Shenandoah keeps new teacher probation period at 3 years

By Kim Walter

WOODSTOCK – Two employees of Shenandoah County Public Schools spoke in front of the School Board Thursday night and asked members to revisit a policy concerning the probationary term of new teachers.

The considered policy change comes as a result of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s K-12 education reform, and more specifically, the “Educator Fairness Act.”

The Educator Fairness Act extends the probationary window for teachers from three to five years to “allow for a more thoughtful examination of teachers being awarded continuing contract status, and to allow for an extended period of mentoring for new teachers.”

It also provides for a “definition of incompetence to include one or more unsatisfactory performance evaluations.”

“This act will streamline the grievance procedure and will allow for an expedited decision to inform the teacher of the final outcome,” according to the governor’s website.

The proposed changes in the division’s policy manual comply with the extended probationary period of five years.

The suggested changes state, “Service under a local teacher license does not count towards satisfying this probationary requirement.”

It goes on to say, “If a probationary teacher’s evaluation is not satisfactory, the School Board shall not reemploy the teacher.”

Bill Wheat, a counselor at Signal Knob Middle School, asked the board to revisit the policy before approving any changes.

“I want to remind you that you have options in working with this policy,” he said. “Three years is plenty of time to evaluate a new employee, and our administrators are more than capable of identifying which teachers should stay in the division.”

He suggested that teachers should also have more than one chance to improve on an unsatisfactory evaluation. Wheat brought up one of the School Board’s goals — Staff Excellence: Attract, retain, and develop high-quality teaching and support staff to ensure staff pride and commitment, leadership and organizational excellence.

“We know that punishment can get you compliance,” Wheat said. “But it rarely encourages commitment.”

Wheat said that the new probationary period could make it easier to get rid of new teachers, and will move the division more toward an “assembly line model,” and away from a model that promotes “well-trained, creative teachers.”

Jamie Nichols, a seventh grade science teacher at Peter Muhlenburg Middle School, also focused on the topic, and expressed confusion over the policy change.

“From what I’ve been told, last year, 96 percent of our teachers were rated as proficient or higher … so the lack of teacher quality isn’t what’s driving this decision,” she said. “Am I missing something?”

Nichols said she didn’t feel that more evaluations were necessary for teachers doing well, and pointed out that if a teacher is unsatisfactory, that employee could be put up for dismissal at any time.

“In three years, a new teacher will have six formal observations, an assigned mentor, a list of areas needing improvement and resources provided,” she said. “That should be plenty of time to make the necessary changes and, administrators should be able to decide by then if they want to offer a continuing contract or not.”

Nichols went on to say that she would be proud to be part of a division that didn’t accept the suggested change that would “further weaken the teaching profession.”

The comments settled with the School Board members, who opted to approve all policies except for the one dealing with probationary periods and performance evaluations.

Karen Whetzel and Kathryn Holsinger, board members, said they didn’t see a need to change the probationary window to five years. They said they realized it wouldn’t really affect the many well-qualified teachers in the division. However, they pointed out how it could adversely affect teachers who are new to the profession.

“I think we’ve crossed the line where asking for accountability is adversely affecting education,” she said. “I think we’re a better system than some of these [policies].”

During a role-call vote on the policy, Sonya Williams-Giersch and Gary Rutz, chairman, supported Whetzel and Holsinger. Richard Koontz and Irving Getz voted against the motion.

The policy was approved as it was, keeping the probationary period for teachers at three years, instead of changing it to five.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com