Constructive solutions

Tours highlight challenges facing Shenandoah County schools
Shenandoah County Schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley stands inside the hallway surrounded by students at Sandy Hook Elementary School during a school tour that was open for members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors on Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Steve Baker, a member of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, chats with a student during lunch at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily
Bailey Montgomery, 7, of Strasburg, a second grader at Sandy Hook Elementary, shows off an art project to Board of Supervisors member Steve Baker during a school tour on Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Shenandoah County Supervisor Steve Baker, left, School Board member Irving Getz and school Duperintendent Jeremy Raley, right, listen as Sandy Hook Elementary Principal Robin Shrum shows how this open space was converted for an assistant principal's office. Elected officials were given a tour of the building to show physical needs of the school. Rich Cooley/Daily
Shenandoah County Schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley sits inside this fourth grade classroom with students Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Robin Shrum, left, shows county Supervisor Steve Baker, center, the school's crowded lunchroom while school Superintendent Jeremy Raley, right, looks on during a school tour Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG — There’s a common refrain heard in the halls of Shenandoah County Public Schools, where creative space making could be its own class.

“We are now entering the temporary annex.”

Words spoken by Principal Robin Shrum at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Strasburg on Friday morning, they’re indicative of a problem not often understood by those who haven’t visited while school is in session.

Sandy Hook’s temporary annex was built in 2007 and intended for three years, Shrum told Superintendent Jeremy Raley, School Board member Irving Getz and county Supervisors Conrad Helsley and Steven Baker on a Friday morning campus tour of all three Strasburg schools.

With its crossover hallway of sheet metal walls, the annex was meant to be a bridge to more permanent construction improvements but instead has become a symbol of the times.

In nearby Warren County and Frederick County, school divisions are building new schools to tackle their own problems of overcrowding, but in Shenandoah, the last new school was Woodstock’s Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, built in 1994.

Sandy Hook was built in 1968, and all three county high schools in 1959.

Sandy Hook is at 104 percent capacity, and W.W. Robinson Elementary in Woodstock 105.

Without immediate funding for school expansions, staff and students have been making do with space that was intended for far fewer people.

At Sandy Hook, lunchtimes for kindergarten through fifth grade stretch from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and special education classes are in rooms too small without sinks or bathrooms — a problem for students with special needs who at the least would benefit from learning “life skills” like hand washing and at the worst require regular access to private bathrooms.

In music class, Shrum said, “We want to make noise, we want to have fun.” But next door, through the thin walls of the temporary annex, students are studying and need the quiet. In the school’s reading lab, reading specialists tone down their enthusiasm so they won’t disturb one another’s students or those taking tests across the hall.

“[It is] not a best-case scenario out here,” Shrum said.

Priorities include solving lunchtime crowding, building more gym space and modifying classrooms for students with disabilities.

“We need water, we need bathrooms,” she said. “We have diaper changes.”

The School Board’s 2015-16 Capital Improvement plan includes an urgent need for a new gym at the school, but Shrum said it’s not a true solution.

“It doesn’t fix anything else,” she said. “It just adds a gym space.”

Two of the biggest elementary schools in Virginia, Sandy Hook and Robinson both conduct classes in space previously intended for closet space or give extra instruction to students in the hallway.

Baker, who represents the Conicville and Mount Jackson districts, has toured the central and northern campuses and said it’s important other supervisors see this for themselves.

“[They might] see how we as a board can just do the best that we can for our students … future leaders,” he said.

Last November, he spent a day touring all 10 of the county’s schools.

On Wednesday, he and Supervisor David Ferguson, who represents the Edinburg district, toured the central campus with School Board members Getz, Kathryn Holsinger and Katheryn Freakley. Baker said he expects Supervisor Dick Neese of the New Market district at next Thursday’s tour of the southern campus in Quicksburg.

“I think this is what we need to do,” Baker said. “We need to be out. This is part of our job.”

Overbooked for all three tour dates and unable to attend, Marsha Shruntz of the Strasburg district said she is “very well aware” of the schools’ needs and activities, but called for better superintendent management of funding, “especially funds given to him by the county Board of Supervisors.”

“Funding that’s been designated for CIP needs to be spent on those issues,” she said on Friday. “It does not need to go to teacher salaries this year.”

“I support education fully,” she said. “And I wish the school system in Shenandoah County the very best.”

Asked about school improvements, she said, “I would like to see better SOL scores and accountability for the operational funding.”

Anticipating visitors on Friday, Principal Ken Knesh at Strasburg High School and Principal Christopher Cook at Signal Knob Middle School showed off creative efforts happening in classrooms, hallways and outside to spark student interest.

At the high school, agriculture students were teaching Sandy Hook first graders about renewable resources and the water cycle.

Earth has a core temperature of about 4,000 degrees, 15-year-old Callie Stead told the class.

“Whoa,” came a response, to which ninth grader Abbey Rinker agreed, “Whoa is right.”

“We are doing these stations to teach you what we have learned here at the high school,” Abbey told the first graders.

Baker praised the high school classes, calling them “commendable.”

Elsewhere in the school, students at study time lounged in the library, where Librarian Melissa Lewis said comfy chairs, Internet café bar stools and a possible coffee station were written on a white board as ideas for answering a superintendent’s challenge for reinventing the library space.

Teacher policy varies on allowing drinks in classrooms, Lewis said, but in the library “we’re going to change that up.”

All for the idea, Knesh said, “To me this has got to be the hub of the building. Someplace where everyone wants to be.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or

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