social skills, but the core subjects are really where the focus is."
Teachers in the county have been waiting for the change to happen, and now they know there's light at the end of the tunnel, especially with the funding already being put into place for the project.
"The school board deserves credit for keeping this as a priority for years," Sovine said. "They've remained focused on the goal, and it was the right thing to do. This is an investment in our community, and it will pay off for quite some time."
The tragic events that transpired on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., were mourned across the country. With 26 young students and educators gunned down in an elementary school, parents and community members started to ask questions about school security.
In Shenandoah County, the grief hit a little closer to home, as Strasburg's elementary school shares the same name with the one found in headlines, news broadcasts and social media outlets that Friday.
Superintendent B. Keith Rowland said the urgency to discuss school security hit him the following Monday morning, when he walked into his office to find a pile of letters expressing sympathy and sending prayers to the community around Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"It all felt too real, like it really could happen here," he said.
Throughout the month of January, Rowland and Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter hosted three public school safety forums at each of the division's middle schools. During the forums, presentations were given to the community, outlining how school safety currently operates, and how it can improve.
Rowland listed some options that would be cost effective and would require little time to implement, like increasing the frequency of drills in schools and educating young students about strangers and how to be careful in letting them into buildings.
However, some of the options were more costly and wouldn't be "quick fixes." Rowland reiterated the fact that school safety isn't as simple as locking the doors. He presented statistics associated with school shootings, which showed that some happen outside, while others come from inside the building - even from students.
Rowland asked those at the forums if they wanted their schools to be surrounded by intense fencing.
"Is that the image we want Shenandoah County schools to have?" he asked.
Parents shook their heads quickly. However, it was clear they desired more of a law enforcement presence in the schools. Currently, six school resource officers are responsible for the 10 facilities in the county.
Carter asked for funding for additional SROs several years ago, and has brought the request back to the county's Board of Supervisors.
"That's progress," Rowland said. "We walked away from these forums having a much better idea of what residents of this county want."
Even though the school system has had several safety improvements on its capital improvements plan for years, lack of funding has kept them from being a reality.
Rowland presented architectural changes that could happen at the front entrance of each school, allowing incoming visitors to be redirected using a separate entrance and buzz-in, video surveillance system. He also described metal detectors, improved interior locks, and the installation of panic buttons at some desks in the front of the building.
"These things have been on our minds for years," he said. "It's unfortunate that a major tragic event has to take place for people to start discussing safety and voicing support for things their school officials have had on their minds since they can remember."
Now, the Shenandoah County School Board will have to prioritize the security improvements based on what they think, and what they've heard from parents and other members of the community.
"We've got a page of things that are top priority, and pages of other safety measures that parents brought up and are more long-term changes," Rowland said. "Either way, it will require the School Board to make some decisions."
Rowland said the forums were good opportunities for parents to hear information being presented and to "know that we are absolutely listening to them and moving forward."
"But, unfortunately, it's all driven by funding ... You can't put a price on safety, though," Rowland said.
The Warren County School Board developed a 20-year facilities plan about 10 years ago that included two high schools, two middle schools and an additional elementary school. The high schools can be crossed off the list, but now the board is moving into the process of discussing a new middle school.
According to the original plan, the new facility would have been ready to open right around now, said Superintendent Pamela McInnis.
"Over the years the plan has been revised because of funding and other issues," she said.
The intent of the 20-year facility plan was to build capacity for the school division for a straight 20 years. The intent in having two high schools in Warren County was to be able to hold ninth through 12th graders for 20 years. However, the renovated Warren County Middle School couldn't hold the county's sixth through eighth graders, so eighth grade students also have been added to the high schools' student population.
"The county and its teachers would like to go back to the traditional middle school set up," McInnis said. "It's not completely uncommon for eighth graders to be in high school, but we've tried to separate them ... They have their own section of the building and operate on a slightly different schedule."
McInnis added that the current set up has been beneficial to some eighth grade students, who are now able to take more advanced classes that they might not be able to get at a middle school.
The new middle school would be designed to hold 800 students in three grades - right now, there are over 800 students just in sixth and seventh grades at Warren County Middle School.
Thankfully, the growth rate in the county hasn't exceeded what the School Board planned for. McInnis said it hasn't gone over 2 percent a year, and looking forward, she said she doesn't think the growth rate will change.
Funding for the construction of the new middle school will come from the county's Board of Supervisors. But before funding can be approved, the School Board has to choose a site for the building.
In the fall of 2012, Ballou Justice Upton Architects was selected to take on the project of researching two sites. The firm has worked with Warren County before, most recently renovating Warren County Middle School.
One location, known as the ESA site, is owned by the school system and can be found outside Front Royal town limits. The other site - the EDA site - contains 23 acres and is located both in town and in the county.
While the ESA site contains over 100 acres, it presents a few more challenges than the other site, including development of roads and concerns about how easy the land and soil can be developed. With it being located on a steep slope, the architectural firm worried that the site would be less cost effective than purchasing the EDA property on Happy Creek Road.
School Board members learned of the firm's suggestion, but still have to hold a discussion before submitting a proposal to the Board of Supervisors. Once a site is approved, the process will move along in terms of funding, rezoning and building the character of a new middle school.
McInnis said teachers and parents will have a good amount of time before the school is open to find out how zoning boundaries would change.
"We haven't even started talking about the name of the school, a mascot, school colors, things like that," she said. McInnis said she does feel the architecture will be "traditional" to fit in with the current school facilities in the county.
"I don't know that it would or could be just like Warren County Middle School," she said. "Each building needs its own character."
Similar to when the school division opened its second high school, some new positions will be created. McInnis said administrative and maintenance staff will be needed, but a majority of teaching positions simply will be shifted to the new school.
In total, McInnis said about 15 new positions could come with the new middle school.
When McInnis started as superintendent in 2001, she said the division didn't have a "wonderful reputation as far as academics and facilities were concerned."
"A big part of this job has been improving our public image and the relationship with the Board of Supervisors ... it's taken some time [for] a lot more people than just me, but I think we've improved so much," she said.
When Skyline High School opened, McInnis said she could tell that students appreciated the new building, and hopes that feeling will continue with the new middle school, which she said she hopes will be ready for students in the fall of 2016.
"The kids have been able to see that they have the same or even better than some of our neighboring school divisions. It's been a real attitude adjustment for kids, to realize that the community cares about them and is willing to provide them with a wonderful facility," she said. "The pride is here."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org