Educational gaps highlighted at work session

WOODSTOCK — Closing the achievement gap between low-income and middle-income students is among the budget concerns highlighted at a Shenandoah County School Board work session this week.

Addressing budget concerns for the 2016 fiscal year, Superintendent Jeremy Raley discussed funding that would best benefit students in the upcoming academic year.

“From a competitive standpoint, we want our kids to have the same advantages and opportunities as other kids in other school divisions do,” Raley said at the Thursday work session.

For older students, the county offers dual enrollment classes at Lord Fairfax Community College, he said, “but we’re charging more than anyone else around us, and it’s difficult for a family to pay these tuition costs.”

“It shouldn’t be just because you’re in Shenandoah County, you can’t take dual-enrollment classes,” he said.

Younger learners backslide over the summer if they don’t have the resources to practice reading skills or participate in family based educational activities. Low-income students already start kindergarten six months behind their peers because of a lack of access to early reading and preschool education, a video presentation explained. By the end of fifth grade, the gap between low- and middle-income children is 2 1/2 to three years and keeps growing through middle school.

“It makes a case, actually, for year-round school, it really does,” Raley said, earning nervous laughs from the board. “And that may be a topic we explore in time,” he added.

However, for the short term, he said summer school would help shorten the achievement gap by keeping lessons fresh in students’ minds.

Other key concerns Thursday included the replacement of worn or broken school furniture, peeling wall paint, musical instruments held together with duct tape or paper clips and 20-year-old frayed and torn marching band uniforms — all of which contributed to a derelict atmosphere illustrated in photos that Raley presented to the board.

Each day at lunchtime, students have to hold onto their cafeteria trays while they eat to keep their food from sliding off fold-down tables that buckle in the middle.

Science lab tables are missing their tabletops, and classroom chairs are missing bar supports.

There’s no money in the budget for technology upgrades, Raley told the board, including new computer software the guidance department needs for replacing the flash drives they use for storing student information.

“Technology can be a pencil grip or zip ties, PVC piping,” he said. “We don’t have anything truly in the budget.”

The phrase “just getting by” has become an anthem for statewide budget issues, said board member Karen Whetzel.

“We have done such a good job of just saying, ‘Well, we’ll do it, no matter what,'” she recalled hearing from teachers, “and we’ve penalized ourselves, really. … Everybody expects us to keep on doing it with less.”

But Shenandoah County won’t grow if it keeps doing what it’s been doing, Raley said.

Discussing plans for a Biomedical Science Academy through a partnership with Valley Health, he said he planned to meet Friday with Mark Merrill, president and CEO of Valley Health, and Feb. 16 with the Shenandoah Memorial Hospital Foundation board to address ways of instituting a program in coming years.

“If we’re able to bring this to Shenandoah County, this could be an exceptional opportunity for kids [and] be something that we could be very proud we have in our division — a little rural school division with a Health Sciences Academy,” said Raley.

“No school division to our north or south or even our east has this,” he said. Albemarle County is probably the closest, he added.

Raley proposed using existing personnel and resources where possible in instituting the Health Sciences Academy.

“This could be a very positive thing for us, and it would grow over time,” he said. “So it’s a commitment on behalf of the school division. It’s not just a one-time thing. It would be something that we would grow and expand over time.”

The School Board will meet for its public meeting at 7 p.m. on Feb. 19. A presentation of funding requests will take place earlier at 5:30 p.m. in the county boardroom at 600 N. Main St., Woodstock.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com