By Kim Walter
As the start of another school year approaches, local school board members are raising concerns over new initiatives and policy changes being handed down by the state.
Two topics in particular have sparked heated conversations among the Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren County school boards: the implementation of an A-F grading system for public schools, and the highly controversial Opportunity Educational Institution, a new statewide school division established to help failing schools.
Standards have been in place for some time to measure a school's success based on student performance, progress, and the economic environment, among others. Schools go through a process to become fully accredited, and can receive warnings if certain measures aren't adequate.
Now, a school's status will simply be explained through a letter grade. Even if a school is accredited, it could potentially receive a "C" if other performance indicators aren't met.
Stuart Wolk, chairman of the Frederick County School Board, said simplifying ratings could end badly.
"The bottom line is, there are so many complex indicators that go into measuring a school's success," he said. "No one's against rigor and having some standards, but this has the potential to confuse the public."
Roy Boyles, a member of the Warren County School Board and current Virginia School Board Association president, said he's had to stay on top of the new changes. However, even in his position, he has questions that have gone unanswered.
"At this point, we don't even know what a grade "A" school would look like, much less a failing one," he said during a recent meeting. "The state hasn't defined a lot of things that we're being held accountable for."
All schools in the three counties received tentative grades of a "C" or above during the spring, and all are fully accredited.
Last week, the Shenandoah County School Board met for its last regular meeting before the start of the 2013-2014 school year. The members had to approve numerous required policy changes -- one of them dealing with the implementation of the Opportunity Educational Institution.
The state approved $150,000 in its budget to help fund the institution.
According to legislation approved by the General Assembly, the institution "shall be administered and supervised by the [institution] board ... which is hereby established as a policy board in the executive branch of state government."
The institution board will have all the powers and duties of a local school board if it has to come in to a locality and take over a school. The supervision of any school that is denied accreditation is automatically transferred to the institution, and schools receiving accreditation with warning for three consecutive years may also fall under the institution's supervision.
The initial take-over of a school by the institution will start after the 2013-2014 school year.
Even if a school under the institution achieves full accreditation, it is still up to the the institutions when control will be returned to the school's local division.
The institution board will consist of nine people; four legislative and five non-legislative. However, all will be appointed, and none are required to come from the school division in which a school is being supervised.
Kathryn Holsinger, Shenandoah County School Board member, said the idea scared her.
"I am past angry about this," she said. "It is scary to think that they -- whoever 'they' is -- can come take over one of our schools and never give it back."
"They don't know what they've done."
Dr. Kevin Castner, interim superintendent for the division, suggested that board members keep an eye on what other school boards are doing and saying. He said they might find that many others in the state are concerned.
"You have to wonder, does this represent the people or not?" he asked.
Boyles wondered how much the institution would take into consideration when looking at a school, and hoped that it wouldn't simply be based on Standards of Learning scores.
Wolk said that very similar models have been implemented in other states across the country. However, he said he didn't understand why Virginia would take on such a model when the state is ranked high in student performance.
"Why would we take on something from states that don't perform as well as we do?" he asked. "It's unknown if this is going to work, but right now it feels like we're going backwards."
Boyles said that a Texas school board challenged a similar state take-over, and won.
"They realized that more than 80 percent of schools that were under state control weren't showing any improvement," he said. "In fact, some were actually doing worse."
While board members agreed that the intentions were in the right place, the end result of an Opportunity Educational Institution remained unsettling.
"Everyone is concerned about all this standardized testing and measures of progress that just don't show the full picture," Wolk said. "All of this puts a whole new pressure on teachers, parents and, unfortunately, the kids."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org