Question, answer sessions spark talk of change

Jeremy Raley

Equity in education, drugs in schools and the need for more space topped concerns at three recent Shenandoah County Public School question and answer sessions.

Strasburg and Woodstock schools have too many students — so many that elementary schools are over capacity. But in Quicksburg, there aren’t enough students for schools to offer the same quality of academics, clubs or sports teams that other county schools have.

The solution isn’t as easy as changing district lines or moving fifth grade students up to middle schools, said Superintendent Jeremy Raley.

Redistricting might mean dividing Strasburg in half, sending many of its students to Woodstock and students south of Woodstock to Quicksburg.

Also, moving younger students to area middle schools would only be a “Band Aid” solution that masks a problem rather than solving it.

In addition to raising population in middle schools and requiring more money to finance the move, the decision would impact children on a developmental level and expose them earlier to teenage issues, like a recent rash of illegal and prescription drugs in area middle schools.

The district has expelled 18 middle and high school students this year for drug-related offenses — the most board member Kathryn Holsinger can remember happening in a single year.

“Some of the things we’ve had this year have scared me,” she told a small turnout at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School on Tuesday night. “It’s been a year of it, and it’s torn us up.”

Although drugs have a great effect on schools, Raley said drug abuse begins in the community and needs to be a community conversation.

Other concerns brought up in sessions focused on reading readiness and the need for more classroom technology.

Karen Whetzel

At Sandy Hook Elementary School, reading specialists roam the halls looking for locations where they can teach students needing extra help, and younger students who can already read are trapped in classes that cater to those still learning the alphabet.

Pleased with the open dialogue of the Strasburg Q&A session, county resident and parent Jennifer DiMarco said she hopes the discussions will provide a solution for curriculums like the 3-year-old SuperKids program, which teaches one letter at a time but doesn’t account for students who already know the alphabet.

“I don’t feel good about the literacy program that’s being implemented in our schools,” she said in a phone interview later that week. “I’ll be the school’s biggest advocate, but we have to get some things changed.”

In Quicksburg, concerns included the district’s Bring Your Own Device policy, which encourages students to bring handheld computers from home when classrooms can’t provide enough hardware for completing class work. Some saw the policy as a divisive measure that separates more privileged students from those who can’t afford smart phones or tablets.

The district has a near 50 percent poverty rate, but School Board Vice Chair Karen Whetzel said Bring Your Own Device is not intended to stigmatize students.

So far available only at Central High School and middle schools, it’s a learning experience, and she said, “Students seem to be sharing.”

Addressing hunger in schools, Raley delighted listeners in Quicksburg with news of a possible summer feeding program to supplement school year program, Luke’s Backpack. The summer program would take place at North Fork Middle School and Ashby Lee and W.W. Robinson elementary schools.

The problem of overcrowding in schools dates back to 2006 when an analysis of schools at the time determined capacity levels were okay.

But a decade later, public school is vastly different, said Will Gangwer, a member of the district’s School Population and Capacity Exploration “SPACE” committee.

“Today I would argue that capacity is different,” he said.

Classroom projects require more space, reducing the number of students that can comfortably fit in the same space, and school mandates require a certain student-teacher ratio that changes with the number of specialty teachers a school has.

For 2015, he said, “The 2006 study was no good.”

Anticipating how the district’s proposed budget and Capital Improvement Plan for the 2016 fiscal year might alleviate problems, Raley invited the community to attend upcoming work sessions and public meetings.

• At a 5:30 p.m. March 26 budget work session of the Board of Supervisors, Raley will present the proposed 2016 fiscal year budget in the County Board Room at 600 Main St., Woodstock.

• At a 4 p.m. April 2 work session, supervisors will establish a tax rate for a community advertisement of the budget.

• At 7 p.m. April 16, a public hearing at W.W. Robinson Elementary School in Woodstock will invite community discussion on the tax rate and proposed budget.

• On April 20, supervisors will discuss public hearing comments before adopting the budget and tax rate on April 21.

But Raley recommended the community speak to supervisors about their budget concerns long before the public hearing, because by April 16, he said, many decisions about the budget and tax rate will have already been decided.

“It’s a democratic process, and this is our school division,” he told listeners in Strasburg. “I don’t think you can be vocal enough.”

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